Is a Community College Bachelor’s Degree a Smart Choice?

Updated May 31, 2016 |
Is a Community College Bachelor’s Degree a Smart Choice?
In recent years, community colleges have been granted permission to offer four-year degrees. For some, this represents a great opportunity to get an education at an affordable price. But for others, worry with regard to the quality of these newly established programs is a point of concern.
The lure of an affordable college education brings countless thousands of students just like you to community college campuses each semester. With a greater breadth and depth of course offerings and degree programs available than ever before, community colleges represent an excellent value for many students who seek to build their skills for future educational and career endeavors. Now, in addition to many associate’s degrees and professional certificate programs, community colleges throughout the country are offering select bachelor’s degree programs, furthering the appeal of the community college route. However, despite many advantages to these programs they are not for everyone.
 
Degree Programs Around the Nation
 
The movement to allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees is borne out of the needs of the modern workforce. Education and economic officials recognize that with major gaps in the workforce in the areas of healthcare, energy exploration, and information technology in particular, new workers need to be trained. Community colleges represent an excellent opportunity to train these workers because they are typically at the forefront of educational innovation and are much more able to respond to the changing needs of the workforce than is a four-year institution.
 
This new wave of educational opportunity is present in all corners of the country. More than a dozen community colleges in Washington State now offer baccalaureate degrees. More than two-dozen two-year institutions in Florida offer four-year degree options. Texas, Hawaii, and West Virginia community colleges have gotten on board with offering bachelor’s degree programs as well. In fact, community colleges in 21 states now offer bachelor’s degree programs. With California set to offer such programs in the very near future, that number will soon rise.
Source: Community College Baccalaureate Association (2011)
 
This marks a significant shift for community colleges, which as recently as the 1980s were seen as a bastion for students who couldn’t hack it at a university, or those who needed to pursue job-specific or technical skills in order to procure employment. Now, students are beginning to view community colleges as destination institutions, just like their university big brothers. Before you decide the pathway you will take to earn your bachelor’s degree, consider the advantages and disadvantages of earning that degree from a community college.
 
The Advantages
 
As stated above, the primary benefit of obtaining a bachelor’s degree from a community college is price. According to data from the College Board, the annual cost of in-state tuition and fees at a public two-year college is $3,264. When compared to the average annual in-state tuition and fees at a public four-year university, which in 2013-2014 were $8,893, one can quickly see the value in attending a community college. That value is even more apparent when room and board are factored in. With the addition of those costs, the yearly charge for a  community college student is $10,730, while the average annual cost to a four-year university student is $18,391. At a savings of nearly $8,000 per year, a community college student in a bachelor’s degree program stands to save well over $30,000 over the course of a four-year program. Students that live at home or elsewhere off-campus stand to save even more money.
              Source: The College Board, Annual Survey of Colleges
 
Another bonus for students who take the community college route is more flexible learning options. Both two- and four-year programs offered by community colleges typically cater to non-traditional students who have returned to college as older adults and who have obligations during the day, such as a career or tending to family needs. As a result, community college programs include far more night and weekend classes, as well as online and distance learning options, than do their university counterparts. Even if you are a traditional-aged student, this flexibility is nice when putting together your class schedule.
Adding to the benefit of flexibility is that some community colleges offer a wide array of bachelor’s degree options. At Mesa Community College in Arizona, which is part of the much larger Maricopa County Community College District, dozens of degree options are available, from the arts to languages to kinesiology. In California, where community college students have had access to programs offered by the University of California and California State University systems for years, there will soon be a number of options for obtaining a bachelor’s degree on the campus of local community colleges. California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law legislation that will allow fifteen of the state’s two-year colleges to offer four-year degrees, increasing access for thousands of students to a bachelor’s level education that otherwise might have been unattainable.
 
The affordability of these programs and the ease of access to them is enough to drive up enrollment numbers amongst first generation college students, minorities, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged. For the first time, many of these groups, all of whom remain underrepresented in higher education, have a viable option for obtaining an advanced college degree. But programs like these that offer bachelor’s degrees at community colleges have helped drive up black and Latino college enrollment by 8.5 percent and 22 percent respectively between 2009 and 2011.
Another primary draw of attending a community college is the smaller class sizes. According to the Integrated Post Secondary Education Data System, the average community college class size is between 25-35 students. Similar freshman or sophomore-level courses at a university can have between 150-300 students. Smaller class sizes offer a host of benefits to students, not the least of which is more personal interactions with your classmates and professors. In a smaller class you can expect greater opportunities to ask questions, more chances to participate in class discussions, and have a greater likelihood that a professor will know you by name and know your academic strengths and weaknesses as well. These are all highly attractive benefits for students, but particularly so for those who are first generation students or those who have struggled with academics in the past.
 
