Here at CollegeVine, we’re focused primarily on helping high school students successfully navigate the process of applying to four-year colleges and universities. Most of the advice you’ll find posted on the CollegeVine blog applies to this more traditional college-application scenario.
Obviously, however, four-year colleges aren’t the only option available to you when it comes to continuing your education after high school. Community colleges, public institutions that offer up to two years of study, are quite popular across the United States due to their accessibility, affordability, and convenience in location and scheduling.
Attending a community college may not be your first choice after high school, and it might even be one that you’d never thought to consider. However, the future isn’t always predictable. Whether community college is your top choice or not, it’s wise to make sure you understand what this option entails in case you want or need to pursue it later on.
Read on to learn more about what defines a community college, the pros and cons of the community-college experience, and how to decide whether community college is the right choice for you.
Intro: The Basics of Community College
Community colleges, as defined in the United States, are publicly funded post-secondary educational institutions designed to make college-level classes accessible to a wider range of people. These schools are located within the communities they serve and are typically much more affordable than other colleges, even other public schools.
Most community colleges don’t award bachelor’s degrees, but do offer the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree after the equivalent of two years of full-time study. They might also offer professional training and certification programs. Often, however, you don’t have to be officially enrolled in a degree program in order to take courses there.
The experience of attending a community college is usually quite different from that of attending a more traditional four-year college. Instead of joining a matriculating class of students who are roughly your age and progressing toward a bachelor’s degree on a relatively predictable timetable, you’ll attend classes alongside people of many different ages and backgrounds who are pursuing a wide range of different educational paths.
Compared to traditional four-year colleges, community colleges are more often designed to accommodate working adults in addition to full-time students. For example, you might find classes offered in the evening to accommodate students’ work schedules. On-campus housing and the type of student-life amenities available at four-year colleges are less commonly offered at community colleges.
In keeping with their commitment to accessibility, most community colleges have an open-enrollment policy, meaning that anyone can sign up for classes there. (Prerequisites or special requirements may apply for certain specific courses.) Enrolling in a certificate or degree program may require a nominal application, but these are much less demanding than the typical four-year college application.
Since community colleges usually don’t offer four-year degrees, if you want to get your bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to transfer to another college to complete your education. Each four-year college has its own process for evaluating transfer applicants and deciding whether the credits you earned at community college will count toward their degree programs.
Why might you consider community college?
Attending a community college isn’t the most glamorous option when it comes to your educational plans after high school, and some students may dismiss it as a possibility for this reason. It’s not as exciting as attending a well-known school and traveling far away to study, and planning to transfer later on means you’ll have to go through the application process all over again, which is no fun.
However, there’s a lot that’s commendable about community colleges. In particular, the community college option can be a solution to a number of different practical situations you might run into during application season.
One of these situations can occur when all your colleges have made admissions decisions. When the news isn’t good, you may be left scrambling for appealing options, and community college can present itself as a way to continue your education despite these obstacles.
Maybe you weren’t admitted anywhere, as we describe in our post What If I Wasn’t Accepted to Any College?, or the schools that did accept you don’t seem attractive by the time you needed to make your matriculation decision. Maybe you were admitted to a college you loved, but didn’t receive the financial aid you needed to make that a viable option. (If you’re in this situation, check out our post You Were Accepted to Your Dream College, but Can’t Afford It… Now What? for more advice.)
Cost can be a factor in a more general sense as well, since community colleges are widely known to be relatively inexpensive. With college costs rising every year, you and your family may be attracted to community college in hopes of reducing the overall expense incurred in the process of getting your bachelor’s degree.
If your high school record is lacking in particular ways, you might consider community college as an opportunity to improve your grades, extracurricular activities, writing skills, or whatever else might have held you back. These improvements can help you get accepted to a better school as a transfer than you might have been accepted to in your initial round of applications.
Finally, you may be interested in community college because you’re not sure yet what educational path you want to pursue. First-year college applicants are quite young, and it’s understandable that some simply don’t know what they want to do next. If you’re in this position, you may be reluctant to commit to a four-year college. (Your family may also be reluctant to help you pay for college if your future goals aren’t yet clear.) Community college can provide an interim solution.
Making a Decision: The Pros and Cons of Community College
If you’re potentially interested in community college, the next step is to look into the practical details of whether the experience will meet your needs. Below, you’ll find an overview of the major pros and cons of attending community college.
Obviously, every school is different, and you should conduct more in-depth research on any particular community college before you decide to attend. However, these lists can provide some guidance regarding what issues you should consider.
Community colleges have long been referred to as commuter campuses, and that term infers that students simply drive to campus to attend class and then leave. While that may have been the case 10 years ago, it isn’t anymore. In fact, many two-year schools have a boisterous student life and presence on campus that can oftentimes rival that of a four-year college. Exploring student life at a community college may put you more at ease with considering one during your college search.
Clubs and Organizations
Like universities, community colleges offer students the opportunity to gather with other students that share the same interests and passions. These clubs and organizations range from religious and cultural groups to creative writing and journalism workshops to chess clubs and meets. Additionally, community college students have the chance to be invested in the student governance of their campus through elections for.
Phi Theta Kappa has a presence on just about every community college campus. This prestigious international fraternity recognizes students at two-year institutions who excel academically. Students can be involved in as much or as little as they please, and like any other club and organization at a community college, it’s a great addition to a student’s resume.
It should be added here that community colleges have an open policy to student clubs and organizations, meaning that students can start their own clubs whenever they wish. It typically has to go through a submission and review process, but given that community colleges want to offer the same environment to students as four-year universities are able to, it’s easy to start an organization.
Diverse Student Body
U.S. News and World Report states that the number of students attending community college has jumped from 5.5 million students in 2000 to over 8 million for the 2010 – 2011 school year. Given those figures, you can imagine the diversity within the student body at community colleges across the country. We’re not just talking ethnic diversity either.
Community colleges aren’t just hubs of learning for students ages 18 – 24; it’s just as much a learning institution for returning students who are either looking to make a career change, unemployed and hoping to acquire further marketable skills, or simply going back to school for the sake of knowledge. This type of diversity is a real benefit to those students that do attending community college just after high school. Not only do they receive the benefit of learning from their professors but from the experience of other students too.
What may surprise you most about the community at two-year colleges is that there is an opportunity to not only support but potentially play a sport you’re passionate about. Two-year colleges are part of the National Junior College Athletic Association, which is the governing body of athletics at hundreds of community colleges across the country.
This network provides students who want to continue playing a sport after college the opportunity to do so as well as gives other students at the community college a chance to cheer on and support their fellow students in sports that they love to watch. These athletic teams play others in their area, guaranteeing a spirit of competitiveness that is seen at four-year colleges and universities as well.
Whether you want to play a sport, have a say in the dynamics of your campus or meet with other students who have a deep appreciation for film, community colleges pave a way for you to do it all. Just because you attend a community college doesn’t mean you won’t have an opportunity to experience the rich student life you hear about at four-year colleges. In fact, you’ll find it’s quite the opposite.
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