Community colleges are for everyone—from students fresh out of high school to professionals wanting to up their game, anyone can enjoy the benefits of attending.
And the benefits are many.
For starters, community colleges offer a wide range of career options and at relatively reasonable prices, especially when you compare the cost per credit hour to those of a four-year university.
Plus, with more than 1,400 community colleges in the United States, there’s a really good chance that there’s one near you.
So if you’re thinking about going to community college, then you definitely need to read on. You’ll find out more about:
- The types of associate degrees you could get
- The careers you can go into with them
- The money you can make after attending
What is a Community College?
In case you don’t know for sure what a community college is, it’s a two-year college—and a popular choice for higher education. More than six million students across the U.S. attend one annually!
Typically, community colleges:
- Are less expensive than trade schools or four-year universities
- Allow students to earn a two-year degree (an associate degree)
- Are used as stepping stones toward a four-year college
Difference Between Community College & Trade School
When you’re looking to grow your knowledge, find a career, and increase your income, you have a few different options: trade schools, community colleges, or universities.
From that list, some people confuse trade schools and community colleges, because both offer variations of the same programs. But the two types of higher education are different.
Here are some of the distinct differences between community college and trade school:
- Community colleges offer general education courses. Trade schools don’t have any general education classes; you’ll focus directly on your career.
- To earn an associate degree at a community college, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll need two years’ time. Trade school has short, concentrated diplomas in fields such as medical assisting, dental, HVAC, electrical, etc. You might be done with classes and have your certificate in weeks, depending on the program/industry you enter.
- Both community colleges and trade schools offer small class sizes. But in those classes, community colleges feature lecture-based learning, while trade schools are much more likely to use hands-on training in addition to any classroom instruction.
- Community college has a tendency to be less expensive than trade school. Some trade schools can run into the $30K range before you complete your certificate, whereas community colleges average closer to $3,000 per year.
Are Community Colleges Good?
People have a tendency to believe that if it’s not the most talked about schooling option, it must not be a quality choice. That’s not the case. Community colleges are absolutely worth attending and millions of students do so each year.
Most community colleges have teachers completely invested in your education. They want to see you succeed and move on, either to a four-year university for a bachelor’s or to a rewarding career in the field you’ve studied so hard for. You’ll be well-prepared after attending a quality school.
Plus, not everyone is interested in attending a four-year university. Some would like to get a degree and begin working as soon as possible. Others, aren't interested in accumulating the student debt. Community colleges provide training that allows you to receive quicker schooling at a much more affordable rate.
Pros & Cons of Community College
- Community college is significantly less expensive!
- Students who receive an associate degree prior to transferring can earn a bachelor’s degree at the same rate as a student who started out at a university. You won’t be behind.
- Non-traditional students such as full-time employees and parents find there is a better work-life balance through community college.
- Small class sizes mean more individualized attention for you.
- Community colleges are usually conveniently located, which cuts down on your expenses such as gas and housing.
- There are many certificates and associate degree options available. You won’t feel limited in choices.
Probably one of the biggest pros: Many states now offer tuition-free community college including West Virginia, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, California, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Delaware, Rhode Island, and New York.
Each state has its own requirements and stipulations.
- West Virginia: If you are under 19 years of age and have either a high school diploma or GED, you’re eligible for free tuition at one of the three Community College of Rhode Island campuses. You must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA and be enrolled full time.
- Minnesota: You must have a high school diploma or GED from Minnesota. Your family income must be $90K or less. And you’ll need to be enrolled in one of the “approved” programs such as nursing or accounting.
- Montana: To be eligible, you must have a GED or a high school diploma with a cumulative GPA of at least a 2.5. You need to be enrolled in a program at least part time, pursuing an associate degree or professional credential.
- Oregon: If you’re a recent graduate from an Oregon high school and have a cumulative GPA of at least a 2.5, or if you have your GED, you could be eligible for free college. A main determining factor is if your estimated family contribution is $20K or less, which you’ll know when you fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
- Nevada: Nevada students must complete 20 hours of community service, and apply for the free college through the FAFSA system.
- California: New students who are enrolled full time in a community college can receive a tuition waiver for one academic year.
- Arkansas: You must complete high school in Arkansas or have lived there for three years, full time. There is a community service requirement of 15 hours per semester. And you must stay and work in Arkansas for three years after your graduation. Otherwise, your grant is converted into a loan that has to be paid back.
- Tennessee: After federal and state financial aid, Tennessee picks up the balance for your two-year education. You must obtain your high school diploma before you turn 19 to be eligible. To remain eligible throughout the two years, you must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, and complete eight hours of community service per semester.
- Kentucky: You must be a high school graduate or have your GED, and be a U.S. citizen to be eligible. Assistance is provided for a maximum of 32 credit hours through a community college. Only certain degree programs are eligible, and you must maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average throughout your education.
- Delaware: In Delaware, the program is called The Excelsior Scholarship and is available to students whose families earn $100K or less. You must be an in-state high school graduate. The program is available on all four community college campuses.
