What Is a Community College?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn more about community colleges, the benefits of attending one, and how they differ from four-year institutions.

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In the United States, a community college is a two-year institution of higher education, sometimes called a junior college or technical college. Community colleges often award associate degrees and certificates, though a growing number offer bachelor’s degrees in certain majors. 

Attending community college can be an affordable way to earn your two-year degree before entering the workforce or transferring to a four-year college to complete your bachelor’s degree. You can also earn a certificate, gaining subject knowledge and skills development in one year or less.  

Two-year vs. four-year colleges 

There are 1,303 two-year institutions in the United States, compared to 2,679 four-year institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics [1]. During the 2019-2020 school year, community colleges awarded 865,504 associate degrees, 599,397 certificates, and 21,348 bachelor’s degrees [2]. 

Community colleges can be stepping stones, helping you work through your general education requirements at a more affordable price point before transferring to a four-year institution and enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program. Or they can be places to earn an associate degree or a certificate to pursue a particular career path. 

The most significant difference between community colleges and four-year colleges and universities tends to be degrees, majors, and housing. Let’s review each one. 

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Degree types 

Traditionally, students earn associate degrees at community colleges and bachelor’s degrees at four-year colleges, though there are some caveats. For instance, when you’re enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program at a four-year college, you may be able to apply for your associate degree once you’ve completed a minimum number of credits (around 60) and fulfilled other requirements. At the same time, some community colleges in the US now award bachelor’s degrees in specific majors. 

Limited majors 

Community colleges tend to offer fewer majors than four-year institutions, so you may not have as many options to choose from. When you enroll in an associate degree program, you will complete your general education requirements before taking a small number of courses in your major to graduate

Majors are even more restricted when it comes to community college bachelor’s degrees. For example, in Florida, you can earn a bachelor’s degree in business supervision management, public safety, and information technology. In Washington, popular majors at the community college level include business and health and safety [3].

Learn more: What Should I Major in? 5 Things to Evaluate

Housing

Twenty-eight percent of community colleges offer on-campus housing options for students, so there may be fewer options when you want to live on-campus [2]. Off-campus housing, like apartments, can be more expensive than dorms, though roommates can help cut down on that overall cost. 

7 reasons for attending a community college

There are many reasons why community college may be a smart choice to continue your education: 

1. Affordability 

One of the biggest draws of community college is the cost. During the 2021-2022 school year, the average tuition at community college was $3,800 for an in-state student compared to $10,740 for an in-state student at a four-year college [2]. Some community colleges also offer free tuition for in-state students who meet specific requirements.

Considering the total cost of attending a four-year school, community colleges can be beneficial if your ultimate goal is a bachelor’s degree. They can help reduce the amount you pay for the first two years of your four-year degree.  

2. Small classes  

Some of the core courses you’re expected to complete at a four-year institution may have a large class size. In fact, one of the largest classes in the US enrolls 1,600 students [4]. When it comes to getting individual attention in that setting, it can be a challenge. Community colleges tend to enroll fewer students, so they usually offer smaller classes, which may be beneficial in terms of getting to know your professors, instructors, and peers. 

3. Flexibility

The majority of students at community college work. To enable them complete their coursework around their other responsibilities, schools tend to offer more flexible class schedules. Community colleges typically have more night and weekend classes to suit students’ needs. 

4. Nontraditional students

Community college students tend to be slightly older than students who attend a four-year institution. As of 2022, the average age of students enrolled in community colleges was 27, with 36 percent of all students falling between 22 and 39 [2]. Community colleges also enroll a high percentage of first-generation college students and single parents. 

5. Financial aid

In the US, you can apply for federal financial aid as long as you have earned your high school diploma and are applying to an accredited program, including many degrees and certificate programs. Financial aid comes in the form of scholarships, grants, work-study, and more, and it can help pay for the cost of education. 

6. Professional development

Many community colleges work with local businesses to ensure that students learn in-demand, career-relevant skills through degree or certificate programs. They may even have established relationships to assist in local job placement after graduation. 

7. Individual courses

When you want to learn more about a subject or strengthen your skills in an area, you can take individual courses at a community college without enrolling in a degree or certificate program. These learning opportunities can be an affordable way to gain valuable subject knowledge and skills development for a semester. 

Alternatives to community colleges

If you’re interested in furthering your education, there are other options to consider if a two-year community college doesn't fit your needs. 

  • Online college: If flexibility is important to you, then earning your degree from an online college or online degree program may be a better option. Online degrees are available in various majors and are sometimes more affordable than in-person degrees. 

  • Professional certificate: When you’re interested in skills development, you might want to consider enrolling in a professional certificate. You can gain career-ready skills through these short programs, which are beneficial when you’re interested in beginning a new career or advancing in your current role.   

  • Apprenticeship: Many students attend community college to learn a trade skill, which can also be accomplished by finding an apprenticeship. In an apprenticeship, you’ll shadow a professional and gain real-time training. In the US, there are over 636,000 apprentices, and they earn an average starting salary of $72,000 after completing their training [5,6].

Explore further

You may enjoy many of the benefits of community college—affordability, and flexibility—with an online degree program. The Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences or the Bachelor of Science in General Business from the University of North Texas on Coursera takes 120 credit hours to complete at an average pace of 10 to15 hours a week. 

Or you can begin working on a professional certificate in in-demand fields like digital marketing, computer science or IT, data science, and business.

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Article sources

1

National Center for Education Statistics. “Digest of Education Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_317.10.asp?current=yes.” Accessed September 7, 2022. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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