Community College vs. University: 5 Advantages of Community College

When I was deciding to go to college, heading to a community college to save money and avoid student loans was the last thing on my mind.

I viewed the community college alternative sort of like I viewed those weird knock-off shoes that looked like Nikes but were just an imitation. I thought the community college vs. university debate wasn’t much of a debate. In short, I viewed community college as the sloppy seconds of the academic world.

Of course, this was two decades ago and the student loan crisis wasn’t a crisis because tuition to public schools was affordable. I paid less than $3,000 for a year’s worth of classes at San Diego State University.

Sadly, we live in a different era these days and community college has become a way for students to cut their student loan debt down to manageable levels.

Although, the most recent reports show that even those who attend community college are prone to defaulting on their student loans, too, albeit for different reasons.

As I was writing this article, I wondered if, had I lived in today’s higher education environment, I would’ve started out in community college before heading to a four-year university.

Whether I would go or not is pretty irrelevant, though. It seems that more and more students are acknowledging that community college is the smart choice if you want to reduce or eliminate debt while receiving a solid education that prepares you for two years at a four-year university.

In fact, it seems that all the old pressures of attending a four-year college just aren’t influencing students like they used to.

I realized this was the case when I read through the insights of entrepreneur Margaret Andriassian, an alumna of Glendale Community College and a summa cum laude graduate of Loyola Marymount University.

“I hope all younger students never feel a burden of going to a specific school just to meet a standard for their parents or peers,” Andriassian wrote in an email. “It’s so foolish.”

After doing research and talking with several different students and professors, we’ve come up with a list of five reasons why community college is a wise choice if you want to reduce the amount of student loan debt you have when you graduate with your bachelor’s degree.

Community College Advantage #1: Same Coursework, Sometimes the Same Professors

Vanessa Flora-Nakoski runs The Modern Minerva, a tutoring website she started based on her experience as an adjunct professor at a community college and four-year university.

She told us that many adjunct professors who teach general education courses will pull double duty and teach at two-year and four-year schools.

“Since most faculty these days (at least for general education courses) are adjuncts, there’s a pretty high likelihood that your professor works at both kinds of institutions,” Flora-Nakoski said.

She went on to say that her community college students “were always so happy to learn that they were getting the exact same lessons and professor that they would have gotten at the four-year schools.”

This is also a sentiment we heard from Sara Bennett, a marketing specialist at eco-housewares company Transitions2Eearth who graduated from a community college and is now a student at the University of Washington.

“Academically, the courses and professors are identical to that of a four-year college,” she said. “The same books are often used and most professors have Ph.D.’s.”

While we know that certain community colleges have more PhDs than others, based on the most recent data we found, about 20% of community college professors have doctorate degrees.

Community College Advantage #2: Personal Development

One of the most interesting bits feedback we received about the community college experience came from University of Washington student Sara Bennett.

During her two years at community college, she came to value the students who were, on average, older than what you’d see at a four-year university.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the average age of a community college student is 29.

While we couldn’t find an exact age of the average four-year university student, we did find that, in 2014, 12 million students enrolled in college were under 25 and 8.2 million were older than 25.

“Most community college students are not 18 years old and straight out of high school. They’re students with big responsibilities outside of the classroom, responsibilities that threaten to interfere with their academic success,” Bennett said.

Learning in an environment where students were older and were juggling families and full-time jobs pushed Bennett to excel, she said.

“Navigating raising a family or working full-time to support themselves and their education can present many challenges that bring out stellar focus, dedication and tenacity,” Bennett said. “This environment was crucial to my success at community college and taught me the importance of work ethic and life balance. Community college was where I set large life goals and started to work towards them.”

Community College Advantage #3: It Gives You Time to Choose Your Future

The Student’s Perspective: Margaret Andriassian

Margaret Andriassian brought up another good point about community college and personal development – you don’t always know what you want to do when you’re 18.

“The time between high school and college is crucial. You’re maturing, you’re understanding yourself, your friends and the value of your family … and especially reality,” she said. “In a four-year school, you’re rushed to just make decisions that you really should not be worrying about at 21 or 22 years old.”

