What is a Community College?

What is a Community College?
Learn about what community colleges are, how they work, and how they can benefit you.
Ivy Tech Community College

A community college, sometimes known as a junior college is a higher education institution that provides a two-year curriculum that can lead to an associate’s degree. Other programs in place include a transfer program towards a four-year degree and occupational programs, one and two-year programs of study. Besides coursework focusing on academic programs, courses are also often offered at the community college for personal growth or development.

Historically, community colleges sprang up in the early 20th-century as a way to meet young adults’ needs who did not or could not afford to leave their families to pursue further education. Early on, many community colleges helped support African Americans and women who wanted to go to college. Many students prepared for grammar school teaching positions or enrolled in new vocational education programs in community colleges. These smaller schools were developed locally, in communities, further distinguishing them from typical four-year schools which had campuses where students needed to leave home and stay in student dorms.

Traditionally, the community college student went to school to pick up a two-year degree. Now it is quite common for community college students to continue on in their education within a four-year college, thus transferring their community college credits.

In this video, the College Course discusses why you should go to community college before you go to university.

What can you study at a Community College?

Many of the subjects taught in a four-year college are also taught in a community college. Most students attending community colleges pursue the following endeavors:

  • Associate degrees (Two-year degrees).
  • Transfer Programs. A transfer program is a program of study that a student takes while planning to transfer the credits earned to a program within a four-year college. Transfer programs do not necessarily culminate in a 2-year associate degree, hence the distinction.
  • One-year certificates used to certify that the student has a completed a minimum required set of coursework for a chosen vocational field. Examples of one-year certificates offered at Colby Community College in Kansas include the Administrative Medical Assisting Certificate, the Management Certificate, and the Practical Nursing Certificate. Many times, these one-year certificates prepare students for licensure examinations.
  • Career studies (including continuing education coursework).

This short video entitled Why I Love Community College gives you an overview of community colleges.

How do Community Colleges differ from Four Year Colleges?

Two additional differences between community colleges and four-year colleges focus on on-campus living and admissions policies.

Community colleges are not set up so that students can live on campus. Students are expected to live at home with their parents or live on their own in apartments. There is no on-campus housing available on community college campuses. This is markedly different from most four-year colleges where most students, at least lower-level students, live on campus. The exceptions are four-year colleges located in extremely populated cities where their “campus” maybe a city block as opposed to acres of green lawns and dorm buildings.

The second major difference is the admissions policy. Most community colleges have an “open access” policy. While there is an application process, community colleges do not promote a competitive application process. If a student wants to enroll, they generally can. While the open access policy is true for public (i.e. state-run) community colleges, there are privately owned community colleges that may follow their own admissions policies and have other criteria for admissions.

Why attend a Community College?

Consider the following benefits to attending a community college:

  • Cost. On average, attending a community college will be less expensive than attending a four-year college. According to the Educationdata.org, the average annual tuition for a public community college is $3,300 for in-district students and $8,200 for out-of-district students. Shippensburg University, a public four-year university, annual tuition costs approximately $30,000. At Harrisburg Area Community College, a community college about an hour away, tuition costs $20,000. At Dickinson College, a small private college in the area, tuition runs $73,000. Financial aid, scholarships, and grants can lower the cost of higher education. Always ask about financial aid even if you think that you do not qualify.
  • When a student has not picked a major: If the student does not know what he or she wants to do or has not picked a major yet, going to a community college can help them do their general underclass work. They can finish their undergraduate level work without committing themselves to a four-year college that may end up not being the best choice given what they do end up majoring in. Although colleges can be compared one to one, they often have specific reputations for individual programs of study contained within each college or university (i.e. pre-law, pre-med, or engineering programs).
  • When a student needs or wants to attend college part-time. Most community colleges have evening courses for students to attend after work. While private colleges usually expect students to attend full-time, most community colleges have programs in place to accommodate students who must pursue their studies part-time. According to the AACC, 62% of students attending community colleges go part-time with 38% of the student body attending full-time.
  • When a student’s grades from high school are poor: Private and public four-year schools do not have to accept students. Community colleges are generally for everybody (at least the public ones). A student can go to a community college to help build up their GPA and then reapply to a four-year school with a better grade record.
  • When the student wants a career-oriented degree that may not require a four-year degree, a community college may be a faster option: For example, Austin Community College in Texas, provides a one year Texas Peace Officer Certificate (34 credits), an Automotive Brake and Suspension Certificate (24 credits), and a Pharmacy Technician Certificate (24 credits) among many others.

Learn about the benefits of attending community college in this brief video.

Considerations with Attending a Community College

There may be some considerations when community colleges :

  • Students will likely not have an on-campus living experience while attending community college. Some feel that the social atmosphere offered by on-campus living is an integral part of the development and the entire college experience. The student’s ability to make and develop friends may be limited in the community college setting since students go home after classes.
  • Community colleges may not have additional programs like sports, drama and dance groups, marching bands, cheerleading, etc. that one would find with four-year colleges.
  • The student needs to be careful about “Articulation Agreements.” Many students attend community college with the idea that they will transfer after finishing their associate’s degree and continue their education at a four-year college. What they have to watch out for is that all of their coursework is, indeed, transferable and will be counted as required credits at their target transfer college. The College Board explains that the Articulation Agreement is the agreement that four-year schools often have with community colleges which outlines that once the student has successfully finished their transfer program at the two-year college, they will be accepted into the four-year school as a junior. These agreements are routinely updated so do not rely on old information when planning which community/four-year college to go to. For example, Shippensburg University has an Academic Passport Program with 23 community colleges nearby in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey. This means if a student wants to maximize the number of credits that they complete at the community college which will convey over to Shippensburg University, they should probably limit their community college to one of the 23 that has an “Academic Passport Program” with Shippensburg.


Ultimately, both community colleges and four-year colleges offer students choices to pursue continuing education in whatever format that makes sense for them. Knowing what is available and how community colleges are different from four-year colleges can help potential students make smart decisions regarding their education.

Questions? Contact us on Facebook. @communitycollegereview

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