Choosing to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a community college also presents you with the advantage of taking courses from professors whose main focus is teaching. At the university level, professors are often required to conduct research as part of their pursuit of tenure, making teaching a secondary activity. Oftentimes, lower level courses aren’t even taught by professors, but their graduate assistants instead. Since community college professors aren’t required to conduct research, you will have far more contact time with them than you would at a university, offering the benefit of more individualized instruction and more detailed feedback on the work you submit.
As mentioned above, community colleges have demonstrated a much greater ability to respond to the needs of a changing workforce than have universities. As a result, the bachelor’s degree programs that are offered at community colleges are, in large part, in career areas that are currently in very high demand. Students who wish to have an excellent chance of having a job immediately upon graduation are flocking to these programs. In fact, students that have already graduated with a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree are returning to community colleges to receive new training in order to get jobs. The opportunities for employment for community college graduates represent an advantage to these programs second only to their affordability.
 
Because these programs are more attuned to the needs of the economy, one-third of students who graduate from community college with a two-year degree make more money upon graduation than do graduates of bachelor degree programs at universities. One can assume that with four-year programs equally as in tune with the needs of the workforce that community college students with a bachelor’s degree stand to make more money than their university counterparts as well. And while the income gap between community college and university graduates narrows over time, the fact remains that community college students spend far less money getting their degree than those who attend a four-year institution.
 
The Disadvantages
 
Yet, while there are an abundance of advantages to obtaining a four-year degree from a community college, there are some disadvantages. While some community colleges offer great variety in their degree programs, at least at this point, the number and type of bachelor’s degree options available at the majority of community colleges in the country remains pretty thin. At Bellevue College in Washington, three of the six bachelor’s degrees are in the healthcare field. Four of the seven bachelor degree options at Santa Fe College in Florida are in the healthcare field as well. At Jackson Community College in Michigan, just one bachelor’s degree program is offered in the field of energy systems. If a student isn’t interested in healthcare, information technology, or energy industry-related fields, finding a bachelor’s degree program at a community college may prove difficult.
 
The limited scope of some community college four-year programs is due to vehement opposition from state universities that community colleges even be allowed to offer bachelor’s degrees. In Colorado, the power to offer four-year degrees at community colleges was given only after they agreed to offer degrees in career and technical fields only, so as to satisfy the University of Colorado and Colorado State University that there wouldn’t be direct competition for students. A similar situation occurred in Michigan, where the state’s public universities led a years-long opposition to bachelor degree programs at community colleges. Although community colleges now have the right to offer such programs, they are limited to just four career-technical fields in that state.
 
This in-fighting between universities and community colleges is reflective of the stigma associated with attending community college. Some in the university ranks look down their noses at students who choose to attend a community college and professors who choose to teach there, even though community colleges have long since shed their identity as a place for the academically challenged. These stigmas also remain present among some people in business and industry that persist in doubting the quality of education that community college graduates receive. With bachelor’s degree programs at community colleges a comparatively new phenomenon, these long-held stigmas are likely to hold more tightly to students who pursue their four-year degrees at two-year institutions. Unfair as it may be, graduates of these programs may find it more difficult to impress job recruiters, particularly in career areas that are typically not a focus of community college programs
Although some programs, particularly those in the career and technical fields, enjoy state-of-the-art facilities at many community colleges, other degree areas do not. This lack of university-level resources should be a consideration for students who are thinking about pursuing their bachelor’s degree at a community college, particularly if the degree area is one that requires research. At St. Petersburg College in Florida, students pursuing their bachelor’s degree in biology don’t have the lab space on campus required to conduct their research. Consequently, they have to rely on field trips to area hospitals and government agencies in order to get their lab work in. A lack of resources like this doesn’t do much to dispel the stigma associated with studying at a community college.
 
Conclusion
 
Going to college requires many important decisions to be made and many important questions to be asked. What should be your major? Where should you attend school? What type of school should you attend? The answers to these questions – and many more – should be carefully considered when making that all-important decision. Yet, now that community colleges are offering bachelor’s degrees, these decisions may well be more difficult to make than ever before.
 
The affordability and flexibility that community colleges offer are undeniable advantages. However, the relatively unproven track record of community college bachelor’s degree programs and their fairly limited scope of areas of study are clear disadvantages. Whatever your choice, treat your college decision as any other major financial purchase. Do your homework. Ask questions. Investigate all the options. Then weigh the pros and cons in order to make the most informed decision you possibly can.

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Degrees

Community colleges have been expanding course and degree offerings. This section provides information on your options, from GED to a bachelor’s degree. Learn how you can benefit from a professional certification, find out which community colleges are offering bachelor’s degrees, and identify the top degree-producing colleges.