According to The Institute for College Access and Success, in 2015, the average university student graduated with $28,950 in student loan debt. A 2016 report by Forbes found that the average graduate in 2016 left school with over $37,000 in student loans.
This level of debt holds many people back from getting married, buying a house, or starting a family. There’s also a high risk of default; new data from the Brookings Institution estimates that 40% of borrowers will default on their student loans by 2023.
However, you still want and need a great education. So, what are you supposed to do?
You might find the answer at your local community college. Attending a community college for two years is a great way to reduce the costs of a college education and avoid some student loan debt. But is this choice right for you? Let’s look at what a community college offers, as well as the pros and cons of going this route.
Community College Degrees
A community college, also called a junior college, offers students a two-year degree known as an associate degree. There are four types of associate degrees, each of which helps you prepare for a different academic field and occupation. Some are meant to be transferred to a four-year institution, while others are career-specific and help prepare you for employment right after you obtain your degree.
1. Associate of Arts (A.A.)
A.A. degrees focus on general education and liberal arts. They’re typically in fields like English, history, economics, fine art, music, psychology, and sociology. They are considered a “transfer degree.” You have to take general education courses, but your electives build a strong foundation in subjects such as communication, natural science, history, art, and music.
2. Associate of Applied Arts (A.A.A.)
An A.A.A. degree has similar requirements to an A.A. degree, but the focus is more vocational. You would pursue an A.A.A. degree if you were serious about working as an artist, perhaps in advertising, and had no plans to transfer to a four-year institution. Your electives in this field would be more career-specific, such as advanced graphic design classes or art education.
3. Associate of Science (A.S.)
Like an A.A. degree, an A.S. degree is considered a transfer degree. The A.S. degree prepares you for fields such as medicine, engineering, computer science, and business. While you’ll still have to take general education courses, your electives are focused more on science and math.
4. Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.)
An A.A.S. degree is more career-focused and, like an A.A.A. degree, is not designed to be transferred. This degree prepares you for employment immediately upon graduation. You would pursue an A.A.S. degree if you were interested in working as a chef, an early childhood educator, a medical assistant, or a welder. While many community colleges offer A.A.S. degree programs, they’re more common at technical colleges.
Community colleges also offer professional certificates. Obtaining professional certification from a community college can be a great way to change careers or increase your earning potential. Another benefit is that community colleges often customize their professional certification programs to fit the needs of businesses in the local economy. This means that, upon graduation, you can enter the workforce with knowledge and skills that are in high demand.
Professional certifications you can pursue at community college include:
- Medical coding
- Real estate
- Infant/toddler specialist for early childhood education
- Solar panel installation
- Electrical systems
- Child nutrition
- Digital video
- Alcohol and drug abuse counseling
- Apple iOS developer
- CAD technician
- Hospitality management
- Automotive repair
- Digital photography
- Fashion merchandising
- Wind turbine repair
- Network security
Information technology is one field where you can earn dozens of different certifications, from programming to networking to security. Electronics and aviation are two others where certification can make a huge difference in your employability because, in these fields, experience matters. Employers want recruits who keep up with their industry and demonstrate a desire to keep learning and honing their skills.
Benefits of Community College
Community colleges give students a lot of options when it comes to degrees and career training. Here are some other benefits.
1. Lower Tuition & Fees
No matter which college you attend or which major you choose, your first two years will mainly consist of the same set of classes.
For example, every freshman and sophomore has to take English 101, a natural science class such as biology or chemistry, U.S. history or civics, and a college-level math class. At a typical university, you’ll pay $400 to $600 or more per credit hour for these basic classes, which means each one will cost you $1,200 to $1,800. Community colleges typically charge $45 to $250 per credit hour, depending on where you go and your residency status. So, if your local community college charges $125 per credit hour, each class will cost you $375, which means you’re saving up to $1,425 per class. That adds up fast.
Attending a community college for two years enables you to get all your basic classes out of the way while saving a significant amount of money. This, in turn, reduces the amount of money you’ll have to borrow when you transfer to a four-year school. And you can still apply for scholarships and financial aid for community college, which will further lower your attendance cost.
