What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of a Community College?

If you’re considering college vs university pros and cons, then you’ve already made the most important decision about your future professional success—that is, to continue your education! According to the most recent employment reports released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), individuals with a postsecondary degree have less trouble finding and keeping a job, and they make more money too. Of course, deciding where to attend school can be a challenging decision to make. There are so many factors to consider and so many different schools to choose from. We get it! That’s why we’ve prepared this extensive guide detailing 2-year vs 4-year college pros and cons. Below, we’ll thoroughly dissect this pertinent issue for students, discussing both the disadvantages of community college as well as the benefits of community college versus university.

College vs University Pros and Cons: Dispelling the Myth

Before we dive too deep into the issue at hand, it’s important to address the elephant in the room. Unfortunately, many critics of two-year colleges like community colleges and technical schools believe that these schools are inherently inferior to four-year colleges and universities. When it comes to the benefits of community college versus university, these pseudo higher education “experts” don’t think there’s any discussion to have. Their opinion (largely based on subjective bias instead of objective facts) is that four-year schools win hands-down, despite individual students’ academic goals, needs, or circumstances. The facts simply don’t support this claim, though. The reality is that there are many compelling reasons to attend a two-year community college, and there are just as many factors that may swing your decision towards university. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to choose the higher education route that best serves your specific situation and circumstances, including your budget, scheduling needs, career goals, and more.

Benefits of Community College Versus University

According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), more than a thousand different public community colleges across the United States collectively enroll nearly 12 million students each and every year. This alone should be a strong indication that community colleges indeed have merit. Otherwise, why would millions of students flock to them each and every semester? Here are just some of the reasons you’ll want to put community colleges on your radar when considering your plans for post-secondary education:

High Return-On-Investment

When you decide to attend a postsecondary school of any kind, you’re investing in your future. Despite what you may have heard, investments aren’t just for brokers or big businesses. The truth is, any time you spend a significant chunk of money (or even time) on something you hope will support your profits or wages in the future, you’re making an investment. Higher education certainly meets this definition and is considered a big investment towards future earnings. Thus, you’ll want to make a wise investment when choosing the type of postsecondary institution to attend.

Any investor will tell you that the success of your initial investment depends on its return—that is, how much it yields you over the long term. Investments with the highest returns require a small initial cost and a big profit. A community college education has the potential to yield a high return-on-investment (ROI) due to their inexpensive tuition costs and potential for lucrative salaries upon graduation.  Let’s break down the details of a community college’s potential return-on-investment by evaluating the two main components of ROI: cost and yield.

The Low Cost of a Community College Education

The price tags of two-year degrees have long been a selling point for community colleges. According to recent data from The College Board, it costs students an average of just $3,770 a year to attend one of these two-year public colleges. These same students would pay more than $10,000 annually to attend a four-year school in their state and over $27,000 to attend a university out of state.

Enrolling at a community college can have additional cost benefits as well. For example, students who attend these two-year schools usually live at home and commute to campus, saving thousands of dollars per year on the cost of room and board. By some estimates, students who live on campus at a four-year school pay over $10,000 a year for housing and meals in addition to the cost of tuition.

Another perk of community colleges is that they are increasingly associated with free tuition. Yes, you read that correctly. It sounds too good to be true, but depending on where you live in the United States, you may be eligible for no-cost tuition at a local community college of your choice. About half of the states in the country currently offer free community college to residents. More states are considering offering two-year degrees at no cost to their communities.

High Wages with a Community College Degree

The low cost of attending community college is widely known, but its potential profitability is a less common topic of conversation when discussing community college versus university benefits. In fact, the consensus seems to be that students who attend a four-year school will make more money upon graduation than those who earn their credentials from a two-year school. To be fair, there is some evidence backing up this claim. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that individuals with a bachelor’s degree make an average of $367 more per week than those with an associate’s credential. On its face, this looks like an argument in favor of four-year schools, but there’s more to the story. What these numbers do not reveal is the many high-paying associate’s degree jobs available. For full transparency, we’re listing some of these lucrative occupations below along with their mean annual wages, according to the BLS:

  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographers: $70,380
  • MRI Technologists: $74,690
  • Dental Hygienists: $77,090
  • Web Developers/Digital Designers: $77,200
  • Nuclear Medicine Technologists: $79,590
  • Nuclear Technicians: $84,190
  • Radiation Therapists: $86,850
  • Air Traffic Controllers: $130,420

Transfer Potential

Another thing to consider when weighing the ROI of community colleges is their transfer potential. Many two-year schools offer associate’s degree programs specifically designed for students who intend to transfer to a four-year university upon graduation from their two-year degree program. Moreover, most of these schools have articulation agreements with nearby colleges and universities, ensuring the credits you earn through the community college will be 100% transferable to a bachelor’s degree program.

The benefits of going to community college then transferring to a four-year college or university are clear. Primarily, you’ll get all the advantages of a bachelor’s credential at a lower cost than students who start at a four-year school. Plus, community college allows undecided students to explore various majors without breaking the bank. Moreover, students who have struggled academically in the past have the opportunity to work on raising their GPA before applying to their university of choice.