Choosing a community college gives you a bit of a buffer to sort out who you are and what you really want to do before you commit tens of thousands of dollars to a four-year university.

“Many people say they know specifically what they want to do but once they take a class they know it’s not for them,” Andriassian said. “Community college helps you through that transitional time to not freak out because you’re not in an environment that is threatening your wallet and your time. You’re free to explore.”

I understand this concept well. I spent a year writing for my high school newspaper and was convinced I wanted to be a journalism major.

The first day of school I remember walking into a classroom thinking I was in the introductory communication course, only to find out I was in the wrong place. Super embarrassing. I found the right class a few minutes later – it was filled with hundreds of freshmen just like me.

About a month into the class, I realized I didn’t care about most of the material and journalism wasn’t for me. I switched my major to English.

Yet, just two years later, I switched my major again to a general music degree. Like many students today, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with my life even though I knew that I wanted to focus on writing.

The Retired Professor’s Perspective: Dr. Timothy G. Wiedman, Doane University

Dr. Timothy G. Wiedman, a retired associate professor of management and human resources at Doane University, said this experience is common among students who aren’t quite prepared to map out their life when they graduate from high school.

Smaller class sizes mean students can get more interaction and personal attention from their professors and advisors.

“While top-notch high-school students generally do just fine at large universities, college-bound students who are not quite as well-prepared often benefit from the additional attention that’s available at a community college as they adjust to the demands of their college-level coursework,” Wiedman said in an email.

Intro courses in university are often crammed with hundreds of first-year students, which creates a depersonalized environment where students can feel detached.

“Individual attention available to freshmen at a community college is often superior to the attention that students receive in large, 200-student sections of introductory courses taught at many major universities,” he said.

The Psychologist’s Perspective: Dr. Andrew B. King, University of North Florida

A new college student’s ability to handle the full college experience isn’t just a matter of anecdotes. Dr. Andrew B. King, a Florida-licensed psychologist and director of the University of North Florida Counseling Center, says that our brains aren’t fully formed until we hit our late 20’s.

He also pointed out that a student’s ability to handle a four-year university has a lot to do with the experiences they’ve had leading up to life after high school.

“In terms of dealing with the pressure of having to decide their future when they’re 18 or 19, that capability can vary quite a bit between individuals depending on what kinds of life experiences they have had and how broad those experiences have been,” King wrote. “For example, have they traveled? What have they read and retained? What family influences have there been? Have they experienced any losses or tragedies?”

Students who’ve endured some of the life experiences King listed are, in many cases, more able to handle the pressure and stress of the college experience.

If they haven’t had those experiences and the totality of university life seems like it might be too much to bear, community college is a viable option, he said.

“Community college can provide that platform where a student can explore the world but remain in the safe, supportive and familiar world of the family home. Many young adults are not fully conscious of the support they received from loved ones until it is removed,” King said. “When that’s the case, the student becomes overwhelmed not because these problems or issues are insolvable but because they seem to all happen at once and/or the resources needed to resolve the issue are perceived not to be readily available.”

Community College Advantage #4: You Can Save Thousands of Dollars

Dr. Wiedman went on to tell us what many of you already know: community college tuition is significantly cheaper than its four-year counterpart.

“Starting a four-year program at a community college can simultaneously save quite a bit of money while providing a solid academic foundation for a great many students during their first two years of college,” he said.

But this wasn’t just his opinion. LaKiesha Tomlin, an engineering and quality control manager at Northrop Grumman, took a calculus class at St. Louis Community College while she was working on a mechanical engineering degree at St. Louis University.

“At the time, St. Louis University was approximately $900 per credit hour vs $110 per credit hour at the community college. St. Louis University is an excellent school. However, I wish I would have taken more classes at the community college to save on costs,” Tomlin wrote.

Margaret Andriassian shared the same sentiment, noting that she could have saved more than $4,000 by taking general ed classes at Glendale Community College.

“You’re either going to pay a little over $100 a class or $5,000,” she said, speaking to her experience at GCC and Loyola Marymount. “For example, I didn’t take Psychology 101 at a community college even though I should have. I found out the community college I went to required the same book and had almost the exact same syllabus.”

