Do you want to save money on college? Of course you do.
So you should go to community college first, right? That’s what everyone says, anyway.
They say community college is cheaper than a university. That community college makes education more affordable. And that community college can help you avoid student loan debt.
You know what they never say? That going to community college could be a huge mistake for many students.
Well, I just said it. And I’ll say it again: a lot students are not better off going to community college first, even if it’s cheaper than a four year school.
Can community college save you money? Sure. But money isn’t all that matters. Graduating matters too, and you’re a lot more likely to do that if you go straight to a four year college or university.
In this post we’ll look at the pros and cons of community college and why you should think twice about going to community college before transferring to a university. But first, let’s do a quick comparison of community colleges and universities.
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Community colleges have a different educational purpose and a different student population than universities.
Historically, community colleges provided job training, and most community colleges still do. But over time the role of community colleges has changed. Today, many students plan to transfer to four year universities after completing community college.
So students at community colleges have different goals: some are there to earn college transfer credits while others are there to complete job training before joining the workforce. This is one way community colleges differ from universities, where (in theory) every student has the goal of earning a degree.
Community colleges also differ from universities in their enrollment policies. At most universities, students must meet certain requirements for acceptance, such as a minimum high school GPA or ACT/SAT score.
Requirements for acceptance are usually much lower at community colleges. Many have open admission policies, so anyone with a high school diploma (or equivalent, like a GED) can be accepted into the community college.
Now that we know a bit more about the differences between community colleges and universities, let’s get to the real issues here: what are the pros and cons of community college? Is community college a good option for you? Truly, there are valid arguments for going to community college before transferring to a university.
Pros of Community College
Pro #1. Community College Is Cheaper
In many cases, community college classes are cheaper than the same classes at a university. For instance, in-state tuition at my local community college is $97 per credit hour. In-state tuition at nearby universities ranges from $169 to $190 per credit hour. So a student going to community college before transferring to a university could save a lot of money.
Community college can help you save in other ways. Most community college students live within 20 miles of campus, so students can live at home while taking classes. Living at home is one of my top five tips for saving money in college. It may not be an option for everyone, but living at home during college can save you serious coin.
Finally, community colleges are offering more and more online classes. Deciding to take online classes could reduce the number of days you need to be on campus. That means less money spent on gas and parking and more money in your pocket.
Pro #2: Community College Has Smaller Classes
Community colleges usually limit enrollment in each class to 40 students or less. At a university, that same class could have 400 students!
Many high school students love the idea of going to a big university and aren’t put off by large classes. But if you prefer smaller classes, community college may be the right place for you to start your college journey.
Pro #3: Community College Gives You Time to Mature
Sorry, there’s no way to sugarcoat this: some students just finishing high school aren’t ready for the freedom and independence of attending a university.
These students may lack the skills needed to stick to a study schedule, maintain their own living space and balance school with work and socializing. By attending community college first, they can build these skills before transferring to a four year school.
Pro #4: Community College Can Boost Your GPA
While some students aren’t emotionally ready for university life, others aren’t academically ready. A student with shaky high school grades may take classes at a community college to shore up their knowledge before transferring to another school.
Your community college GPA matters a lot more than your high school GPA or ACT/SAT scores when transferring colleges. Those things do matter, but community college GPA is very important. So a student with average or below average high school grades may want to take classes at a community college before transferring to a four year college or university.
Community college can be a great option for some students, whether they want to save money or because they aren’t ready for university life. But, community college isn’t right for everyone. Here are five reasons why community college may not be a good choice for you.
Cons of Community College
Con #1: Community College Is Easy
There’s a reason many students go to community college to boost their GPAs. Not all community college classes are easy, but the reality is that community colleges have a lot of academically unprepared students.
Many community college students need remedial classes in subjects like math and English. Instructors have to slow down if a lot of students are struggling, so community college classes may lack the intensity you’d find at a university. That means you could be unprepared for the pace or workload of university level classes once you transfer.
Con #2: Community College Lacks Community
Despite the name, it may be hard to connect with people at a community college. Many community college students commute to campus, so they don’t spend much time there when they aren’t in class.
