Students contemplating higher education have a lot of different options. This includes a four year institution. And of course, not going to college is a viable option, too. But if you’re thinking about pursuing higher education, you might want to consider local community colleges. If community college is on your radar as an avenue towards an academic credential and/or future career path, then you may be asking yourself a lot of questions about this affordable alternative to university. To get straight to the point, you might wonder, “Is community college the right thing for me?” After all, these two-year colleges haven’t always enjoyed the best reputation. Before you enroll in one, you’ll want to have a solid indication of where it might lead you in the future. In this article, we’ll discuss the good and the bad when it comes to what local community colleges offer. And we’ll uncover some myths and truths along the way. We’ll also attempt to unravel some of the specific reasons for the ubiquitous community college stigma to answer the question: “Why do community colleges have a bad reputation?”
Is Attending Community College Right for Me?
Before we dig too deep, let’s address the primary issue at hand. This is whether attending a community college is right for you. The long answer may vary depending on your your own education needs and goals might be. But the short answer is “Yes!” Attending an accredited community college almost always pays off. This is especially true for students dedicated to their studies who know what they want to accomplish from the experience. Let’s discuss some of the many benefits of attending community college.
Related: Online Trade School Programs
The Benefits of Attending Community Colleges
There are so many advantages to attending community college. It’s impossible to list them all. In fact, if you asked a hundred community college students, “Why is community college right for you?” you may get a hundred different answers. Listing all of the perks of going to a two-year school isn’t feasible. Still, we’ll discuss some of the common reasons so many people give the thumbs up when asked, “Is it a good idea to go to a community college?”.
Community Colleges Offer Significant Tuition Savings
You might be wondering, “how much is a community college?” According to the College Board, the average cost of a local community college for students is just $3,770 per year. This represents huge savings in tuition and fees. And it lowers any potential student debt, compared to what you can expect to pay to attend a four-year college or university, even as an in-state student. These in-state tuition fees surpassed $10,500 in 2020. That’s a difference of more than $6,700 annually. For students who want to begin earning money right away without the burden of looming student loan debt, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a two-year school’s lower tuition costs.
And there’s even better news for individuals asking “How much are community college classes?“. While the cost of community colleges is much lower on average, it’s also possible to get a community college education entirely free. This would eliminate student loan debt altogether. The College Board reports that the average full-time community college student receives enough grant money to cover their tuition and fees. Moreover, roughly two dozen states in the U.S. now offer free community college education to residents who meet certain requirements.
Community Colleges Offer Individualized Instruction
Critics of large four-year universities will tell you that the quality of academic instruction at these respected institutions of higher education isn’t worth the money. They’ll offer proof in the form of overworked instructors working on research projects that take priority over the students in their classrooms who are regularly taught by graduate students and teaching assistants rather than the tenured professor.
Whether this is true for all colleges and universities is a debate for another post, but one thing we can say for sure is that community colleges don’t face this same criticism. The main goal of technical schools is to teach the students who attend their academic courses and programs, so teachers may not have as much clout. Still, they enjoy the luxury of focusing on teaching rather than some university-funded research project. That means professors at community colleges will most certainly teach their classes, and they are much more likely to be available should you have questions about course content or assignments.
Also, community colleges typically boast lower student-to-faculty ratios, so you’ll probably find yourself in smaller classes instead of large lecture halls. If you don’t like the idea of just being another face in the crowd, then smaller classes at community colleges may be the right choice for you. At a larger university, your professor may not even learn your name by the end of the semester, much less be available for one-on-one instruction or coaching. Smaller classes mean a more focused learning environment, which can make for greater opportunities in a student’s learning experience.
Community Colleges Offer Real-World Learning
Another criticism that four-year colleges and universities have faced over the years is their propensity to focus on theory rather than practice in their academic courses and degree programs. It may be true that much of what you’ll study in a university class is more idea-centered rather than experiential. This is especially true for liberal arts programs. For instance, a bachelor’s program in engineering will surely be more grounded in reality than one in philosophy.
