7 Pros (and Cons) of Starting at Community College

Published on July 30, 2023 · Updated on August 3, 2023

7 Pros (and Cons) of Starting at Community College

Published on July 30, 2023 · Updated on August 3, 2023

Community colleges fill a very real need for a wide range of potential students and situations. Whether you’re a high school senior uncertain about or unprepared for a four-year commitment, or an individual who’s long been in the workforce and looking to upgrade and enhance your credentials, the open enrollment options and flexibility offered by these two-year programs make them extremely attractive.  

There are many, many reasons why choosing a community college as an introduction to higher education is a smart choice. There are also good arguments against the option in certain circumstances, too. In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at both to help you make the decision that’s right for you.

What is a Community College?

A community college is a post-secondary educational organization that offers both two-year associate degrees (Associate of Arts or Associate of Science) and technical and vocational programs. Many of the latter are offered in collaboration with local high schools, community groups, or employers, while the degree programs can be completed on their own. 

Courses offered at a community college can be taken on an individual basis, with credits earned potentially transferring to four-year undergraduate degree programs. Some community colleges have established special partnerships to offer “2+2” programs, which allow students to complete the first two years of their studies in the community college setting. After those two years, they can transfer to a four-year college and complete the last two years of their education within the undergraduate college or university environment.

Should I Go To Community College First? 

With lower costs, closer access to home, more convenient scheduling, and less stringent admission requirements, it’s a wonder why community colleges aren’t the obvious choice. Community colleges offer many advantages to their attendees. 

Below you’ll find seven of the best reasons for beginning your college career at a community college, as well as some not-so-positive aspects you should weigh before making the community college decision.

7 Reasons To Start At Community College

  1. Lower cost of education

Cost is undoubtedly one of the top reasons for choosing to start your post-secondary education at a community college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average tuition and fees for first-time, full-time undergraduate students in 2021 was $9,400 per year for public institutions and $37,600 for private institutions, while the average tuition and fees for two-year programs was just $3,900 for public institutions and $15,800 for private institutions. Studying for two years and then transferring can save you a significant money.

the average tuition and fees for first-time, full-time undergraduate students in 2021 was $9,400 per year for public institutions and $37,600 for private institutions, while the average tuition and fees for two-year programs was just $3,900 for public institutions and $15,800 for private institutions.

Though there are certainly reasonably priced colleges and universities, the cost per class, credit hour, or semester at a community college is not only lower than that charged by most four-year programs, but also has the advantage of standing alone. The various and seemingly endless charges for meals, housing, administrative costs and activity fees that accompany attending a traditional undergraduate program add up very quickly, which makes attending a community college that much more of a bargain. Plus, the lower the cost of your education, the lower your student loans.

Regardless of whether you attend classes at a community college or a four-year institution, you will be subject to costs associated with your classes. These can include having to purchase textbooks, having to pay lab fees, having to purchase or rent specific equipment or clothing, and even having to pay for insurance.

2. Smaller class sizes

While four-year college programs are known for their large lecture halls and a high number of students, community college programs tend to keep their enrollment to less than 20 students per classroom, allowing a more personal experience and the opportunity to truly engage with and get to know professors. The more intimate setting has fewer distractions and is conducive to concentration and focused learning. Plus, it’s better for those students who thrive with a little more hands-on learning or one-on-one teaching. 

Community colleges can also facilitate greater self-confidence and participation from students who might otherwise be intimidated when surrounded by 100 or more peers. Smaller classes provide students with a more supportive environment.

3. Community colleges offer scheduling flexibility

Many aspiring students have work and family responsibilities that can make attending morning and daytime classes a challenge. In response to this, community colleges offer highly flexible class schedules that allow students to choose from a wide range of daytime and nighttime in-person classes. Based on demand, many also offer online programs that can be taken either synchronously or asynchronously, and students often have the option of studying on a part-time rather than a full-time basis.

4. Ability to earn and transfer credits to undergraduate programs

One of the most appealing aspects of starting your education at a community college is the ability to take classes – usually at a lower cost – and then transfer them to a bachelor’s degree program when you’re ready to move to a university. This option is commonly available when students transfer from a two-year community college to a state university as a result of special agreements between the schools. Students who do this and then graduate from a four-year institution still get the same degree as someone who attended the same college all four years.

