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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 advantages to attending a community college, often before moving on to a four-year university later.

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

  • The cost: community colleges are usually less expensive
  • The flexibility: class schedules can be more flexible
  • The support: students often receive more support during their transition from high school
  • The network: local connections through the school can help students find jobs depending on their intended career path

Community college is cheaper

With student loan debt standing at over $1 trillion, finding affordable ways to pay for education is a concern for most students and families.

"Ranging between a $5,000 difference when compared to a four-year, in-state school, and over $20,000 difference for private four-year, the savings can be massive," says Michelle Argento, a former college admissions advisor for a major university and communications consultant at Write2Advance. Cost, she adds, is arguably the most common reason people choose a community college over a four-year university.

At the very least, you can complete your first two years of your college education for a fraction of the cost. From there you can often transfer your credits to a four-year university. But if this is your plan, make sure to do your research and double check that your credits will indeed transfer. Otherwise you may end up paying double for the same class.

Some community colleges also now offer four-year 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.

"Factor in being able to live at home, and you add several more thousands in your pocket," adds Argento.

Granted, you can also live at home while attending a local four-year university, so this particular benefit doesn't pertain to community colleges exclusively.

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 are often designed with the non-traditional student in mind," says Argento, including mothers, full-time workers and students who are only attending part time. Since most of the professors have full-time jobs outside of teaching, many of them stick to teaching nights and weekends, she adds.

To be fair, universities may have flexible class schedules as well, especially if they have a large population of commuter students.

More support as you transition into college

One major advantage community colleges have is their ability to help high school students transition into college life when they aren't quite ready for the independence required when going away to school. This is typically because the class sizes tend to be smaller, but there's also something to be said for the professors themselves.

"Professors at community colleges usually aren't doing double duty as researchers," says Argento, explaining that they often therefore have more time to give students. In turn, students can then "transition from high school to college with greater support and more individualized attention," she says.

This can be a boon for students who want a less competitive and more nurturing atmosphere, Argento says. As for high achievers, they may be attracted to being a big fish in a smaller pond.

Community colleges are also known for helping students who struggled in high school.

"Community colleges offer entry level courses that act as primers so students can revisit subjects they were supposed to learn in high school," says Argento. "If a student struggled with math in high school, they will likely be given a placement test the community college will then use it to put the student in the appropriate class."

Such a system differs from many four-year colleges where students may have to guess their level and run the risk of picking a class that is too advanced, she says. The flexible class schedule also helps students who've struggled in the past take their time, 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 good job after graduation.

Most schools, whether they are two-year or four-year, have career centers and connections 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.

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 it done 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.

When it comes to internships and local job opportunities, Argento says community colleges may have a slight advantage because the professors are usually also local professionals and business people with connections.

But for students keen on a fine arts degree, Argento suggests going straight to a four-year institution.

"Music, theater and art are majors where you need to build a relationship with your professors or staff to get ahead," says Argento. Fine arts majors benefit from the mentorship professors can provide. Additionally, professors can help students secure spots at art shows, get a seat in the orchestra or have an advantage during auditions. "By cutting it short at two years, you may not have the ability to make the impression you would have if you came in as a freshman."

Argento adds that those seeking teaching degrees may need to do some more research before making a decision.

"While some community colleges have relationships with teaching schools and understand requirements for those going into four-year degrees, others don't," she says. "In states that require extensive observation hours or longer student teaching experiences, this could mean adding a year on to your program." In that case, Argento says students who want to attend a community college need to look for one that approves observation hours.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to choosing between a two-year community college and a four-year university, one isn't inherently better than the other. Which one you choose will rely heavily on cost, the kind of learning environment that works best for you and your desired career path. By taking all of these factors into consideration, you can ensure you're making the best choice for your education and your future.

Students enrolled at least half-time and seeking an Associate's Degree at 4-year institutions are eligible to apply for a Discover Undergraduate student loan.

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