Whether you’re a high school student unsure of which colleges to apply to or an adult considering going back to school, there are plenty of reasons to put community college on your list.
Nearly 30% of U.S. undergraduates are enrolled at public, two-year colleges, which offer benefits like open-enrollment policies and flexible scheduling.
Attending community college can be an affordable way to dip your toes into higher education before transferring to a four-year program. But these colleges also offer a breadth of programs that can allow students to forego the university experience entirely.
When R.J. Hunt was a senior in high school, community college wasn’t even on his radar. He’d planned to attend Oakland University, in Rochester, Michigan, after graduating — that is, until the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Leery of spending tens of thousands of dollars to take classes online, he decided to attend Washtenaw Community College, near his hometown of Ypsilanti, Michigan, instead. Now he’s wrapping up his second year. Reflecting on his choice in a column for his school paper, Hunt wrote that attending community college was the best decision he’d ever made.
If you’re considering community college, here are five advantages to keep in mind.
One of the most frequently cited benefits of community college is its relatively low cost of attendance.
“Cost is certainly one of the primary reasons why someone should consider a community college,” says Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
According to data from the College Board, community colleges cost, on average, about one-third of in-state tuition at four-year public universities. For example, Washington residents attending North Seattle College will pay a little more than $4,100 per year in tuition and fees (without financial aid). Those attending the University of Washington–Seattle, on the other hand, will pay just over $12,000 per year.
“On top of that, most community colleges have resources to help students eliminate any financial barriers they may have to attending college,” Parham says, noting that community colleges often provide generous financial aid and scholarships to their students.
A Path to a Four-year College
Many four-year universities have transfer agreements with local community colleges. These agreements allow students who complete specific requirements to easily transfer into a four-year program at a nearby university.
Transfer students can then earn a bachelor’s degree while only having to pay two years of higher tuition.
“When you get an associate’s degree at a community college, you start as a junior when you transfer to a four-year university,” says Iris Palmer, deputy director of community colleges at New America’s Education Policy program. “So you take your general education and you don’t have to redo it or add on classes at the four-year (college).”
Hunt learned about his college’s transfer agreement program shortly after enrolling at Washtenaw. He plans to enroll in Eastern Michigan University after earning his associate degree.
George L. Wimberly, director of professional development and diversity officer at the American Educational Research Association, says that, in addition to reducing the cost of a bachelor’s degree, completing two years at a community college can ease the transition from high school to university-level coursework.
Palmer says it’s particularly important for students to take note of the specific requirements for their college’s transfer agreement, as these can vary significantly from place to place.
Proximity to home
Community colleges typically enroll students in and around the region in which they’re located, facilitating a sense of comfort and ease of accessibility.
“I grew up in Ypsilanti my whole life — Washtenaw is like 10 minutes away from my house,” Hunt says. “I’m familiar with the area, which definitely makes me more comfortable.”
Parham says that the open-enrollment policy at community colleges allows many students who might not necessarily be interested in or able to attend a faraway university to gain access to higher education. In this way, she says that community colleges place a strong emphasis on serving the local population.
“If you’re able to live at home and work and go to school in your local community, that of course increases access,” she says.
Community colleges allow for flexible scheduling, giving students the ability to attend college while working or raising a family. This flexibility comes in many forms, from night classes to asynchronous coursework.
“A lot of community colleges recognize that their students are working part-time or full-time jobs,” Wimberly says.
Parham says this flexibility makes community colleges a particularly good option for older students who are working professionals or parents. According to the AACC, the average community college student is 27 years old, and about 44% percent of community college students are above the age of 22.
Flexible scheduling doesn’t just benefit older students either. Palmer says many community colleges have dual-enrollment programs that allow high school students to take college-level courses during the evening or weekends.
Community colleges tend to offer a wide range of career and technical education programs in fields like nursing or firefighting. Palmer and Parham agree that the highly applied nature of these programs prepares students for entering the workforce.
“There are really good training programs at community colleges, and they tend to have really good relationships with the employers in their community,” Palmer says.
From culinary arts to automobile mechanics, community colleges offer a broad selection of professionalized coursework that four-year universities often do not. While students could also study these topics in a vocational trade school, Wimberly says community colleges tend to offer these programs at a much lower cost.
Palmer adds that many community colleges also offer baccalaureate programs in highly applied fields like business, nursing and computer science. These programs allow students to earn a bachelor’s degree without ever having to attend a four-year university. Researchers at New America estimate that more than 100 public, mainly two-year institutions — or roughly 10% of all community colleges in the U.S. — offer baccalaureate programs throughout 24 states, and that number is “expected to rise substantially in the next few years.”
“These are actually a lot of similar programs to what you would have in a traditional four-year institution, but with less of the liberal arts”,” Palmer says. “They’re much more applied and really focused on particular occupations.”
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