Every year, roughly seven million students enroll in the approximately 1,100 community colleges across the nation.
In fact, those who attend community college comprise about 44 percent of all college students in the United States, according to the “Encyclopedia of Education Economics and Finance."
Attending community college is a way to attain a secondary education while saving money and commuting from home. But experts say there are some shortcomings to attending community college, including having fewer academic resources than you might at other U.S. colleges and universities.
While community college is a different experience from that of a state or private university, it could be the right choice for some students. That’s why it’s important to weigh the advantages and shortcomings of taking this route toward your undergraduate degree.
According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the average annual tuition for in-district community colleges across the United States was $3,260 during the 2013-2014 academic year, while the average for four-year, public in-state colleges was $8,890.
Community college also typically allows students to live at home, foregoing the additional costs of housing and dining that come with paying for a state or private institution, said Alicia Dowd, associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and co-director of the school’s Center for Urban Education.
Gina Scoppino of Long Island attended Nassau Community College in Nassau County. She says the lower tuition of community college — combined with the fact that she was unsure of what she wanted to study — contributed to her decision to apply. “The professors were great," Scoppino said. “And I liked the overall experience."
Community colleges attract many low-income students, Dowd said. Given that the majority of students who attend community college also hold at least one job outside of classes, according to the journal “Community College Review," the range of daytime, evening and online options offered at these schools enables students to pursue their education while keeping up with other responsibilities. You can also select whether you want to attend community college as a full-time or part-time student.
The sizes of the classes are also usually smaller at community colleges, Dowd said. This could facilitate more one-on-one interaction between the students and the teacher, whereas some classes at larger universities have hundreds of students packed in giant lecture halls.
George Boggs, the former president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges and former president of Palomar College, writes on the Brookhaven College website that most classes at community colleges have fewer than 35 students, making faculty members more available.
“Faculty members are accessible and want to help their students be successful," Boggs writes.
Though this accessibility is true of many community college professors, it isn’t universal. Therefore, it’s important to ask current students and administrators about an instructor’s availability outside of class. And you can get a sense by looking at whether the professor has office hours or responds to questions by email or phone.
Community college teachers are usually dedicated strictly to teaching, Dowd said, whereas at other public and private colleges, professors often balance their courses with research and other academic obligations. “The attention to teaching and learning at community colleges is often greater," Dowd said.
Many community colleges utilize what Dowd described as a “two plus two" model — that is, obtaining an associate degree after two years at community college and then getting a bachelor’s degree elsewhere over the next two years, though in reality these numbers vary.
However, an increasing number of community colleges have started offering bachelor’s degree programs in fields with a high demand for jobs, according to The Hechinger Report, a non-profit education news organization.
Many community colleges also offer honors programs, in which “students can truly develop their own abilities, examine new ideas, and explore their world," while saving money and living close to home, writes the National Collegiate Honors Council on its website.
The academic and career resources that other public and private institutions often provide might not be available to as great an extent at a community college, and these schools usually have less coursework and less rigorous classes, Dowd said.
Moreover, students at a community college will often find that guidance counselors serve many other students — sometimes at a ratio of 1,000 students per counselor. This means that students might have less of a chance to meet with a supervisor who can direct them with academic decisions.
“If a student can go directly to a four-year institution and that institution offers them the kind of courses they’re interested in, it’s better to go to a four-year institution because they typically have more resources," Dowd said. “A student will have more opportunities in the academic pathways available to them."
After completing community college, you’ll need to adjust to college life for a second time if you choose to continue your education and earn your bachelor’s degree.
Dowd clarified that it takes many students more than two years to earn an associate degree at a community college, just as it often takes students more than four years to receive a bachelor’s degree.
Additionally, in a national survey, 60 percent of students who transferred from community college ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree within six years of their transfer. That being said, 72 percent of those students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree had formerly earned a certificate or associate degree at their community colleges, whereas 56 percent of those who earned a bachelor’s degree did not.
In general, Dowd said, those who choose not to pursue a bachelor’s degree after graduating from community college receive jobs that offer lower pay, although that isn’t always the case. Still, according to Dowd, an associate degree signals to an employer a shorter duration of study — that is, around 60 course credits rather than 120.
Many community colleges require students to take placement tests to ensure they are taking the right courses, according to the College Board, which also says that entering students often have a variety of different skill levels.
A placement test may cause students to be placed in basic skills or remedial courses that don’t give college credit and therefore won’t be transferable to another public or private college or university, Dowd said. She emphasized that it’s essential to prepare for these assessment tests and take them seriously.
“If you take it and get placed in basic skills classwork that doesn’t give credit, you run a very, very high risk of not receiving your degree," Dowd said.
Completion is another issue. Many students take out loans without completing their degree, and with less guidance, they may not know which credits are transferable to another institution. This situation can result in students repeating courses at a 4-year college, contributing to more semesters in school. Resources like CollegeTransfer.Net are available for these types of situations.
2014 Fact Sheet. (2014, January 1). Retrieved July 10, 2014, from American Association of Community Colleges
Community College Student Success: The Role of Motivation and Self-Empowerment. Community College Review, 42. Retrieved July 12, 2014, from the EBSCOhost database.
Dowd, A. C. (Forthcoming, Fall 2014). Community college finances. In D.J. Brewer and L.O. Picus (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Education Economics and Finance. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
Honors Programs at 2-Year Colleges. (2014). National Collegiate Honors Council. Retrieved July 27, 2014, from National Collegiate Honors Council
Marcus, J. (2013, August 6). New figures suggest community college grad rates higher than thought. Hechinger Report. Retrieved July 15, 2014 from Hechinger Report
Marcus, J. (2014, April 10). Community colleges increasingly adding bachelor's degrees. Hechinger Report. Retrieved July 10, 2014, from Hechinger Report
What are college placement tests? (n.d.). Retrieved July 13, 2014, from The College Board