What is a Community College: All You Need to Know

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Group of students laughing

What is a Community College: All You Need to Know

What Is a Community College?

What is a community college? Community colleges, also known as junior colleges, are institutions of higher education that provide affordable and accessible education to a wide range of students. These colleges offer a variety of academic and vocational courses designed to prepare students for transfer to four-year colleges or universities or for direct entry into the workforce.

Community colleges provide educational opportunities to students who want to further their education but may need more financial resources to attend a traditional four-year university. The great news is that some community colleges in the United States provide free tuition.

As of 2022, 20 states offer tuition-free community college, which means that if you live in that state and meet specific requirements, you can attend classes for free. However, you may still be responsible for other expenses such as housing, books, and transportation.

Community colleges offer associate degree programs, certificate programs, and transfer programs that allow students to complete the first two years of their undergraduate education before transferring to a four-year university.

Female students smiling at the camera.

Community colleges provide a supportive environment, flexible schedules, and various programs to help students achieve their academic and career goals.

Whether you want to complete your first two years of college before transferring to a four-year university or pursuing a vocational program, a community college may be an excellent option.

What Is the Difference Between a Community College and a University?

Regarding higher education in the United States, two popular options for students. While both types of institutions offer degree programs and educational opportunities, there are key differences between community colleges and universities that students should consider before deciding.

a student smiling while holding her phone

So, what is the difference between a community college and a university? Let’s explore the main differences between community colleges and universities in the USA.

Degree Programs

One of the most significant differences between the two is the degree programs they offer. Community colleges primarily offer two-year associate degree programs and certificate programs.

Meanwhile, students at four-year universities spend their first two years taking general education requirements, also known as “gen-eds,” such as math or history, regardless of their field of study. You will not begin to focus on your upper-level requirements for your chosen degree program until your third and fourth years.

Students who begin their studies at a community college are prepared to enter university at the junior level, which means they only need two more years to earn a bachelor’s degree. Universities also offer master’s degrees and doctorate degrees.


Another difference between community colleges and universities is their size. It is generally smaller institutions with a smaller student body. This means that class sizes are typically smaller, and students may receive more personalized attention from their instructors. Universities, on the other hand, are larger institutions with a larger student body. This can mean larger class sizes, but also a wider variety of course offerings and research opportunities.


Along with degree programs, the most prominent difference between community colleges and universities is most likely the cost. It is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a school.

Students working on a project.

It cost less than universities. According to the College Board, the average annual tuition and fees for a public two-year college are $3,440. On the other hand, the average annual cost of a public four-year university for in-state students is $9,410 and $23,890 for out-of-state students. A private four-year university will cost you $32,410 in tuition and fees per year.

Academic Rigor

The academic rigor of community colleges and universities can also differ. Universities are generally more academically rigorous than community colleges. This is because universities offer more advanced degree programs and are more research-focused. This can be beneficial for students who are seeking a more challenging academic environment, but it can also be more demanding and require a greater time commitment.

Admission Requirements

Community colleges typically have much less stringent admission requirements than universities. Many schools have open admission policies, which means that high school graduates who apply to community colleges are accepted. However, specific community college programs such as nursing, law enforcement, allied health, and engineering technology may have more stringent admission requirements.

Universities are much more selective when it comes to admissions, so you should be prepared to do more than just apply. Many universities have numerous admission requirements that include taking specific courses and earning specific grades in high school, completing essay questions, receiving a minimum ACT or SAT score, and other factors.

Housing and Dining Conditions

Another significant distinction between community colleges and universities is in their living arrangements. University dorms and on-campus apartment complexes are almost always available at universities, whereas the latter does not provide student housing.

Meal plans are also available at most universities. This on-campus living raises the overall cost of school and is known as room and board. Meanwhile, students attending community colleges frequently live at home and commute to school, which can save money. Some community college students, on the other hand, relocate closer to campus, leaving them responsible for food and rent.


If you have children or work more than a part-time job, community college is your best option. Traditional schools often do not permit scheduling flexibility. It provides far more evening and online classes than traditional colleges.

In addition, students at community colleges can move at their own pace. In universities, taking a full course load is advised if your goal is to graduate early or in four years.

Community colleges and universities in the US offer different educational opportunities and experiences. Community colleges are more affordable, offer two-year associate degree programs and certificate programs, and are designed to prepare students for employment or transfer to a four-year university. Universities offer more advanced degree programs, a wider range of courses and research opportunities, and are generally more academically rigorous.

Ultimately, the decision between community college and university will depend on a student’s individual goals, preferences, and financial situation.

Why Do Students Attend Community Colleges?

Community colleges have become a popular choice for students seeking higher education. These institutions offer a variety of programs, including technical, vocational, and academic courses, at an affordable cost compared to traditional four-year universities.

