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Community colleges are known as schools where university-bound students can knock out general education requirements on the cheap, but that’s only part of what these local, mostly public, colleges offer. Many also have technical programs that train students for specific careers such as nursing and computer science.
Also called two-year or junior colleges, a community college may be a good option if you:
Want to earn general education credits before transferring to a four-year college or university
Want to learn technical skills, then go directly into the workforce
Need to take classes online, at night or on weekends
AT A GLANCE
Typical program length: One to two years
Credentials offered: Certificates, associate degrees
Average cost of tuition and fees for in-district students, 2017-18: $3,570
Options at community colleges
Most community colleges offer two main paths for students: career training and transfer programs.
Career training. Students training for a specific career can take technical classes and earn a certificate or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree.
Transfer programs. Students planning to transfer to a four-year college or university can take their general academic requirements, such as English and math, at a community college. Many community colleges have articulation agreements with four-year colleges and universities that outline how specific credits transfer.
Most community colleges offer associate degrees, certificates and not-for-credit classes, but a few also have bachelor’s degree programs. Students don’t have to earn an associate degree to transfer, but those who do are more likely to earn their bachelor’s degree, according to a 2015 study published in Research in Higher Education. If you plan to earn an associate degree before transferring, pursue an Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) degree — both are typically designed for transfer students.
Disadvantages of community colleges
Transferring can be inefficient. Only about a third of students who plan to transfer move on to four-year colleges and universities, according to a May 2017 paper by the Community College Research Center, an independent authority on two-year colleges in the U.S. When students transfer, they often lose credits because their courses don’t transfer correctly or they took classes in community college that they didn’t need for a bachelor’s degree program.
Students can struggle to complete programs. A higher percentage of community college students (45%) don’t have a degree or certificate six years after starting higher education compared with students at four-year colleges (24%), according to a November 2017 paper by the Community College Research Center. This is in part because community colleges often do a poor job of giving students “clear and consistent advice” about available classes and programs, the report says.
Money is tight. Community colleges spend less money on each full-time student compared with four-year colleges and universities, according to the center's November 2017 paper. This can translate to fewer faculty members, advisors and resources for students.
Benefits of community colleges
Affordability. Community colleges tend to be more affordable than four-year colleges and universities. Average tuition and fees for the 2017-18 school year were $3,570 for public two-year schools for in-district students, compared with $9,970 for public four-year schools for in-state students and $34,740 for private four-year schools, according to the College Board.
However, keep in mind that a school's sticker price might not be the amount you'll actually owe. Use schools' net price calculators to estimate your out-of-pocket costs after financial aid.
Tuition-free programs. A growing number of states including California, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee offer tuition-free community college. Each program has different qualifications, requirements and limits.
Open admissions policies. Many community colleges have open admissions policies, which means there aren’t strict qualifications to get in. You’ll typically need to send your high school transcript as part of the process. Students can often enroll anytime — even right up to or after the first day of class.
How to enroll in community college
Compare schools. Community colleges can have different tuition costs for in-district students, in-state students and out-of-state students. You’ll typically pay the lowest tuition if you attend an in-district community college, but it’s still a good idea to research and compare a few different options. Use the Department of Education’s College Scorecard to compare schools’ graduation rates, average yearly cost and salaries after students leave.
Apply for financial aid. Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, to be eligible for federal grants, work-study and student loans. NerdWallet has a free FAFSA guide to help you. If you have to take out student loans for community college, exhaust federal loan options before taking out private student loans, because federal loans have more flexible repayment options.
Take reading and math placement tests. You may be able to skip placement tests depending on your ACT or SAT score.
Meet with your advisor and register for classes. If you’re planning to transfer, talk to your advisor about your goals. You’ll want to make sure you take credits that will transfer to the college or university you'll attend next. If you’re training for a specific career, make sure you’re working toward the credential you’ll need to go into the workforce after completing the program.