Despite your degree plan, though, a bachelor’s-level course of study will inevitably include some general education classes that may seem unnecessary. Even if you plan to teach elementary music, for instance, you’ll still be required to take some college-level math classes. The same is not true for all community college credentials, though. While some associate’s degree programs, such as Associate of Arts (AA) and even Associate of Science (AS) programs, may also include “gen ed” requirements, others, such as Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree plans do not. By and large, community college degrees tend to be much more vocational in nature than universities and seek to prepare students for the workforce immediately after graduation. On the other hand, four-year college students are prepared not only for employment but also for graduate school.
Another checkmark in the “real-world learning” category for community colleges has to do with the instructors of community college classes. These professors aren’t your typical tenured faculty members you’ll see in university lecture halls, but they often make up for their obscure reputations with plenty of experience in the field they teach. For example, it’s not uncommon for a retired police officer to teach public safety courses at their local two-year college. The same holds true for many other vocational fields like nursing, early childhood education, and culinary arts. The benefit here for students who attend community college is that they can learn applicable skills that will serve them well in their future professions, and they have the opportunity to learn these skills from seasoned professionals in their chosen fields. It’s hard to think of any better type of job preparation than that, so it’s something to keep in mind when asking, “What are the benefits of attending a local community college?“
Community Colleges Offer Transfer Opportunities
A lesser-known advantage of community colleges is that many offer associate’s degree programs designed for students who intend to continue their education at a four-year college or university. These university pathways are ideal for students who need to work on their GPAs to be accepted by a four-year school, but there are other advantages. For instance, students who work full-time or have small children may benefit from the more relaxed pace of community college, not to mention the many flexible learning options and resources these schools often have for non-traditional students. Examples include night classes and part-time schedules. Plus, if you attend community college for a couple of years before enrolling at a four-year school, the result can mean substantial savings on the cost of a bachelor’s degree, even without financial aid. You can attend a community college for general education courses and earn transfer credit. Once you transfer from a community college to a 4-year college or university, you’ll have the opportunity to earn the exact same credential as students who started in a four-year degree plan. In many cases, the transfer process is seamless.
Why Do Community Colleges Have a Bad Reputation?
With all of these advantages associated with two-year community colleges, one has to wonder: “Why do community colleges have a bad reputation anyway?” Pinpointing the many causes for the stigma surrounding two-year colleges isn’t an exact science. Still, there are some clear contributing factors, some of which we’ve addressed below.
You Might Be Seen as an Underachiever
Unfortunately, it seems to be the perception that community college attendance means students have no other choice. Of course, this is a myth. The truth is that thousands of students across the country opt to go to community colleges each semester despite having the opportunity to attend a four-year school. Each individual student attending a two-year college has their own reasons for being there, and it may have nothing at all to do with an academic transcript or test score.
Still, community colleges are notoriously easier to get into than your average college or university. Some even have open enrollment policies, meaning if you have a high school diploma and submit an application, you’re guaranteed acceptance into most community colleges. While this can be seen as an advantage for prospective students, it still perpetuates the myth that community colleges are for underachievers.
The Discounted Price Tag Could Be a Disadvantage
As we’ve already discussed, community colleges are much less expensive on average than four-year colleges and universities. This doesn’t always work out in their favor from a student’s perspective, though. Surprisingly, the reduced price tag alone can be enough to sway a student against the decision to attend community college. That’s because, as a society, we tend to make the mistake of equating higher quality with higher cost. Though, this misconception is a logical fallacy known as the appeal to wealth. It’s the belief that since something costs more, it must be inherently better. Of course, this isn’t always the case. In truth, many community colleges rival well-respected universities regarding quality instruction and student outcomes. Just remember, when it comes to higher education, saving money isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
You Can Expect More Than a Low-Paying Career
In the minds of many prospective college students, two-year community colleges represent a pathway toward a less-than-desirable career. From these students’ warped perspectives, the route offered by a two-year school is a shortcut to a career that’s just one step above working at a fast-food restaurant or retail store. In reality, though, community college students have many career options, and the technical degrees they earn can lead to high-paying occupations. What degree do you get from community college? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), for instance, the following lucrative and in-demand vocations require just an associate degree and yield a median annual wage of $60,000 a year or more:
- Respiratory Therapist
- Computer Network Support Specialist
- Occupational Therapy Assistant
- Web Developer
- Dental Hygienist
- Medical Sonographer
- Radiation Therapist
Graduating in one of the above fields with an associate degree will not only pay well, but you can begin your career with little or no student loan debt. Professionals with the above titles would likely answer “yes!” if asked, “Is community college a good idea?”
