Education

Should I attend a community college? These students look happy with their choice.

Is Attending Community College the Right Choice for You?

You’ve graduated high school. You’d like a college degree for career options it will provide, but where should you go? You may find yourself asking, “Is Attending Community College the Right Choice?”

For many students, the prospect of attending a community college competes with thoughts of entering the workforce immediate after high school graduation or attending a 4-year College or University in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. Is attending a community college the right choice for you? Whether the goal is working as soon as possible or attaining a 4-year degree, attending a community college is a worthwhile consideration as it can help with either goal, so start by considering the pros and cons.

Pros of attending community college

Cost Savings

Students can expect to pay less than half the going rate at a 4-year university when they instead enroll in a 2-year college.  A 2022 study by the National Center for Education Statistics looked at the cost of tuition at 2-year and 4-year schools, and the results from the 2021-22 academic year showed an average annual savings of almost $6,000 for the 2-year school students ($3,970 vs. 9,678).  You don’t need to pass Economics 101 to realize the significant value represented here.  And these costs don’t include the potential interest paid on student loans.

Smaller class sizes

Community Colleges frequently offer class sizes between 15-30 students, and this helps to create a more interactive, student-focused approach to classes.  Freshman- and sophomore-level classes at 4-year colleges and universities, however, can often feature classes with hundreds of students necessitating a more traditional lecture-based approach.  Institutional size can affect class size, of course, but community colleges will consistently provide a lower student-to-faculty ratio.

Program Variety

For students planning to earn a baccalaureate degree, the pros and cons of starting at a two-year school are worth exploring, but for students who are interested in earning a certificate and/or an Associates of Applied Science (AAS) degree and entering the workforce as soon as possible, community colleges are clearly the best game in town.  With Career and Technical Education (CTE) options ranging from Automotive to Welding, Agriculture to Surgical Technology, community colleges are uniquely positioned to help students enter the workforce quickly in a highly skilled field.  Faculty in these programs are industry professionals, and most programs work with advisory boards made up of other industry professionals in the community.  Students benefit from up-to-date curriculum created and delivered by those most familiar with the profession.

Excellent Teaching

To highlight the excellent teaching that takes place at a community college is not to denigrate the teaching at a 4-year institution.  There are, of course, outstanding faculty across the landscape of higher education.  Sometimes 2-years schools still carry an unwarranted stigma of providing a lower quality of education, however, and it is simply not true.  Consider these two distinctions: First, introductory classes at 4-year institutions are often taught by graduate assistants who are still working on their own degrees.  It is not uncommon for a student in a Master’s degree program to teach a freshman class as part of their graduate program.

At a 2-year institution, however, a completed Master’s degree is a minimum requirement for most non-CTE courses.  And for CTE courses, instructors have hands-on experience and expertise in their fields. Second, faculty at community colleges are unlikely to have a research component as part of their job description; rather, their primary focus is expected to be classroom instruction.  With tenure-track faculty at 4-year schools expected to research and publish regularly as part of their job, the teaching assignments in freshman- and sophomore-level courses are more likely to be supplemented with, or delegated to, graduate assistants.

Transfer Alignment

When it comes to Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS) degrees, community colleges understand that many students intend to transfer to a 4-year school to continue working toward a Bachelor’s degree.  Classes are designed with transfer in mind, and many 2-year and 4-year schools partner on “articulation agreements” where students have a transfer guarantee within a specific program or major if they successfully complete their Associate’s degree work.  Transfers between community colleges are typically smooth as well, although students are always wise to keep copies of course catalog descriptions and/or course syllabi in case they need to advocate for credits to transfer when course titles are not an obvious match.

Higher Earning Potential

If your goal is to enter the workforce as soon as possible, investing time in your Associate’s degree will pay off in the long run. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings in 2017 for a worker with a high school diploma was $712. However, with an Associate’s degree that amount jumped to $836 per week. That a difference of $6,488 dollars per year. If that doesn’t seem like much on a per year basis, consider it over the course of a 40-year career: $257,920. And for certificate program, in a field like automotive repair or welding, the training at a community college is often a minimum for even entering the field.

Cons of attending a community college

More part-time instructors

While it is true that students are more likely to encounter a graduate assistant teaching a first- or second-year class at a 4-year school, most two-year schools rely heavily on a part-time workforce of faculty.  These instructors, often referred to as adjunct, affiliate or contingent faculty, typically have the same education credentials as their full-time counterparts, but their part-time status means they are less likely to have dedicated office space and they are more likely to experience a high rate of turnover.  Overall, part-time faculty positions make up more than half of all faculty appointments in higher education – 2-year and 4-years schools combined – but the percentage is highest at community colleges.

Lack of on-campus housing

Many community colleges are considered “commuter campuses,” which means that they don’t have on-campus housing options.  This often creates an atmosphere where students are on campus only for their class time. Therefore, students are less likely to take advantage of support services and to form peer bonds that can increase college engagement and provide positive peer pressure.

Fewer social benefits

Another effect of commuter campuses is that students miss out on the social elements that come from living on campus and having a full immersion in the college environment.  Athletic opportunities are still fairly common (about half of community colleges field athletic teams), but the “fan” experience is a far cry from what one can experience at a large state university, for example.  And if you are interested in joining a sorority or fraternity, you’ll want to consider a 4-year college or university.  Overall, living on a campus with full amenities is a unique opportunity that many students equate to “the college experience.”

Conclusion

For many students, attending a community college is probably the best decision. The cost savings is significant. Also, the quality of instruction is terrific. Locking in a two-year degree on the way to a four-year degree provides a safety net. Finally, the ability to transfer credits to a university means you can still get the prestige of a Bachelor’s degree from a desired university while still realizing the benefits of two years at community college.

Are you a prospective student or parent weighing this decision? Or are you a college graduate with an opinion on this? Please feel free to share in the comments.

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