- Rhode Island: You need to be under 19 and a high school graduate or a GED holder. You must fill out the FAFSA to qualify. Once you’re eligible, free tuition is available at all Community College of Rhode Island campuses. You must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA to remain eligible.
- New York: Free college is income-based in New York, which means your family must make no more than $100K for you to be eligible. Requirements are set per campus, but you must live and work in New York for a set number of years as a loan repayment. There are both two-year and four-year colleges that participate.
- New Jersey: Governor Phil Murphy announced the beginning Spring 2019, students will be eligible to attend tuition and fee-free community colleges across the state. Thirteen community colleges take part.
Connecticut and Massachusetts are in the throes of discussion around free and debt-free college at the moment, with no agreement date in sight. If the Promise programs do come to fruition, you can become eligible by:
- In Connecticut, eligibility for the “Free to Start, Free to Finish” promise is geared toward students from families who earn under $73K for a family of four.
- Massachusetts is considering following suit, but details regarding free college are still being discussed.
There are more states that will be adding free community colleges, so keep an eye out for your own local schools!
- Degree options are limited. A very small number of community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees, but those are the exception, not the rule.
- You miss out on that traditional college experience—sports and dorms are not offered at community colleges.
- Not all your credits are necessarily transferable (we explain more below).
- Some community colleges won’t prepare you well enough for a four-year university.
- Campus social life isn’t as robust as at a university.
- Some associate degrees by themselves don’t hold as much weight as a bachelor's degree or higher.
Going from an Associate to a Bachelor's Degree
Once you’ve graduated with an associate degree, you can further your education by getting a bachelor's degree if you choose. Also, if you do it with a plan in place, you are much less likely to lose out on any credits earned from your community college.
Florida is one of the first states to pledge that if you graduate with an associate degree, you’re guaranteed to be a junior when you transfer to a Florida university. All of your hard-earned credits transfer, not a single one lost.
The problem is, not all states have any incentive for community college students to transfer. In fact, it’s very often quite the opposite due to the loss of earned credits during a transfer. It deters students from going on to further their education beyond the associate degree.
Sometimes, a student’s hard work at the community college is a complete loss, and he or she has to start over upon transferring. This is distressing, especially since the National Center for Education Statistics reports that between 20-50 percent of a university’s new student body are transfers from community colleges.
To make sure you are taking transferable credits at your community college, follow these pointers:
- Decide early on which university (or universities) you want to transfer to.
- Meet with academic advisors to discuss the classes you will need to take, and ensure your credits will be transferrable.
- Know the limit. Every school has a different credit transfer allowance. All your earned credits may transfer to one university, whereas only half could transfer to another.
- Take general education classes. It’s always a good idea, because those credits transfer almost anywhere.
- Find out about articulation or transfer agreements with your community college’s partner schools. It’s an outline of which program credits transfer, and many schools have one.
If you are interested in transferring to an out-of-state college, there are “transfer-friendly” schools out there. Make sure to talk to the admissions counselors to find out about the credits you’ve already earned.
Popular Community College Certificates & Degrees
Don’t let anyone fool you, a four-year bachelor’s degree isn’t always the answer. You can find yourself nestled in a satisfying career with a two-year associate degree. Community colleges offer these common forms of degrees.
- Associate of applied science: If you’re going into nursing, physical therapy as a technician, or occupational therapy as a tech, your degree will be in applied science. It’s a degree specifically designed for students wanting to enter the workforce directly after they graduate. This option is most commonly pursued by students going into fields such as engineering, medical, or computer technology.
- Associate of science: This is a STEM-related option, with a focus on the sciences such as biology, engineering, geology, math, and physics. You’ll be highly prepared to move on to a four-year college, if that’s what you decide to do. Otherwise, you’ll be able to find entry-level positions within your field of specialty.
- Associate of arts: An AA is considered to be the first two years of a bachelor’s degree. More liberal arts subjects are covered when you study for your associate of arts degree. Marketing, criminal justice, early childhood education, fashion merchandising, or design are all part of your degree options.
Some careers, such as registered nursing, don’t see a big increase in salary if you have a more advanced degree. Other careers will have a larger salary the higher in rank your degree is. You don’t have to do all your school at once, either. You can get your associate degree and work for a few years before returning to school.
In addition, there are a lot of companies that will reimburse you, or pay directly, for continuing education, including getting degrees. If that is an option for you, seriously consider it. Check this out if you’re concerned about how you’ll be able to balance a full-time job and college.
Community colleges open the doors to many opportunities — and at a much more affordable rate. These opportunities include:
- Interesting careers with reliable income
- Completing school and joining the workforce sooner (meaning you will be earning money sooner)
- Saving money on a bachelor's (if you choose to further your education) by having taken general education courses already
- Learning and building upon your education if you're already satisfied with your career choice but would like to expand on it.
Good education comes in a variety of forms. Make the choice that’s best for you — it may just be community college!
Reference and more reading:
- What is a Community College in the USA?
- Community College FAQs
- Why Community College is Not Like High School