What Is a Community College?

Written by: Matt Kuncaitis
Updated: 7/14/21

A community college is an institute of higher education offering a variety of vocational, certificate, associate, bachelors and some masters degree programs. Many students attend community college for the first two years of their college education and then later transfer to a four-year university to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Most community colleges have an open enrollment policy, meaning that any adult who has completed high school may take classes there. In fact, many offer educational programs to prepare teens and adults without a high school diploma to earn a GED. These colleges also offer many remedial courses for students who aren’t yet prepared for college-level work or who have been out of school for a long time. 

Some community colleges even partner with local high schools and offer dual enrollment options for high school juniors and seniors, allowing students to earn college credits or even complete an associate degree before graduating high school.

At any particular community college, you might find students ranging in age from 16 to 100, although the average age of community college students hovers around 29. Students might be fresh out of high school and looking to get through the first two years of college at a lower cost before transferring to a four-year school, or they might be older adults looking to improve their job prospects, earn certificates or gain new skills. 

If you want to learn more about community colleges, who they serve and how they work, keep reading. This article covers the benefits of community colleges, eligibility requirements, how they differ from universities and more.

Community Colleges in the United States

Precursors of community colleges in the United States began springing up in the late 19th and early 20th century. During the Great Depression, community colleges played a role in developing a semi-professional workforce able to tackle more complex jobs than high school graduates. The Cold War-era further increased the importance and the proliferation of such institutions. 

Sometimes, people confuse community colleges with junior colleges because they are very similar. And while they often have very similar offerings, junior college is typically reserved for private institutions, whereas most community colleges are public schools.

Community colleges bridge the gap between larger universities and local communities. They provide easy access to college for everyone, along with remediation and support for adults who need to brush up on their skills or fill in some gaps before taking college-level courses. Most adults, no matter their age or background, can enroll in a community college near them and take courses to earn specialized vocational certificates, an associate degree or a two-year transfer degree.

Community colleges also tend to have fewer large lecture classes than universities, with most class sizes limited to around 20 to 40 students. A much larger proportion of students attending community colleges may also attend part-time, as many students have jobs or families to attend to outside of school.

Because these colleges are generally meant to serve the local community, providing both educational opportunities for individuals and a trained workforce to meet local economic demand, community colleges generally don’t have on-campus housing. Some colleges may even offer courses at multiple sites in a larger metropolitan area to serve more people. 

What Are the Benefits of Attending a Community College?

The benefits of attending a community college are many, including the following:

  • Cost: Community colleges are often significantly less expensive to attend compared to most four-year institutions. Some of the cost reduction comes from not paying for on-campus room and board, but the tuition costs are much less as well, making community college more affordable.
  • Flexibility: At a community college, you can generally take as many or as few classes at a time as you want, unless you’re enrolled in a specialized program that requires full-time attendance. This means those with a full-time job can earn credits on evenings and weekends and on a time scale that works for them.
  • Clean slate: If you did poorly in high school but still want to earn a four-year degree, you can enter a community college and start with a clean slate. If you do well in your courses, you can easily transfer to a four-year school without having to worry about any stains on your high school transcript.
  • Gateway: Community colleges serve as a gateway to education for everyone in a community and provide the support needed to help students achieve their goals, regardless of where their starting point is. So, if you’ve been out of school for a few decades and can’t even remember how to simplify fractions, you can rest assured that you’ll find the resources and courses you need to get on track and get up to speed. 
  • Alignment with community need: Many community colleges align their program offerings to what’s needed in the local community. For example, if there is a major hospital in your area always looking for more nurses, you’ll likely find a nursing program at your local community college. In fact, you should find that most areas of study lead to positive local workforce prospects. 
  • Freedom: Because community college students don’t live on campus, they have the freedom to live where they want (including with parents to save money) and set their own room and board budgets.
  • Community education programs: Many community colleges also offer non-credit courses open to the local community that allow people to learn about topics that interest them, such as painting, computer skills and fitness.

Who Is Eligible for Community College?

Open enrollment is the norm for most community colleges. This means anyone from the community is eligible to attend. You may even be able to apply quickly and easily online in just a few minutes. 

Note that while a community college may ask for your high school transcripts or require that you take placement tests, you don’t need to worry that poor marks on either will threaten your ability to enroll. Community colleges simply use your high school record and placement test scores to guide you toward the right level of classes for you.

Once you’re enrolled and begin taking classes, there are no additional requirements to stay at the school. Even if you fail every course your first term, you can still come back. However, if you rely on financial aid to fund your education, poor performance can result in the loss of this funding. 

Can International Students Attend Community College?

While the application process might be more involved for international students, they are generally welcome at most U.S. community colleges just as they are welcome at other colleges and universities across the country. 

Additional application requirements may vary but are likely to include things like academic transcripts, proof of financial resources, proof of English proficiency and so on. Contact the admissions office of any U.S. community colleges you wish to apply to for more information. 

How Are Community Colleges Different From Universities?