5. The admissions process is far easier at community colleges

Unlike traditional four-year undergraduate programs, which require applicants to have a minimum high school GPA, hit certain test results, and submit essays and letters of reference, most community colleges require little more than a high school transcript for acceptance into their programs. 

Eliminating complexity and competitiveness from the process provides significant relief for many students, who can also use the time in community college to lift their high school GPA to a level that will be more acceptable to a four-year program.

6. Community college can be close to home

One of the biggest advantages of attending community college is its proximity to home and work. Most students who attend these two-year programs do so because they want to continue living at home so that they can save money, keep working, or continue meeting family and social obligations. 

Students often do not need to travel far or commute to attend classes, which eliminates the need to purchase meal plans or furnish a college dorm room. Plus, there are no sad goodbyes as students don’t need to leave their loved ones behind to pursue their education. They can also have access to all of the familiar resources associated with their home, including their local bank, healthcare providers, and places to shop.

7. Community college provides a helpful transition from high school

Some high school students simply do not feel ready to leave home and attend a four-year program. They may need greater confidence in their ability to meet new people, may be concerned about leaving family and friends, or may feel that they need more preparation for the rigors of studying at a college level. 

Some simply want to avoid the distractions that college is so well known for, including parties and social activities. For these students, community colleges offer an excellent period of transition that gives them a chance to earn college credits and become more comfortable with the rigorous study regimen.

5 Cons To Starting At Community College

  1. Lower earnings potential

As important as the budgetary advantages of attending community college are, it should also be noted that some studies show that, on average, community college graduates earn significantly less than those who earn their degrees from a traditional four-year program. 

However, that disparity may have more to do with the programs that community college students elect to enroll in than with the quality of their education. For example, it’s obvious you’ll earn less as a dental hygienist than someone who studies to become an actual dentist. Or same could be said for someone attending a plumbing trade school or other trade vs. someone studying to open a full plumbing business

  1. Losing out on the traditional four-year experience

With smaller class sizes and students living at home, there are fewer opportunities to establish the kind of social life and lifelong friendships that college can be known for. And we don’t just mean frat parties and football games. It’s things like studying late at the library for a group project, meeting friends for coffee before classes, and learning to “adult” with your fellow roommates who are also learning to survive away from home at the same time. 

Plus, the four-year college or university experience can provide more education than just what is found in textbooks. Exposure to a larger student body provides the chance to meet and engage with more diverse students who come from different backgrounds. For many, the educational advantages that come with community colleges’ small class sizes don’t offset the absence of people with whom to exchange ideas and challenge your way of thinking.

  1. Limited degree options

Unfortunately, the downside to the greater flexibility that community colleges offer is the lack of program variety that students can find at their local community college. Where four-year programs may have rigid schedules, they also have greater accessibility to a wide range of degrees and majors. Students have more options on the topics that they want to devote themselves to, whether it’s general education requirements or classes within their major.

Community college may be good for knocking out those general ed classes, but four-year colleges offer greater options for choosing a major or taking classes in certain degree specializations.

  1. Credits may not transfer

Yes, it’s a budget hack to take classes at a community college first and then transfer to a four-year. However, it’s not always a guarantee that all your credits will, in fact, transfer over. It is important for students who are planning on applying credits that they’ve earned at community college to do their due diligence regarding what is acceptable and transferable to the university or college that they want to graduate from. 

This could mean meeting with both your community college advisor as as well as speaking with the admissions department at your four-year college of choice. Failing to investigate and confirm that credits will be accepted can result in serious disappointment and frustration if you have to retake classes or don’t have enough credits to transfer until the next semester.

  1. Less prestige

Unfortunately, the lack of competitiveness of community college admissions is often accompanied by a loss of prestige when compared to four-year programs. Fortunately, there is a growing recognition of the value of a community college education, especially for certain majors that just don’t need a four-year degree. These can be careers like electrician, first responder, paralegal, medical biller and coder, and many more.

Plus, students planning to transfer should remember that their resume and job applications will reflect the name of the school from which they ultimately graduate rather than where they spent their first two years. So, if you spend the first two years at a community college then transfer to a four-year institution, your degree will come from that four-year institution, NOT the community college.