Community College vs. University: What's the Difference?

Community College
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Community colleges and universities each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and they have significant differences when it comes to admissions, academics, costs, and student life.

Differences Between Community Colleges and Universities

Community colleges have open admissions and award two-year associate's degrees as well as offer some certificate and one-year programs. Tuition is low, and students tend to be local and commute.

Universities can have selective admissions, and they award four-year bachelor's degrees and graduate degrees. Tuition and fees can be expensive, and students frequently live on campus.

Admissions

The first step to attending college is getting in. This is not a problem with community colleges, as nearly all have open admissions. Community colleges are founded on the idea of access, and any student who has earned a high school degree can attend. Bear in mind, however, that an open admissions policy does not mean that programs and classes won't fill up. You'll want to register and enroll early to guarantee your seat in a class.

Admission standards for universities is much more variable. Some guarantee admission for all students who meet a certain GPA or standardized test threshold. Many universities have holistic admissions policies and look at more than grades and test scores. Factors such as admissions essays, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation can play a significant role in a university's admissions decision. Some universities have extremely selective admissions. Most of the Ivy League schools, for example, have acceptance rates well below 10%.

Costs

Along with access, low cost is one of the greatest benefits of community college. Community colleges are almost always commuter campuses, so students live at home where they can save money on room, board, and many fees associated with residential campuses. Tuition is also significantly lower than at a university. The average cost of tuition and fees at a community college averages just over $3,000 a year.

University tuition will typically cost 2 to 20 times as much as a community college. For example, in-state tuition in the University of North Carolina system is around $7,000 a year. The University of California system charges over $13,000 for in-state students. Tuition and fees at an elite private university such as Duke is close to $60,000 a year. Most universities are residential, so room and board fees need to be added to the tuition costs. Some of the nation's most expensive private universities have a total price tag close to $80,000 a year.

Sticker price, however, does not tell the whole story. The most expensive universities also tend to have generous financial aid. A student whose family earns $50,000 a year could go to Harvard University for free because of financial aid. This point is worth reemphasizing: an extremely expensive private university can actually cost less than a community college for a student from a family with modest income. For higher income families, the community college will almost always be cheaper.

Types of Degrees Offered

If you want to earn a bachelor's degree, you'll need to attend a four-year college or university. The highest degree offered by community colleges is a two-year associate's degree. Community colleges also tend to offer some one-year and certificate programs for specific professions.

It is rare for a university to offer two-year associates degrees, although you will find a few two-year programs at regional public universities. Universities offer four-year bachelor's degrees, and many also offer master's degree programs. Strong research universities will have doctoral (PhD) programs in some fields. Law schools, business schools, and medical schools are almost always connected to universities, so MBA, JD, and MD degrees are awarded by universities.

Types of Programs

Related to the types of degrees community colleges and universities offer, the types of programs also differ. Community colleges tend to specialize in career-focused fields such as engineering technology, computer information systems, nursing, radiography, physical therapist assistant, and security systems technology. This does not mean that students cannot study fields like theater, music, or communications at a community college, but often students will use these programs as a starting point before transferring to a four-year college or university.

University programs take a minimum of four years for completion, and as a result they are often less specialized and grounded in a broad liberal arts core curriculum. Universities tend to focus on teaching students how to think and solve problems whereas a community college will often be more focused on training a student for a particular profession. A university student majoring in electrical engineering will take a dozen or so engineering courses, numerous science and math classes, and also courses in areas such as writing, ethics, sociology, and business. A university degree in electrical engineering will almost always lead to a higher paying job than a community college degree in electronics engineering technology, and the four-year degree is also more likely to lead to oversight and management positions.

For many jobs in technology and healthcare fields, an inexpensive community college degree is the way to go. However, for many careers in industry, education, and government, you're going to need a minimum of a four-year degree from a college or university.

Student Life

Attending a university is about more than academics and a degree. Most universities are largely residential—students live on or near campus for the entire academic year. Most will live in the residence halls, but depending on the school, some may live in fraternities, sororities, theme houses, or nearby off-campus housing. Part of a university student's education involves dealing with the responsibility of living on their own for the first time.

Nearly all community college students commute to school, and traditional college age students are likely to miss out on the experience of leaving home for college. At the same time, many community college students are adults returning to school who may be balancing school with jobs, family, and other commitments. A four-year residential college would not be on option in such situations.

Commuter campuses tend to have far less going on when it comes to student life since students leave school when their classes are over. This does not mean that community colleges don't have athletic teams and student clubs and organizations; many do. But the majority of students won't be involved in these activities. At a four-year residential university, the great majority of students will be involved in multiple clubs, and the options for getting involved in athletics will be far greater than at a community college. Universities are also likely to have more frequent evening and weekend events such as lectures, musical performances, comedians, trivia nights, hikes, camping trips, and so on. In general, if you value highly involved students, an active social scene, and a lot of school spirit, a university is going to have more to offer than a community college.