Is Community College Right for You?

With low tuition, small classes, and diverse degree programs, community colleges are increasingly becoming a smart choice for many students. 

 As she planned ahead for college, Christina Brodzky knew that money would be tight, so she decided to enroll at Orange County Community College in Middletown, New York, with the ultimate goal of transferring to a four-year school.

The strategy worked well. Brodzky was able to complete the same types of classes she would have taken during the first couple of years at a four-year college, with much less expense. And she was pleased with the quality of her experience. “My classes were demanding,” she says. “And I was very well prepared when I transferred.”

After two years at Orange County, Brodzky went on to complete her bachelor’s degree at Marist College.  Now she’s following her dream of working in advertising in New York City. “Starting at a community college was a smart idea,” she says. “I saved money while still receiving a great education.”

If you’ve never considered pursuing a two-year degree, perhaps now is the time to give it some thought. More and more students are finding two-year colleges a great alternative to going directly to a traditional four-year school.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, over 50% of all college students begin their studies at two-year schools. These institutions also attracted a large number of nontraditional and first-generation students, and two-thirds of all community college students attend part time. The average students’ age is 29.

At community, junior, and technical colleges across the country, students are enjoying advantages such as low tuition and small class sizes. Add to that diverse degree programs, hands-on occupational training, transfer options, and more, and it’s not surprising that two-year schools are attracting students from all kinds of backgrounds. Increasingly, this includes students who could attend four-year universities but prefer the setting of a two-year school.

“More and more excellent students are going to community college, for a variety of reasons,” says Cheryl Brown, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Binghamton University in New York. “At Binghamton, we welcome successful graduates of community colleges as part of our public mission.”

For many students, a major plus is the chance to stand out as an individual. “One of the benefits of a community college is the small class size,” says Daniel Price, a former student of Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas. “This allows easier access to professors for things such as help with questions and interactive classroom discussions. A small class gives the professor a chance to get to know you as a student.”

 Flexibility and career options

Perhaps the biggest advantage of two-year colleges is the flexibility they offer. If your goal is to finish college quickly and land a good job, an associate degree can be just the ticket. Completing a program in nursing, engineering technology, computer-aided design, or dozens of other fields can qualify you to enter the workforce in half the time needed to earn a bachelor’s degree. Other programs include electronics, business, legal assisting, auto repair, law enforcement, office technologies, various health care fields, and more.

If a bachelor’s or higher is your aim, you can save money by earning credits at a two-year college and then transferring to a four-year school.  On an increasing basis, four-year schools are highly receptive to graduates of community colleges.

“Our college has a large transfer population and about half of this group has attended a community college,” says Marlene Mohs, Associate Dean of Admission at College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. She adds that students who are excited about learning and have succeeded at a community college tend to do well in the four-year college setting.

“If students are focused on their career choice and know where they want [to earn] their bachelor’s degree, it can be a seamless process from two- to four-year,” says Jessica Kozera, Director of Graduate and Transfer Admissions at Villa Julie College, a four-year school in Owings Mills, Maryland. “Many four-year institutions have articulation agreements with their local community colleges.”

If you transfer to a traditional four-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree, your degree will be indistinguishable from one earned by a student who spent four years at the college—the only difference will be the money you saved on tuition during your first two years. At the same time, the individualized attention you enjoyed during your first two years can help prepare you for later success.

“Smaller classes help you prepare for a bigger school,” says Shanon Gibson, a graduate of Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York. “And there is a lot more one-on-one help from professors.”

Not for everyone

Community colleges are not the right choice for everyone. For starters, two-year schools simply don’t carry the prestige of many four-year colleges. If attending a “name school” is important to you, a two-year school probably won’t cut it.

With many employers, associate degrees don’t carry the full value of bachelor’s degrees. And while they can provide a great first step, community colleges don’t offer M.B.A.s or other master’s degrees, let alone doctorates or professional degrees. They also lack the research emphasis of four-year institutions.

Another factor to consider is the social environment. Most two-year colleges are geared toward students who commute, with no dormitories and fewer social opportunities than four-year schools. While many offer sports programs and student activities, you won’t find a two-year school involved in March Madness or football’s Bowl Championship Series.

Whatever route you decide to take in pursuing your education, be sure to consider the opportunities that community colleges provide. If you want to pick up some summer courses or flesh out your four-year program with an online course or two, your local two-year college could offer an excellent low-cost option.