Employment Upon Graduation

While there are many benefits of going to community college then transferring to a four-year school, it’s not the only good option you’ll have after finishing your degree from a two-year school. Community colleges are well-known for adequately preparing students for the workforce through hands-on learning opportunities, internships, and practicums. That’s not to mention the many fast-growing occupations that require only an associate’s degree. Interestingly, some of the positions that are in high demand are also those associated with the most lucrative wages. Below, we highlight some of the associate degree job titles the BLS has reported as having the highest growth potential within the next decade, along with their growth projections by percentage:

  • Occupational Therapy Assistants: 32%
  • Respiratory Therapists: 19%
  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographers: 12%
  • Web Developers and Digital Designers: 8%

Supportive Learning Environments

Money shouldn’t be the only deciding factor when evaluating 2-year vs 4-year college pros and cons. Another checkmark in favor of community colleges is their distinct learning environment. Unlike some of the larger colleges and universities in the country, community colleges offer intimate and supportive learning environments that benefit students who prefer one-on-one instruction or have specific learning needs and preferences. That’s not to say these environments aren’t available at four-year schools, but they’re less common. For example, at some of the bigger four-year schools, professors are so busy with their research that they barely have time to teach classes, especially at the undergraduate level. Thus, many introductory courses are taught by teaching assistants, commonly known as TAs.

At two-year schools, you can expect that your professors will teach their own classes, and as a bonus, they’re more likely to have real-world experience in the discipline they teach. University professors often go from being a PhD student to teaching a classroom full of undergraduates, so while they’re plenty knowledgeable, they may not have any vocational experience to speak of. That could impact your learning in the long run. It could be why many community college graduates tend to be more prepared for the workforce immediately following graduation than their university peers.

Flexible Schedules

Another of the benefits of community college versus university has to do with scheduling. Since community colleges cater to non-traditional students, they’re much more likely than universities to offer flexible class schedules, including evening, part-time, hybrid, and online options. Of course, you can certainly take advantage of these scheduling opportunities no matter your age or life situation. Having a less demanding course schedule can free up your time for other things, whether it be a job, raising children, or participating in activism or volunteer work, for instance.

Disadvantages of Community College

While community college certainly has its benefits, it’s not a perfect higher education solution, and it’s certainly not for everyone. When evaluating community college vs university pros and cons, you have to look at both sides with equal discernment. Thus, putting a spotlight on the cons of community college is a necessary part of the decision-making process. Below, we’ll address a few of the concerns prospective students have when deciding whether to attend a community college over a four-year college or university.

Lack of Student Activities

Perhaps the most commonly voiced complaint about community colleges in the discussion of 2-year vs 4-year college pros and cons is their lack of student activities. Community colleges tend to be no-frills schools focused purely on academics and career preparation. That usually means no (or few) extracurricular activities like sports and student clubs/organizations. Even at two-year schools that make an effort to create some sort of student life, you certainly won’t find the vibrant atmosphere of a larger college or university. There won’t be Greek life, for instance, and club activities will be more limited. Depending on your personality and preferences, you may perceive this as one of the bigger cons of community college. And you wouldn’t be alone in this opinion. Many students aspire to college not just for academic preparation but for the overall experience as well. If you want to go to college to meet new people, experience new things, or just have fun after your studies are done for the day, then a university may be your better option.

Low Student Engagement

In addition to (or perhaps as a result of) the lack of student activity at a community college, there also tends to be problems with student engagement. The engagement deficit amongst community college students contributes to the stigma of community colleges as catch-alls for underachievers or students who can’t get into a four-year school. What does a lack of engagement look like? Well, it seems students pursuing a technical degree at a two-year school are less eager to participate in class discussions, go the extra mile on an assignment, or study outside the classroom. There could be many different explanations for this phenomenon. A 2019 survey of community college students found that they experienced difficulty finding time to study due to long hours at work, for example. It certainly stands to reason that students who have just come off a long shift could be less than excited to participate in class or commit to group work. Regardless of its reasons, low student engagement can have a stifling effect on a learning environment. Imagine being the only student in your class to complete the required reading ahead of discussion day, for instance, or being forced to do the majority of work required for a group assignment.

Conversely, four-year colleges and universities are more likely to attract ambitious and even competitive students when it comes to academics. In turn, classes tend to be filled with lively discussions and debates propelled by students vying for professors’ approval and the grades that come with it.

Conclusion

The debate surrounding community college vs university pros and cons could go on and on. The truth is that there are just as many benefits of community college versus university as there are cons of community college and vice versa. Ultimately, there is only one choice that’s right for you, though. Our advice is to do your research and engage in some serious self-reflection before making that final decision. Ask yourself what you really want to do after graduation and then make two tentative plans—one for community college and one for university. Calculate the costs of each plan as well as the 2-year vs 4-year college pros and cons. Also, don’t forget to factor in the benefits of going to community college then transferring and the drawbacks of this particular approach. And as a final word of advice, don’t let others sway your decision one way or another. Unless they’re an expert in higher education, they really have no business advising you about college plans. After all, it’s your time and money on the line, and in the end, your future!

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Bambi Majumdar
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Julie McCaulley
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