We wanted to nail down the exact numbers from these two schools to give you a sense of the true cost of community college versus a four-year university, so we gathered up some basic data based on 30 credit hours of classes per school year:

School Cost per credit hour Cost per school year
Loyola Marymount $1,537 $46,136
St. Louis University $1,384 41,540
Glendale CC $46 $1,380
St. Louis CC $106 $3,180

Whichever university you choose, you’re looking at an increase in cost of more than $40,000 per year. It’s important to know, though, that LMU and SLU are private universities. The tuition disparity between public universities and community colleges is smaller.

 Community College Advantage #5: Unique Social Opportunities

This final advantage is one that you may not have thought about. Community colleges typically have smaller student bodies than public universities, which means you have more of an opportunity to get involved in campus leadership and social groups without feeling like you’re just a number.

At the same time, high school grads have to deal with the fact that community college students tend to be in their late twenties and early thirties – 29 is the average age, remember?

“Many people see a community college like it has no value and that they’re filled with degenerates that don’t know what to do with their life,” Margaret Andriassian said.

As we’ve pointed out earlier, that stereotype just isn’t true.  Furthermore, Andriassian said, the smaller, more focused community college crowd is a great place to take on leadership roles and join clubs.

“I started a club on campus that raised money for the lower-income students and funded them with basic essentials,” Andriassian said. “I ended up getting awards and scholarships I didn’t even know existed all because I acted on opportunities. I made the most out of it.”

We heard the same thing from Sara Bennett, who pointed out that the main downside to community college was the lack of a “traditional college experience” – dorms, fraternities, sororities, etc.

“There are no parties and since you are not living in a dorm with your classmates it can be more challenging to form friendships,” she said. “But there are many ways to work around this challenge, like joining on-campus clubs and taking part in campus events.”

Our Final Thoughts About Community College Vs. 4-Year University

There was a time when community college was seen as a place where the dregs of the academic world went when they couldn’t get into a four-year college. Sure, there were those who willfully chose to attend a two-year school to save money, but those cases were relatively few and far between.

As the student loan crisis has escalated over the past decade, community college has become a legitimate and accepted alternative to a four-year college if only because courses are significantly cheaper than the traditional college experience.

However, we learned that the community college experience is far more than a bargain education.

Our sources pointed out that the coursework and, in some cases, the professors, are the same as what you’d get in a four-year university. This fact dispels the notion that you’re getting a second-rate education at a community college.

We also found that community college gives you time to develop yourself in a way you probably didn’t think: through the example of your classmates.

Community college students tend to be older, and because of that many are juggling a job, a family and their studies.

While they don’t fit the mold of the average four-year student, they can inspire their younger counterparts to learn “the importance of work ethic and life balance,” University of Washington student Sara Bennett said.

Along those same lines, community college gives you an opportunity to figure out where you want to take your studies and, in some cases, choose the career track you want to pursue after graduation.

It certainly goes without saying that community college is cheaper than the traditional four-year experiences. That value is even more evident if you plan to attend a private university, where per-unit tuition can cost you upwards of $2,800 more than the same community college class.

And, finally, community college gives you a social setting where you lose out on the daily college experience but where you can make up for that by joining student groups and participating in campus events.

Based on the input we received form our sources and our own research, we believe that community college is an excellent choice for students who want to mitigate the high cost of a four-year university by completing two years of courses at rock-bottom rates.

Now, just because you’re saving in the beginning doesn’t mean that you don’t have to worry about student loans. You’ll be faced with a decision when you enroll in community college and in a four-year university: Do you take out loans?

To help you make that decision by taking a long-term view of student loan repayment, we’ve got a series of articles about federal student loan programs:

If you’re not convinced that college is right for you because you’ve heard too many student-loan horror stories, check out an article we wrote titled, “Is it Worth It to Go to College? The Experts Say, Yes!


J.R. Duren

J.R. Duren is a personal finance reporter who examines credit cards, credit scores and bank products. J.R. is a three-time winner at the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism contest and his advice has been featured in MSN and Fox’s money sections.


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