If you’re in the process of planning your post-secondary education, you may be on the fence between a community college and a four-year university.
Since 2000, a growing number of potential students have had to make that decision. As of fall 2017, an estimated 20.4 million students were enrolled in American colleges and universities, representing an increase of about 5.1 million since fall 2000. Some 7 million of those were attending two-year institutions; 13.4 million were attending four-year institutions. The reason for the 17-year enrollment increase? Much is attributed to increases in the traditional college-age population (18- to 24-year-old), though rising enrollment rate has also been a factor.
Because each institution offers its own set of pros and cons, choosing between the two isn’t always clear-cut.
“Some students are still drawn to four-year universities, which offer many things a community college does not, including campus facilities, sports and a more robust student life,” notes a recent article on EducationCorner.com. “But as you'll see, community colleges are changing the landscape of higher education and offering students many more options in pursuing their degree.”
When weighing your decision, you might ask yourself the following questions.
- What kind of flexibility will I need? Your most pressing issue may be the time you have available to attend classes, study online and/or complete homework. You may be constrained by your job, by childcare, by transportation or by other limitations, and not all schools offer night classes or online options.
- How do costs compare? Tuition at public and private universities has been greatly outpacing inflation of late, while community college fees have remained much more affordable — frequently less than half those of their four-year counterparts. That’s partly because community colleges typically pare down non-academic elements such as campus infrastructure and extracurriculars. CollegeBoard placed average costs for tuition and fees per year at $32,410 for private four-year universities and $9410 for public four-year universities, compared to just $3440 at two-year public colleges.
- Can you transfer your credits? Many students make the best of both worlds by earning as many general credits at the community college level as possible, then transferring to a four-year university for their more specialized courses. However, that can backfire if you don’t ensure all your credits will apply toward your eventual bachelor’s degree at a university. Talk to academic advisors at both institutions to ensure your transfer plans are going to work.
- How does the academic quality compare? As community colleges make strides to beef up the quality and value of their instructors and course offerings, many have lost their previous stigma about being academically inferior to universities. But research the academic status of the specific school you’re considering; while some studies have shown community colleges to be a better investment than universities in terms of capacity for lifetime earnings, others point to consistently lower educational standards at community colleges.
- Under what classroom conditions will I learn best? Another factor to consider is whether you’re apt to learn better in the smaller classes typically offered by two-year schools or the larger lecture-hall courses often offered by four-year institutions. University classes are typically either taught by learned professors with master’s or doctorate degrees or by graduate students. Depending on the size of your school, you may learn in large lecture halls or classrooms, with less opportunity for one-on-one interaction with your instructors. At community colleges, your classes may be taught by real-world professionals, though many may also hold high-level degrees. You’ll probably learn in class sizes of fewer than 20 people, with more opportunities to get to know your instructors.
After all is said and done, your final decision may also rest on whether you’ve always wanted the traditional college experience. The opportunity to live in ivy-covered dormitories, attend large-scale football games, join fraternities or sororities and be surrounded by thousands of people your own age may be an experience you don’t want to miss.
Factor in all the pros and cons before you map out the next step in your education.