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When high school seniors are deciding how to pursue higher education, they may not initially think of community colleges. But these schools shouldn't be overlooked. Turns out, there are plenty of community college benefits, and attending one can be an advantage for students before they move on to a four-year university.

“Community college is a great fit for many students, and often better than going to a four-year college," says Venkates Swaminathan, the founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, an online college planning and coaching service.

“It can help students develop necessary academic skills, mature emotionally, and often lead to a more fulfilling, better-paying career," he says, “while also helping students reduce their debt load."

So, if your college applications are looming, here are four key reasons to put community colleges versus universities on your academic radar:

  • Cost: Community colleges are usually less expensive.
  • Flexibility: Class schedules can be more flexible.
  • Support: Students often receive more support during their transition from high school.
  • Career opportunities: Students can explore their interests and enter niche job markets.

Community College Is Cheaper

Finding affordable ways to pay for education is a concern for most students and, families. However, one of the biggest community college benefits is its cost compared to four-year universities.

“When you think about people graduating with close to $35,000 in debt on average," Swaminathan says, “going to community college can be a smart financial decision." The cost savings, he adds, is a major reason why so many students opt for community colleges versus universities.

At the very least, you can complete your first two years of your college education for a fraction of the cost. “Going to community college for two years — getting all of your pre-requisites and then transferring to a university — can save students up to $60,000 in some cases," he says.

But if this is your plan, make sure to do your research and double-check that your credits will indeed transfer to your four-year college. Otherwise you may end up paying twice for the same class.

Some community colleges also offer four-year bachelor's programs for certain majors such as public safety management, nursing, and electronics engineering, meaning you could ultimately save even more money on a bachelor's degree.

But less expensive tuition isn't the only element that helps students save money. If you attend a local community college, you may also be able to save on housing costs by living at home and commuting while you go to school.

Flexible Class Schedules

If you already have a job or plan on working while you're in school, attending a community college may be a good idea because you may have more flexibility when picking class times.

Community colleges usually offer more evening classes and may even have options for weekend classes. “That tends to be tremendously helpful," Swaminathan says, “especially for students who need to work while they attend school."

However, the biggest benefit of the flexibility at community colleges versus universities is that students can pace themselves and take lighter class loads to accommodate their schedules or jobs if they need to, Swaminathan says. “Because you're not spending tens of thousands of dollars a year," he says, “you can take an extra semester or two without putting yourself deeper and deeper into debt."

More Support As You Transition Into College

One of the major community college benefits is their ability to help high school students transition into college life when they aren't quite ready for the independence required for going away to school.

“Some kids," Swaminathan says, “are not emotionally mature enough to leave home and go to university." Attending community college first, he adds, allows them to develop a sense of maturity and gain perspective on what they want to do with their careers.

Community colleges also give many high school students the opportunity to explore a variety of different subjects before committing to a particular path.

“Kids don't always know what they want to study in school," says Swaminathan. “Applying to community college allows them the freedom to develop a sense of what they want to accomplish with their education and what they want to do with their lives."

It also helps students develop necessary academic skills, Swaminathan says. Students can take introductory courses in a handful of areas and revisit subjects they may have struggled with in high school. Plus, the class sizes at many community colleges tend to be smaller and the cultures less competitive. The flexible class schedule further helps students take their time with difficult courses, or get their tough classes out of the way while managing a smaller course load.

Opportunities for Employment

Another important factor while choosing a college is assessing the support a school provides when students are looking for employment. After all, one of the reasons for getting a degree is to find a job in your chosen field after graduation.

Schools have career centers and resources that can help you find a job. When it comes to employment opportunities, which school you choose really just depends on what career you want.

“Many students don't need to go to a four-year school," says Swaminathan. “There are many well-paying jobs you can get with an associate degree, like an HVAC technician or aircraft mechanic."

Students who want to become nurses or radiology technicians, for example, may benefit more from attending a community college. While some four-year programs exist for technical degrees like nursing, you can also get your licensed practical nurse (LPN) certificate or your associate degree in nursing (ADN) in two years at a community college where you will likely do clinical field work at a local hospital. This saves you time and gets your foot in the door with a potential employer.

On the other hand, recruiters don't always visit community colleges, Swaminathan says, so most students will have to actively seek work. However, “This is true whether or not you go to a community college," he says.

If you do want to get a degree from a four-year university to increase your chances of employment in a specific field, attending community college first can help, in part because doing so can often help you get into a four-year university in the first place. For some people, Swaminathan says, attending community college first can mean the difference between getting into your dream school and simply going wherever you're accepted.

“In California, for example," Swaminathan says, "it's easier to get into the UC system if you go to a community college for two years as opposed to applying right after high school." That's because you have the opportunity to improve your grades from high school and do internships or extracurricular activities that hone your skills in the field you're interested in, making you a more appealing applicant. Plus, four-year public universities in California give priority to applicants transferring from California community colleges. Community colleges are gateway schools for many careers, he adds.

Comparing Your Options

When it comes to choosing between a two-year community college and a four-year university, one isn't inherently better than the other. Considerations include cost, which schools you can get accepted to based on your grades, the kind of learning environment that works best for you, and your desired career path. By taking all of these factors into mind, you can ensure you're making a good choice for your education and your future.

“Four-year colleges are great," Swaminathan says, “but parents and students shouldn't get hung up on this path as the only path."

Instead, he says, consider which type of education will help you reach your goals and maximize your opportunities.

Students enrolled at least half-time and seeking an associate degree at four-year institutions are eligible to apply for a Discover Undergraduate student loan.

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