In contrast, many university students live on campus, so it’s a lot easier to meet people and make friends. If having a group of friends you see most days is an important part of your college experience, you may feel isolated at a community college.
Similarly, many community college professors are part-time employees, so may only be on campus when they’re teaching. This makes it hard to develop the relationships helpful when you apply to transfer schools or for scholarships, since you’ll need letters of recommendation from your current teachers.
Con #3: Community College Has Less Financial Aid
Community colleges tend to have less money for scholarships than bigger schools, so students have fewer resources to help offset the cost of college.
Even students in free community college tuition programs usually have to pay for fees and books. If they can’t cover these costs out-of-pocket, they may have to borrow student loans.
Lots of students who go to community college just to save money are surprised when they leave with debt. If you decide to go to community college, make sure you know the true cost and what financial resources the college offers.
Con #4: Community College Credits May Not Transfer
If you plan to go to a community college before finishing your degree, make sure you get transfer credit for all of your classes.
If your community college and university are in the same state, all of your credits will probably transfer. If you decide to finish your degree at an out-of-state school, you may lose some of your credits. Talk to an academic adviser about your transfer plans so you’ll get credit for all your courses.
Con #5: Community College Students Earn Fewer Degrees
In academic terms, we say that community college students have lower degree attainment. In plain English this means that students who begin their education at a community college are MUCH LESS likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who begin at a four year college or university.
Nationally, only 14% of community college students ever transfer to a university. Of those, only 42% earn a degree within six years. That means more than half of community college students who transfer to universities drop out before graduating.
In contrast, about 60% of students who go straight to a four year college or university earn a degree within six years. Students who begin their education at a university are MUCH MORE likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who begin at a community college.
Low degree attainment is the #1 reason I discourage students from starting at a community college. What many see as a bypass around the high cost of college becomes an educational exit ramp instead.
Low degree attainment is the #1 reason I discourage high school students from starting out at community college. What many students see as a bypass around the high cost of college becomes an educational exit ramp instead.
My belief is that if you’re academically ready to do the work, you’re better off going straight to a four year college or university than starting out at a community college. But, as with everything, there are exceptions.
Reasons to Go to Community College
There are two situations in which I do encourage high school students to start at community college: if they’re eligible for a free tuition program or if they’re eligible for a concurrent enrollment program.
Free Tuition Programs
If you’re just finishing high school and have access to a free community college program, I think you should start your education at community college. Sure, there are drawbacks to community college, but free tuition more than compensates for them.
Just be sure you know the requirements of the program. For example, the free tuition program at my local community college is only open to students who begin the fall after high school graduation. If students don’t enroll immediately after high school graduation, they’re no longer eligible for the free tuition program, even if they decide to attend the community college later.
If you decide to enroll in a free community college program, make sure you have a plan. Know which university you want to transfer to, what you want to major in, and what classes you need to transfer successfully. Having clear goals at the outset will greatly improve your chances of actually earning your degree.
Concurrent Enrollment Programs
Like free tuition programs, concurrent enrollment programs are growing in popularity. Under these programs, high school students take community college classes, often for free, and earn both high school and college credit.
Credits earned under concurrent enrollment programs can be transferred to a university after a student graduates high school. Many students earn enough credits to cut a full year off of the time needed to earn their degrees, potentially saving tens of thousands of dollars.
The advantage concurrent enrollment programs have over free tuition programs is that high school students can get college credit and still go straight to a university. They don’t have to spend one or two years at a community college first, and don’t have to worry about transferring from the community college to a university. For those reasons, I consider concurrent enrollment programs a better deal than free tuition programs.
Before I end this post on the pros and cons of community college, I want to say: I think community colleges are great! These colleges play vital roles within their local communities.
Community college is a terrific option for lots of students: those who aren’t academically ready for university, those who want specific job training, or those who are returning to school after many years away from formal education.
But for well prepared students just finishing high school? I truly believe they’re better off going straight to a four year college or university in most cases.
Until next time, best wishes and keep learning,