Financial aid isn’t keeping pace with the rising cost of tuition. According to research cited by Forbes, grant aid to undergraduate students increased by an average of $1,020 in the 2011 to 2012 school year, as well as the 2016 to 2017 school year. However, tuition fees plus room and board increased by an average of $1,910. Attending a community college first can help you shave tens of thousands of dollars off the cost of your degree, even with a financial aid package.
2. Opportunity to Improve Your Transcript
You know you should apply for college scholarships to help offset the high cost of tuition. However, if your high school transcript is less than rosy, you won’t qualify for most scholarships. That’s where community college can help. Achieving straight A’s in a community college can help you earn scholarships that previously wouldn’t have been available to you.
Furthermore, if you aspire to attend a prestigious private university but weren’t accepted out of high school, attending a community college may help your chance at admission. Not only will you get a second chance to achieve a stellar transcript, but you’ll also have a better chance to be accepted as a junior than as a freshman since there’s less competition.
3. Lower Living Costs
When you head off to college, tuition isn’t the only cost you have to consider. You also have to consider the extra costs of gas, car maintenance, and other living expenses. If your dream school is in another state, moving and finding an apartment to rent or paying for a dorm room is a significant expense.
Attending community college for two years means you might be able to live at home, saving hundreds each month on rent and utility expenses. Sure, it’s not as exciting as living in a dorm and attending frat parties, but neither is graduating with $40,000 in student loan debt.
4. Greater Flexibility
Imagine paying a hefty price tag at a private university, only to realize that the major you originally declared isn’t really what you want to do. While you can change your major, you might be surprised to learn that many of the classes you’ve already taken won’t count toward your new one. That’s a lot of money, and a lot of time, down the drain.
A community college gives you a chance to test the waters at a drastically lower cost than a four-year university. You can explore different classes or fields to determine if you really want to pursue your chosen major. You might even discover that college isn’t really for you, and you’d rather attend a technical college or enter a high-paying field that doesn’t require a college degree.
Attending a community college for the first two years is especially beneficial for recent high school graduates because a lot of personal growth and maturation occurs the first few years after graduation. During this transition, many young students learn time management and motivation skills. They learn how to juggle multiple responsibilities, persevere through tough challenges, and develop self-discipline.
You can learn the same lessons at a four-year university, but there are many more distractions that can take your focus away from academic and personal growth. At a community college, it’s often easier to learn how to be a good student.
5. Easier to Work
According to the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University, 69% of community college students work while they attend school, and 33% work more than 35 hours per week. Many students also have children, which means they’re juggling classes as well as parenting responsibilities.
Community colleges understand that their students need flexibility, which is why they offer more night and weekend classes than you’ll find at a four-year school. If you need to work while in school or take classes around your child’s school schedule, you’ll have a lot more options at a community college.
Community college also gives you the opportunity to earn an associate degree before you transfer to another school, which can lead to higher earnings. According to a report published by the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment, associate degree-holders earn $4,640 to $7,160 more per year than those who attend community college but don’t obtain a degree.
This means that if you need to continue working while you obtain your bachelor’s degree, you’re in a better position to earn more per year. This income boost can further help you pay for school and graduate with less debt.
6. More Support
Basic courses at a four-year school often have 150 to 300 students, while the same class at a community college may have 25 to 35 students. That gives students more opportunities to interact with their professors or ask for help if they need it, leading to deeper engagement and greater success in school overall.
Many tenured professors at four-year schools do research or have to meet publishing commitments as part of their employment contract. Professors at two-year schools often have fewer students per semester, so you’re more likely to receive help and support because they have more time to give.
7. High-Quality Professors
Some people assume that community college professors are lower-quality than those at four-year institutions. This is a myth. Community colleges are full of highly qualified, talented professors, and there are many reasons why they choose to teach at a community college rather than a university.
