What Is a Community College?

Learn What a Community College Is and How It Differs from a Four-Year College

Southwest Tennessee Community College
Southwest Tennessee Community College. Brad Montgomery / Flickr

A community college, sometimes referred to as a junior college or technical college, is a tax-payer supported two-year institution of higher education. The term "community" is at the heart of a community college's mission. These schools offer a level of accessibility—in terms of time, finances, and geography—that cannot be found at most liberal arts colleges and private universities.

A community college has many features that are distinct from universities and liberal arts colleges. Below are some of the primary defining features of community colleges.

The Cost of Community College

Community colleges are significantly less expensive per credit hour than public or private four-year schools. Tuition can be in the range of one-third that of a public university, and one-tenth that of a private university. To save money, some students choose to attend a community college for a year or two and then transfer to a four-year institution.

As you decide whether or not a community college is right for you, be careful not to confuse the sticker price with the cost. Harvard University, for example, has a sticker price around $70,000 a year. A low income student, however, will attend Harvard for free. Strong students who qualify for financial aid may find that much costlier colleges and universities actually cost less than community college.

Admission to Community Colleges

Community colleges are not selective, and they provide a higher education opportunity for applicants who didn't earn stellar grades in high school as well as applicants who have been out of school for years. Community colleges are almost always open admissions. In other words, anyone who has a high school diploma or equivalency will be admitted. This doesn't mean that every course and every program will be available. Registration is often on a first-come, first-served basis, and courses can fill and become unavailable for the current semester.

Even though the admission process is not selective, you will still find plenty of strong students who attend community colleges. Some will be there for the cost savings, and others will be there because a community college education better fits their life circumstances than a residential four-year college.

Commuters and Part-time Students

If you walk around a community college campus, you'll notice lots of parking lots and few if any residence halls. If you're looking for a traditional residential college experience, a community college will not be the right choice. Community colleges specialize in serving live-at-home students and part-time students. They are ideal for students who want to save room and board money by living at home, and for students who want to further their educations while balancing work and family.

Associate's Degrees and Certificate Programs

Community colleges do not offer four-year baccalaureate degrees or any graduate degrees. They have a two-year curriculum that typically terminates with an associate's degree. Shorter programs may lead to specific professional certifications. That said, many of these two-year degrees and professional certifications can result in significantly higher earning potential. For students who want to earn a four-year bachelor's degree, community college can still be a good option. Many students transfer from community colleges to four-year colleges. Some states, in fact, have articulation and transfer agreements between community colleges and four-year public universities so that the transfer process is easy and course credits transfer without a hassle.

The Downside of Community Colleges

The service community colleges provide to higher education in the U.S. is huge, but students should recognize the limits of community colleges. Not all classes will transfer to all four-year colleges. Also, because of the large commuter population, community colleges often have fewer athletic opportunities and student organizations. It can be more challenging to find a close peer group and to build strong faculty/student relationships at a community college than at a residential four-year college.

Finally, be sure to understand the potential hidden costs of community college. If your plan is to transfer to a four-year school, you may find that your community college coursework doesn't map to your new school in a way that makes it possible to graduate in four years. When that happens, you'll end up paying for extra semesters in school and delaying income from full-time employment.