If you’re still asking, “What are the benefits of attending a local community college?“, remember that many community colleges offer transfer degrees. These are credentials for students who intend to complete a bachelor’s degree program at a four-year school. These flexible plans of study open up many more doors of opportunity for future academic and career paths.
- Top 10 Community College Degrees
- Highest Paying Associates Degree Jobs
- Top 40 Online Colleges for Medical Billing and Coding
- Top Dental Hygienist Associates Degrees
The Drawbacks of Attending Community College
While community colleges may not deserve the bad reputation they have earned over the decades, that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect solution. Nor does it mean that attending a two-year school is the right choice for everyone. On the contrary, when compared to a four-year college or university, there are some disadvantages of community colleges. Below, we’ll discuss a few of these drawbacks.
Student Life (Or Lack Thereof)
Some students decide to go to college to get a degree; others go for the experience of college life. If the latter sounds better, then attending a university may be the better choice for you. While 2-year schools are typically basic environments focused mainly on academics, students who attend school at a 4-year college tend to have more campus-based student activities, sports, sororities/fraternities, and the like. Student life at a four-year school is important for students looking for more than just an academic credential. If socializing is a priority of yours, or if you want to get involved in things like student government or fraternities, then attending a 2-year community college may not work for you. Plus, if you’re looking to move out of your parent’s house or leave your hometown for your education, then choosing to be a 4-year college student may be the right fit. Community college students are less likely to have on-campus housing options.
The Lack of Student Engagement Might Effect Your Educational Environment
Since it’s a lot easier and cheaper to attend community college, you’ll find a broader community of students, and not all of them will be as dedicated to their studies and academic success as you are. This can be problematic in certain situations, such as group projects. At 4-year colleges, on the other hand, you’re more likely to be surrounded by other students with high aspirations, both academically and career-wise. If other students’ negative vibes tend to rub off on you or you find that you’re motivated by others’ positive energy, then you a college or university learning environment might be better.
Having No Alumni Network Could Effect Your Career Future
Another benefit of attending a larger four-year college or university is the advantage of graduating from a school with an extensive alumni network. Being part of such a network can provide you with career and professional development opportunities for years to come. While some community college students may find career services that tap into some comparable system of graduates, a community college can’t compete with what four-year schools offer their alums, especially at the bigger, more prestigious universities and Ivy League colleges.
Could there be Problems Transferring Credits to a 4-Year School?
Earlier, we identified community colleges as solid springboards for entering a bachelor’s degree program. It’s important to point out that not all four-year colleges have the same policies for accepting previously earned community college credits. Thus, transfer students who attend a two-year school intending to apply their earned community college credits to a bachelor’s degree-granting 4-year institution down the line could potentially run into trouble. If credits don’t, in fact, transfer, then it could cost the student valuable time and money. Fortunately, avoiding these issues is fairly straightforward. Specifically, students should check with both the community college and university beforehand to ensure that community college credits can be transferred seamlessly from one institution to the other. Many community colleges have well-established articulation agreements with 4-year institutions that enable students to roll over credits without losing any time or tuition dollars in the process.
Asking the question, “Is community college right for me?” or “Is online college a good idea?” is like asking whether sandwiches are tasty. While it’s a valid concern, it’s also tough to answer without knowing more about the person asking the question. Like people have different preferences regarding what’s in their lunchboxes, they also have different educational needs and expectations. One thing to take away from this discussion is that community colleges aren’t inherently bad. Despite their historic stigma, there are plenty of good, accredited two-year schools that offer affordable and respectable degrees at a reasonable cost. Weigh the pros and cons, of course, but don’t rule community colleges out because of someone else’s misconceptions surrounding higher education.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupation Finder
- College Board: Trends in College Pricing (2020)
- U.S. News & World Report: Tuition-Free Community College Programs