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 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. Cost, however, should not be the only consideration when choosing a community college. Some of the country's most expensive universities (Harvard, for example) have the financial resources to make college nearly free for low-income students.

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.

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. Finally, be sure to understand the potential hidden costs of community college.

A final note: Community colleges are sometimes referred to as junior colleges, technical colleges, or city colleges.