One reason is flexibility. Many community college professors also work as consultants, writers, or artists, or are employed in high-level positions at major corporations. They love teaching but also want to pursue their own work and interests. Community college gives them that opportunity.
Some professors prefer the diversity of a community college. Ron Roberson, vice president of academic affairs at Howard Community College, told The Washington Post, “I was very interested in teaching a broader spectrum of people. This is more challenging, it’s also very rewarding … because I’m here, people will succeed who otherwise would not.” At a community college, professors have the opportunity to work one-on-one with students who need their help. It’s a way for them to connect with others and make a real difference.
The challenges these professors face are real. Community college students often have to balance school with jobs and families. They come from diverse academic backgrounds, which requires adapting teaching strategies on the fly. Many professors find such a challenging environment stimulating, and it helps them keep their skills sharp.
Drawbacks of Community College
Of course, there are also drawbacks to attending a community college.
1. Limited Course Offerings
The CCRC states that 81% of community college students intend to transfer to a four-year university upon graduation. Knowing this, community colleges offer a high number of basic classes that will easily transfer to a four-year school. While this is great for students, the downside is that you probably won’t find many unique or field-specific classes like you would at a four-year school.
2. Lack of Campus Life
At a four-year school, the campus hums with activity. There are sports teams to support, clubs and activities to attend, study groups to join, and plenty of opportunities to meet new people because, well, you live there.
Community colleges often don’t have the “college atmosphere” of a four-year school because students don’t live on campus or spend a great deal of time there. Most students have part- or full-time jobs, so they attend classes and then leave. This often results in a lack of engagement. Many two-year schools work hard to create a fun atmosphere for students, but the reality is that it just isn’t the same.
However, U.S. News & World Report states that almost 25% of community colleges nationwide now provide on-campus housing for students. They’re also creating dining halls and providing other services to further the college experience and build a campus culture. If you’re lucky enough to live near one of these schools, you might be able to get the best of both worlds: low-cost tuition with a four-year school experience.
3. Transfer Snafus
Most community colleges have transfer agreements with local four-year universities to ensure that students won’t lose their credits when they switch schools.
The problem is that, unless you do your research, you might end up taking some classes that aren’t at a four-year school, or you might finish a class with a C grade when your dream school requires at least a B for those credits to transfer.
Always talk to a guidance counselor at your community college to find out which classes will transfer easily to the four-year school you have in mind and, just as importantly, what final grade is required for those credits to be accepted.
4. Fewer Networking Opportunities
Both community colleges and four-year universities have career placement centers and programs. However, in some fields, networking plays a key role in your success. For example, art or music majors often depend on their professors for recommendations in the professional field or to help them secure engagements that lead to greater exposure for their work. These recommendations depend on strong relationships. Students who transfer to a four-year school after attending a two-year college have less time to build these important relationships. This could limit your opportunities, or at least slow your progress, in some fields.
That said, there can be plenty of networking opportunities at a community college, and you might find that these opportunities change your life. I spent several years at a community college after I graduated high school, and my time there affected the entire course of my life. One of my English professors got me my first freelancing job and, as a successful freelancer herself, showed me that it was possible to earn a good living as a writer. My journalism professor created a position for me at the student paper and somehow found money in the scant budget to pay me, which further helped hone my skills and build my portfolio. He became a trusted mentor, and we’re still friends today.
The two of them opened doors for me that directly helped my career, doors that might have been harder to open at a larger school. Thanks to their example, support, and encouragement, I’ve built a successful freelancing career that’s still going 20 years later. Needless to say, I think community colleges offer students a number of unique benefits, one being the chance to develop life-changing relationships with your professors.
Community college can be a perfect choice for students who wish to save money and reduce their dependence on student loans. It’s also a good way to help recent high school graduates ease into college life and build successful learning strategies before they transfer to a bigger — and more expensive — institution.
However, your success at community college depends on the type of experience you want. If you’re looking to have a real “college” experience, then attending a two-year school might not be right for you.
Did you attend a community college? How has your experience benefited your life and career? Was there anything you didn’t like?