Community College vs University: Where Should You Start

Quenosha Payton

Sometimes, the hardest part about deciding which college to attend isn’t which degree to pursue, but rather which route to take to get there. Many students start their college search with the idea that a four-year university is their only option, and for some, the decision is as simple as choosing a parent’s alma mater.

For others, however, this decision requires much more consideration: what about finances? Will you attend a community college first, or are you ready to take on the full course load of a four-year university right away? Every student’s life, experiences, and goals are different, which means that no route to a degree is one-size-fits-all.

Here are some tips that can help you determine what’s right for you!

Difference Between Community College and University

Community College Pros and Cons

Community colleges, often referred to as two-year colleges, typically have small campuses and offer a low student-to-teacher ratio. That means you won’t see many classrooms with 200-300 students, and your professor might actually know you by name!

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Some choose to begin higher education at a two-year college because the tuition and fees are more affordable than a traditional university, and the level of coursework isn’t usually as overwhelming. That said, many universities do offer free tutoring for almost all introductory courses—a benefit that could be less common at a community college.

Unless your ACT/SAT scores place you in higher-level classes, your first year of undergraduate classes are likely to be the same regardless of whether you attend a two-year college or four-year university. So why not attend a less expensive community college to earn these identical credits toward your degree? Your wallet will thank you!

Just be sure to check the transfer students’ page on your destination school’s website; as long as your credits transfer between your two-year college and chosen four-year university, this cost-efficient strategy can be a great option. Do your research and see which community colleges have transfer agreements with the four-year college you want to attend.

One trap that transfer students can fall into is coming to a four-year school with a bunch of previous credits that don’t transfer with them. If your credits don’t end up counting toward your desired degree, you could put yourself at risk of exhausting your federal financial aid.

Although two-year colleges are priced well, they do pose limitations. One potentially crucial shortcoming has to do with living arrangements. Community colleges are set up to be low-cost commuter schools, so they don’t always provide on-campus living accommodations. If you don’t live nearby and lack reliable transportation, a two-year college may not be the best choice for you.

Another drawback is the lack of attendance and participation in extracurricular activities. While two-year colleges tend to have organizations, clubs, and activities that are similar to those at traditional four-year universities, most students’ focus on their classes and employment outside of school often leaves them with little time to attend or participate in hosted activities. As a result, your two years could limit you from building the credentials that would otherwise make your college application more attractive to admissions counselors.

With regard to enrollment, it’s important to keep in mind that two-year colleges are often lenient and have open admission policies that allow them to accept any high school graduate. But if you’re looking to transfer from a two-year college to a four-year university, you’ll need to get involved, work hard in class, and make sure your credits transfer.

Many two-year colleges offer associate’s degrees and vocational programs based on area industry needs. And this is where a good school counselor can be of help. Work with your counselor and let them know whether your course in community college is for a specific job, skill, two-year degree, or transfer to a university. You can be best advised when your counselor has your goal in mind.

Two-year colleges can also be especially beneficial for students who are unsure of what to study. The smaller the school, the more opportunity and flexibility you have to change your major.

While transferring from community college to a traditional institution has plenty of advantages, there are several benefits to keep in mind about going straight to a four-year university. For example, courses at traditional colleges may be more expensive, but they are often more varied. A broader array of resources allow students in four-year institutions to explore electives and other classes outside of their major. In fact, getting involved in electives can be extremely influential in what you want to do in the future.

4-Year University Pros and Cons

Four-year universities often have larger campuses to play host to more organizations and activities. And because more students live on campus, it’s much easier to stay connected and make friends. With four full years to interact with others who are always nearby, the traditional college environment will enable you to build valuable friendships and networks alike.

Attending a four-year university affords you a wider opportunity to meet and interact with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Many community colleges cater to commuter students who grew up or live in the same general area, while four-year schools are likelier to enroll students who apply for all over the country (and all over the world!). This enriching exposure can give you a new perspective and broaden your outlook on life.

