4 Ways Community College Life Differs From the 4-Year College Experience

As a high school senior, Elissa Sanford considered attending both two- and four-year colleges. Ultimately she decided to go to a community college.

Sanford, now 21, said she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, so she thought, “I might as well go to a community college and save money,” she says. She graduated from Virginia’s Tidewater Community College in 2014 with an associate degree. “It’s pretty much the same classes that you would take anywhere, at least for the first two years. So it kind of just seemed like the smart decision.”

Sanford is now finishing up her bachelor’s degree in biology at Old Dominion University, also in Virginia, and hopes to attend medical school.

Attending a community college may be the right decision for some high school graduates. Aside from offering students a low-cost education, community colleges can give them more personalized attention and be a steppingstone toward a four-year institution.

[Discover reasons why high school graduates turn to community college.]

But teens considering attending community colleges after high school should be aware that the community college environment is often different from that of a typical four-year college, including in the following four ways.

1. Most community colleges are commuter schools. Students won’t be able to experience living on campus at most community colleges, since the majority don’t have housing.

Jordan Kindle, 22, says that when he attended Harper College, a community college in Illinois, his 20- to 30-minute commute made it challenging to get involved.

“Definitely the commute made a difference in how willing I was to just kind of hang around campus and actually take the time to meet people and make connections,” says Kindle, who now lives on campus at Lake Forest College in Illinois.

2. The student population at community colleges can be more diverse. Community college students tend to be older. Most students work, and some have families.

But the diverse population can be an advantage for students, says Karen Goos, dean of student development and enrollment management at Metropolitan Community College–Longview in Missouri. She has also worked at several four-year universities.

Community college students have the opportunity to get to know people they might not otherwise have met, she says, and thus be exposed to different cultures, age groups and more.

When she worked at four-year colleges, the majority of students were intending to live on campus and “breathe, eat, live, — everything was about going to a college campus,” she says. But at her community college, even if students are of traditional college-going age, they have to balance a job or other priorities.

[Learn about students who can benefit from the community college transfer path.]

3. Getting involved may require more effort at a community college. Most community colleges offer the same kind of extracurricular activities found at traditional four-year colleges and universities, like clubs, athletics and student events.

But at the Community College of Rhode Island, says Michael Cunningham, dean of students at the school, many students work and don’t have much time to be involved in anything other than getting a degree or taking classes.

And it can be a challenge to get together busy students for non-classroom activities and programs, he says.

[Find out how to build a network on campus as a community college student.]

Kindle, the Illinois student, says his community college held events similar to those at his four-year school, but many students who weren’t on campus when events were happening didn’t want to make a special trip just to attend.

It’s much easier to attend events when students live steps away, he says.

4. Community colleges closely reflect their locations. Every college has its own culture, says Cunningham, who has also worked at four-year institutions. But he’s found that differences between community colleges are more apparent, since community colleges reflect their local communities.

He has seen it among campuses at his community college, which has several branches.

One is an urban campus that’s a bit smaller, he says, and traditional college-aged students tend to spend a lot of time on campus. Students at two of the suburban campuses tend to come, do what they need to do, then leave. Another campus is heavily geared toward rehabilitative health sciences, and its students tend to be slightly older and come to school at night after working during the day, he says.

Sanford, the Virginia student, has commuted to both of her colleges. She knows that she is missing out on some of the college experience because she hasn’t lived on campus, but her time at the four-year college has been pretty much what she thought it would be.

She says she wouldn’t change her decision to attend a community college because it was a good experience overall. “I’m very happy with the path I’m on now and I’m not sure that I would be on this path if it weren’t for my experience there,” she says. It was an anatomy and physiology instructor at her community college who noticed her knack for science and encouraged her to consider pursuing medical school.

She says high schoolers considering community college shouldn’t worry about what other people think about their choice.

“When it comes down to it, you have to make the choice that is best for yourself,” she says.

Trying to fund your education at a two-year institution? Get tips, news and more in the U.S. News Paying for Community College center.

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4 Ways Community College Life Differs From the 4-Year College Experience originally appeared on usnews.com

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