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  • When it comes to a community college versus university, there are some key differences to consider including cost, admissions, class size, and flexibility.
  • Community colleges are typically less expensive and more flexible, which can make them a great starting point before transferring to a four-year university.
  • Attending a two-year community college can be good for your lifestyle, finances, and career opportunities.

As you think about your college plans, your vision may be centered on a four-year university, but that’s not your only option. There are also community colleges, which offer mostly two-year programs like associate degrees and certificates.

Some people choose a degree program that finishes in the two years they attend community college. Others use it as a starting point before transferring to a four-year college or university. Some community colleges even offer four-year bachelor’s programs for certain majors such as nursing or civil engineering.

Community college versus university

Here are some of the main differences between community colleges and universities:

  • Community colleges: Students can enroll in classes that lead to an Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Arts (AA) degree, or they can transfer to a four-year university to finish their degree. Community colleges typically cost less than universities and have more flexible admission requirements.
  • Universities: These can be public or private four-year colleges. They offer undergraduate and graduate degrees and tend to be larger and more expensive than community colleges.
  Community college Four-year university
Cost As of June 2023, the average cost to attend an in-district community college is $3,970 per academic year. As of June 2023, the average cost to attend an in-state public four-year university is $26,027 per academic year.
Admissions You can expect more flexibility when it comes to admissions requirements. Universities tend to have more rigorous admissions standards.
Class size They boast smaller classes, which could provide more attention from teachers. Large class sizes are the norm.
Flexibility Community colleges usually offer more class times and can be ideal for students who work or have families. You also may be able to take online courses. Four-year universities have traditional class schedules with fewer evening classes. You also may be able to take online courses.

The benefits of community college

Community colleges are more affordable and accessible than four-year colleges and universities, and class schedules can be more flexible. For some lifestyles and career paths, community college can be a better fit. Let’s dive deeper into the benefits.

1. Two-year colleges can save you money

Going to community college may be a smart financial choice. Here’s why:

  • The tuition at community colleges is generally lower than that of four-year colleges and universities.
  • Even if you transfer to a four-year school afterwards, starting at a community college lets you get required credits under your belt at a lower cost. If this is your plan, confirm with your advisor in advance that the credits will transfer so you don’t end up paying twice for the same classes. Some community colleges have agreements with four-year schools that guarantee admission and credit transfer.
  • If you attend a local community college, you can also save on housing costs by living at home and commuting to school.

2. Community colleges can have more flexible schedules

Do you need to go to school at night or on the weekends? If so, community colleges, which tend to offer more of these class times, might be a good fit. This is especially beneficial for:

  • Students who have already entered the working world or plan to work during college
  • Non-traditional students such as parents who are returning to school
  • Part-time students who need to take a lighter course load to accommodate other parts of their lives and may take a few extra semesters to finish

3. Not every student is ready for a four-year college

Some people graduate high school knowing exactly what career path they want to follow, and some of those jobs only require an associate degree or certificate. In that case, community college is the perfect fit. Other students aren’t quite sure what they want to study, and a less expensive option gives them the opportunity to explore. Additionally, some people may find a community college to be a more supportive environment—classes tend to be smaller, and the culture can be less competitive. For students who need a little time to develop academic skills, it can be a smart choice.

4. The application process is typically easier

Many community colleges have an open admissions policy. That means high school graduates or those who've earned a GED can enroll. As a result, the application process is generally easier and requires less documentation when compared to four-year universities.

5. Community college can prepare you for your career

One major reason to go to college is to prepare you to find a job in your chosen field. You may be interested in a career that you can train for at a two-year college. Starting at a community college can also help you get into a better university than if you’d gone that route straight out of high school.

Community college versus university: Which should you attend?

Community college isn’t the right choice for everyone. But for many students, it’s something to at least consider. When weighing the differences between community colleges and universities, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does a four-year university feel right for me? Depending on your personality and learning style, you might prefer smaller classes at a local community college—especially if you aren’t sure about what to major in. You can always knock out your prerequisite courses at a community college before moving onto a university.
  • Can I afford a four-year university? Even with financial aid, most four-year universities are more expensive than community colleges. Opting for a community college might make the most financial sense.
  • Do I need more flexibility? Community colleges tend to offer more class times and can be more accommodating for students with schedule constraints. That can be especially appealing if you’re juggling work and school or a family.

Community colleges and four-year universities offer two different paths toward earning a degree. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. The right one for you will depend on your budget, academic plans, and the kind of college experience you want to have.

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