In addition, four-year universities are more likely to have the resources and option for you to study abroad—to earn class credit in new environments and get class credits, all while immersing yourself in a brand-new culture.

Cost of Community College vs University

The biggest question on your parents’ minds may be regarding something that we’ve already alluded to: which one will save you the most money? 

If not the first, affordability is one of the main factors to take into consideration when choosing where you will earn your undergraduate degree.

There are a few things to consider to help you balance the costs of your options. Check to see that your home address is in the district of the two-year college you want to attend. This alone can greatly impact your tuition costs, as towns/cities vote on the portion of their taxes that support their community college. Therefore, those who live within the school’s district will probably pay less tuition than those from outside of it.

No matter what, attending a two-year college is usually less expensive than enrolling in a four-year university.

On average, two-year colleges cost $3,440 per year for in-district students, while four-year universities charge a whopping average of $9,410 per year for in-state tuition. Choosing a community college, then, seems like a financially sound no-brainer. There are, however, plenty of ways to lessen the financial burden of attending a four-year university.

You can significantly reduce your tuition costs if you apply for scholarships and grants. You never know how many scholarships you can take in from a specific institution, so make sure to take advantage of all the opportunities to win free money!

There’s nothing to lose for applying for as many as you can—if you work hard enough, you could be like Christopher Gray, who was inspired to launch the popular scholarship search tool, Scholly, after earning $1.3 million for his own education!

Interested in how you can cut down your tuition costs? Talk with your family about your career aspirations and how much debt would be reasonable for your end goals, and then check out Edmit. Edmit is an extremely handy tool that can help you estimate the costs to attend the college or university of your choice. It’s free to use and easy to understand!

How to Decide to Attend Community College or a 4-Year University

Where you choose to get your education can be one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make. It can be tough to weigh the pros and cons of each possibility, but it’s important that you choose your path with confidence. Prioritize!

If finances are the primary factor in your decision, you could be paving your way to a great and comfortable future by choosing to start at a two-year community college. If having a greater variety of classes to choose from is paramount, go with a four-year.

Just be honest with yourself; recognize that your values may be different from your peers, and that’s okay! Be in touch with what’s best for you. The right, informed decision will enable you to achieve the best results possible for your future.

Here’s a useful exercise that may help you decide…

Draw two SWOT graph diagrams (Free Downloadable SWOT Graph)—one for community colleges, and the other for four-year universities. Using these two graphs, you’ll better understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that come with each type of institution. As you research each school style, use the appropriate boxes in the diagrams to write out and organize your findings.

For example, one thing to list as a “weakness” may be that the distance is too far between where you live and the university/community college. Continue this process until you feel you’ve labeled all the important deciding factors of your choice.

Force yourself to ask the right questions and research more diligently until you’re sure that each “weakness” and “threat” can’t be resolved and truly belong in those categories. The result? You may discover new key factors that will ultimately send you on the best possible path toward your degree.

Here’s why you should do your homework:

There are some great four-year universities that have the kinds of positive characteristics typical of two-year colleges, including smaller class sizes, low student-to-faculty ratios, and an overall emphasis on individual student development. To find them, you just have to know where to look.

Many students searching for colleges are unaware that simply googling “Colleges in New York” or “Best Colleges in California” won’t get them anywhere near answering the questions that really matter. While students should be asking “What’s the best college that suits my needs?” many rely on misconstrued, ranked data that suggests that every school will be equally effective for every individual.

To best decide which college will help you succeed, make use of such college search resources as to navigate past the rankings. A lot of the resources you’ll find may say which schools are the “best,” but they are usually just relying on impersonal data, prestige, and popularity. Look into what matters most for you and your growth, and find the educational experience that supports your future.

The beginning of your college career can take many forms, and while both two-year and four-year institutions have many specific benefits, they also have their own limitations. Use the SWOT graph and everything you’ve learned here to start your journey off right!

Have questions? Contact us or tweet us @CoDSchoolSearch.

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