What is a Community College?

What’s covered:

  • Benefits and drawbacks of community colleges, such as lower costs and limited course options, compared to four-year colleges.
  • High-paying career opportunities for graduates with associate degrees.

Community colleges, which are also referred to as junior colleges and two-year colleges, are more accessible and affordable than four-year schools.

They offer two-year programs that lead to associate degrees. These days, nearly 50% of states also allow community colleges to confer bachelor’s degrees.

Still, students with certain career goals, such as radiologic technologists, air traffic controllers, engineering technicians, or paralegals, could benefit more from attending them than prestigious and selective ones.

So, let’s discuss the differences between community colleges and four-year schools.

Attending Community Colleges: Pros and Cons

High school graduates looking to earn a college degree faster and cheaper are not the only ones who can benefit from a community college.

Believe it or not, many individuals with a bachelor’s degree and even already seasoned professionals return to community colleges to get their hands on an associate degree or professional certificate.

No matter your highest educational credential or career aspiration, there are advantages and disadvantages to attending a community college.


Cheaper Cost of Attendance

Whether the goal is to enter the workforce armed with an associate degree or transfer to a four-year institution after two years, going to a community college can make the procurement of a college diploma cheaper.

Like students at four-year colleges and universities, those who are at community colleges also have access to scholarships and grants.

As a matter of fact, around 71% of community college students apply for student aid, and about 57% receive some type of aid — the average amount of aid undergraduates at community colleges receive is $4,700.


Not all jobs available on the face of the planet warrant a bachelor’s degree — many of them require skills more than a high educational qualification, and community college graduates are some of the most qualified for those.

In most instances, certificates and associate degrees conferred by community colleges are also geared toward helping recipients get some of the most in-demand local jobs, which is great for graduates and the surrounding community.

Many community colleges, as a matter of fact, design degree programs that help meet local employer needs.

Flexible Schedules

Community colleges tend to appeal more to commuter and non-traditional students, which is why they offer more flexible class schedules to accommodate them, especially those who have children to look after or jobs to tend to.

Part-time, evening, online, and hybrid classes are some options.

Based on a report by the Community College Research Center (CCRC), almost 75% of all community college students have work while enrolled. Of those, around 46% have full-time jobs.


Fewer Courses

Compared to four-year colleges and universities, available course and degree options are usually fewer at community colleges.

This means that, in many instances, students may have no choice but to make do with what’s accessible to them.

So, in other words, degree-seeking students may have to pave a career path based on what community colleges allow.

It’s a good thing that many community college degrees pay well. In a few, I will tell you some of the highest-paying ones to choose from, so don’t stop reading this article now!

Poor Credit Transfer

A report by Franklin University revealed that community college students, on average, lose about 13 credits following their transfer to four-year institutions — that’s equivalent to nearly one full semester of study!

However, there are ways to keep earned credits from going to waste during an upward transfer — the process of moving from a two-year to a four-year college.

First, students must attend a fully accredited community college.

Second, they must consider going to community colleges with transfer or articulation agreements with local colleges and universities.

Limited Extracurriculars and Networking Opportunities

College students who participate in extracurricular activities, particularly those that align with their majors and interests, tend to have better academic success.

On the other hand, networking allows undergraduates to build relationships with professionals, gain valuable industry insight, and access more job opportunities after graduation.

Due to the limited availability of clubs and organizations as well as internships and other academic-related programs, community college students may not enjoy academic and professional success rates as high as peers at four-year institutions.

Community Colleges vs. Four-Year Colleges and Universities

Some differences between community colleges and four-year institutions are quite obvious.

The former are usually smaller in terms of campus size and enrollment, and the cost of attendance is generally lower, too, while the latter typically have larger campuses and population sizes and are more expensive to attend.

Of course, they also differ in the types of degrees they confer.

Although a number of community colleges these days also offer bachelor’s degree programs, the number of available ones is greatly limited.

The table below quickly compares community colleges with four-year institutions using various data points:

Community CollegeFour-Year University
Tuition$3,501$9,678 (public) / $38,768 (private)
Degrees conferredAssociate and some bachelor’sBachelor’s and graduate
Acceptance rate79%70%
Class size25 to 35 students16 to 23 students
Graduation rate36.4%63% (public) / 68% (private)
Community College vs. 4-Year University

It’s important to point out that the figures in the table above are based on average values — they could be higher or lower, depending on the institution being discussed.

Highest-Paying Associate Degrees

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) says the median earnings of associate degree holders aged 25 to 34 working full time is $45,000 per year.

On the other hand, that’s equivalent to $61,600 per year for individuals from the same age range, working full-time and with a bachelor’s degree under their belt.

So, in other words, those who graduate from four-year institutions with a four-year degree tend to make more per year than those who graduate from two-year institutions with a two-year degree.

However, some associate degrees tend to generate more income than others.

According to a report by US News, here are the highest-paying degrees from community colleges:

Job PositionMedian Annual PayJob Growth Rate
Air traffic controllers$129,7501%
Nuclear technicians$99,34017%
Radiation therapists$82,7906%
Nuclear medicine technologists$78,7602%
Dental hygienists$77,8109%
Diagnostic medical sonographers$77,74015%
MRI technologists$77,3607%
Funeral home managers$74,0007%
Aerospace engineering technicians$73,5806%
Avionics technicians$69,2805%
Electronic engineering technicians$63,6401%
Computer network support specialists$62,7607%
Hydrologic technicians$62,2801%
Engineering technicians$61,9502%
Respiratory therapists$61,83014%
Occupational therapy assistants$61,73025%
Electrical drafters$61,5107%
Radiologic technicians$61,3706%
Physical therapist assistants$61,18026%
Cardiovascular technicians$60,5705%
Mechanical engineering technologists$60,4602%
Electro-mechanical technicians$60,3604%
Tower equipment installers$60,3604%
Architectural drafter$60,3401%
Calibration technician$60,3404%

After Getting an Associate Degree

There are specific steps you may take after graduating from a community college.

Entering the workforce and gaining work experience is perhaps the most obvious option.

Early in their careers, it’s not uncommon for some community college graduates to earn more than four-year school graduates (some earning up to $2,500 more per year).

However, many bachelor’s degree holders catch up by mid-career.

What’s referred to as an upward transfer is another option.

Also sometimes referred to as a vertical or forward transfer, two-year school students transfer to four-year colleges and universities to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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