Community colleges differ from four-year colleges and universities in a number of ways, including the following:

  • Community college students tend to live off campus, whereas university and four-year college students often live on campus or at least have the option to.
  • Community colleges offer associate degrees and vocational certificates, whereas colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degree programs and may also offer master’s, doctorate and other professional degrees.
  • The average cost of attending a community college is often significantly less than that of attending a four-year college or university.
  • While community colleges may offer many of the prerequisite coursework for degrees offered at four-year colleges and universities, they don’t typically offer the same majors you would find at a university.
  • Community colleges might be referred to as two-year colleges because most degree offerings can be completed in two years, instead of the four years typical of college and university offerings. 
  • At a two-year school, you can earn vocational degrees and certificates in career-related fields that aren’t offered at four-year schools, as community colleges focus more on job training skills.
  • Some four-year schools may not allow part-time enrollment or only allow part-time enrollment on a limited basis, whereas it’s very common for community college students to enroll part-time.
  • Campus life and the college experience are often different at community colleges since all students are commuters. While community colleges tend to have student government, clubs and activities, you won’t find fraternities or sororities.
  • While community colleges and universities may have sports teams, they don’t compete in the same leagues.
  • Community colleges have open admissions, meaning anyone may attend regardless of background. Most liberal arts colleges and universities require that you meet certain admissions requirements, including high school GPA and test scores.

Transferring Credits From Community College to Universities

Many community college students transfer to four-year colleges and universities to finish a bachelor’s degree. This transfer process, however, requires the new school to accept the credits you earned from community college to count them toward your degree. 

The process of transferring credits varies from school to school, but there are two main ways the transfer might occur. First, if the new college or university has an agreement with the community college you are transferring from, most of your credits will transfer straight over without issue. This is common between local community colleges and any college or state university in the surrounding area. 

It’s possible, though, that you might need to transfer credits from a community college to a university that has never or rarely received transfers from that community college before. If this is the case, you might be asked to provide syllabi or instructor statements for each course you want to transfer. This allows the receiving school to determine if your community college classes meet the same standards as analogous classes at their institution. 

With careful planning and the right choice of school, you may find that most, if not all, of your credits transfer without issue. In some cases, however — such as if you changed your course of study a lot or are transferring to a school with very different standards — you may find several of your credits don’t transfer over. Always look into the credit transfer policies of any schools you’re considering. 

Degrees From Community Colleges

Community college degrees and certificates can open doors to a whole host of career opportunities. Most employers accept such degrees as a sign that you have entry-level qualifications for careers in construction, medicine, business, finance, computer technology and more.

The degrees and certificates available vary between community colleges, but as a general rule, you can expect offerings similar to the following:

  • Associate degrees in areas like:
    • Addiction counseling
    • Construction trades
    • Architectural drafting
    • Automotive repair
    • Bioscience
    • Accounting
    • Management
    • Early childhood education
    • Network administration
    • Criminal justice
    • Electronics
    • Exercise science
    • Facilities maintenance
    • Graphic design
    • Mechanical engineering
    • Medical technology
    • Video production
    • Music
    • Nursing
  • Certificates in fields like:
    • Manual trades
    • Sustainable design
    • Auto body painting
    • Building construction
    • Marketing
    • Building inspection
    • Computer aided drafting
    • Computer programming
    • Web development
    • Culinary arts
    • Dental assisting
    • Emergency medical services
    • Personal training
    • Geographic information systems
    • Machining
    • Medical imaging
    • Welding

The school might also offer a transfer associate degree in arts, sciences or general education. Such degrees best serve students planning on transferring to a four-year school to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

How Financial Aid Works With Community Colleges

Financial aid is the money in the form of grants, scholarships, loans and work-study that you receive to cover your education expenses. The process of receiving this aid begins with submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which the U.S. Department of Education uses to assess your financial need.

After your FAFSA is processed, you will get a Student Aid Report listing the grants, student loans and work-study you are being offered from the federal government. Students with financial need will be offered Federal Pell Grants and Direct Subsidized Loans. Direct Unsubsidized Loans are additionally offered to cover any remaining expenses or for those who don’t qualify for grants or subsidized loans.

Your aid package may also include federal work-study, which provides a part-time job — typically on campus — that will help you make money you can use for expenses. Examples of work-study jobs include tutoring, working in the college fitness center, monitoring the computer lab or helping out in the library.

In addition to federal student aid, you can also apply for scholarships and grants offered by many different independent entities. Scholarships and grants are essentially “free money” that you don’t have to pay back. Grants are typically need-based, while scholarships are merit-based, although that isn’t a hard and fast rule. You may find that your community college offers grants and scholarships to students who apply.

Make sure you complete your FAFSA and apply for all other aid and scholarships as soon as possible. That way, you can ensure you have the funds before the school year begins, and you have to start paying your college tuition.

Discover More About College Life and Finances at CollegeFinance.com

If you’re planning to go to college soon, whether to a community college or a four-year school,  take the time to learn about associated costs and available financial resources so that you can choose the path that’s right for you. 

For more information on financial planning, visit CollegeFinance.com. You’ll find helpful tips and guidance to ensure you get the most out of your college education while minimizing expenses. Start planning today.