Some students and parents might still wonder, “Why do students attend community colleges?” Let’s explore some of the common reasons why students attend these colleges and what they can offer.


One of the primary reasons why students attend community colleges is affordability. It is generally more affordable than four-year universities. As discussed earlier, cost roughly one-third of in-state tuition at four-year public universities.

Moreover, some states even provide free community college tuition through state-funded grants and scholarships. The students are also eligible for the same types of federal and state financial aid as four-year college students, including Pell Grants and subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans.

For students who are concerned about the cost of higher education, community colleges can be an attractive option.


Another reason why students attend community colleges is transferability. Many community colleges have transfer agreements with four-year universities that ensure a smooth transition for students who plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree. It is designed to prepare students for transfer to a four-year university, and many offer transfer programs that are specifically designed to meet the requirements of four-year universities.

This can be beneficial for students who want to save money on the first two years of their undergraduate education or who want to explore different academic interests before committing to a specific degree program.

Flexible Scheduling

It offers flexible scheduling, which can be helpful for students who have work or family responsibilities. They offer day, evening, and weekend classes, as well as online courses that allow students to complete their coursework at their own pace. This flexibility can be beneficial for students who need to balance their studies with other commitments.

Gen Z College Students

Career Preparation

It offers a wide range of vocational programs that prepare students for specific professions. Instead of a bachelor’s degree, these programs typically award diplomas or certificates to ensure students’ experience and ability.

It offers vocational programs in fields such as nursing, automotive technology, culinary arts, and many others.

Supportive Environment

Finally, it provides a supportive environment for students.  The community college is well-known for its smaller, more intimate setting. There are fewer students, school organizations, and campus activities. This means that every learner has a better chance of being recognized or participating in the club of their choice.

Community colleges also have a range of student support services such as academic advising, tutoring, and counseling, which can help students succeed academically and personally.

There are many reasons why students choose to attend these colleges. Whether you are looking to complete your first two years of college before transferring to a four-year university, pursue a vocational program, or simply explore your academic interests, a community college may be the right choice for you.

How to Choose the Best Community College for You?

Choosing the right college can be a challenging task for many students. With so many options available, it can be overwhelming to determine which institution best fits one’s academic, financial, and personal goals. However, finding the right community college is crucial in setting a strong foundation for one’s educational and professional journey.

So, how to choose the best community college for you? You must consider various factors, such as program offerings, location, tuition fees, campus culture, and resources available. Here’s a quick guide to what factors to look out for in choosing a community college.

Consider Your Academic Goals

The first step in choosing the best college for you is to consider your academic goals. What degree or certificate program do you want to pursue? Does the institution offer that program, and is it accredited? You should also consider the quality of the academic programs and the qualifications of the faculty. Look for community colleges that have experienced and well-qualified instructors who are passionate about teaching.

Location and Accessibility

Another important factor to consider when choosing a community college is location and accessibility. Look for colleges that are located near your home or work, or have good transportation options. If you plan to transfer to a four-year university, consider community colleges that have transfer agreements with universities in the area. Also, make sure that it offers the classes you need at times that are convenient for you.

Cost and Financial Aid

Cost is also an important consideration when choosing a community college. Look for colleges that offer affordable tuition rates and fees, and consider the availability of financial aid and scholarships.

Many of these colleges offer financial assistance to students who demonstrate financial need, and some have scholarship programs for high-achieving students. You can also check colleges in your state that offer free tuition for students.

Be sure to research the costs and financial aid options at different colleges to find the one that fits your budget.

Campus Life and Extracurricular Activities

While academics are important, campus life and extracurricular activities can also play a significant role in your college experience. Look for colleges that offer a variety of clubs and organizations that align with your interests. Some colleges also offer athletic programs, arts programs, and other extracurricular activities that can help you meet new people and develop new skills. Additionally, visit the campus to understand the community and campus culture.

Support Services

One overlooked factor in considering a community college is its range of support services for students. These may include academic advising, tutoring, counseling, and career services. Support services can be vital for first-generation college students or students who face academic or personal challenges. Look for colleges that strongly commit to student success and offer the resources and support you need to achieve your goals.

Choosing the best community college for you requires careful consideration of various factors. By conducting research, assessing personal goals and preferences, and planning, students can select an institution that best fits their needs and maximizes their potential for success.

To help you through this college preparation process, AdmissionSight is one click away. As one of the country’s leading college admissions consulting companies, we assist hundreds of students get into their top-choice schools every year.

College admissions do not need to be a daunting task! Consult AdmissionSight today to start your college application journey.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up now to receive insights on
how to navigate the college admissions process.