What’s your initial first reaction to the question, “What is a community college?”

They’re affordable? They’re primarily for commuter students? Yeah, true, but there’s more to it than that. 

First of all, it might not even cross your mind that there are similarities — not just vast differences — between a community college, liberal arts college and a university.

Finally, there’s value in visiting all types of colleges, even if you think your child knows what kind of college he wants to attend. Do your due diligence and visit before you commit to a college. In the meantime, I’ll give you some solid information about community colleges to guide you.

What is a Community College?

Community colleges offer two-year associate’s degrees, certificate programs and vocational training. Your child might choose to go directly into the workforce after his or her degree or might choose to pursue a four-year degree after community college.

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Associate’s Degree

An associate’s degree is an undergraduate degree that usually takes two years to complete. Here are the common degree types you can get: associate of arts, associate of science or associate of applied science.

Here are a few career paths that require a two-year degree (in case you’re looking for some ideas!):

  • Registered nurse
  • Air traffic controller
  • Pharmacy tech
  • Medical assistant
  • Dental hygienist
  • Dental assistant
  • Paralegal
  • Radiologic technologist

Certificate Program

Certificate programs are short-term, non-degree programs that usually take between six months and a year to complete. You may be able to take classes in the evenings or on weekends, which can be handy if someone is trying to juggle other responsibilities, like a job.

Why would you want to get a certificate program? Let’s say your student wants to learn something new that will help that future career. But you’re not interested in taking the classes necessary to get a degree.

Here are a few career paths that require a certificate degree instead of an associate’s degree:

  • Auto mechanics
  • Construction trades
  • Computer and information services
  • Business and office management
  • Cosmetology

Let’s say your child’s interested in business management. Here are a few different ways your child’s interest in business management could shake out at a community college:

  • Management: Associate degree
  • Accounting clerk: 1-year certificate
  • Accelerated accounting: Less than 1-year certificate
  • Entry-level accounting clerk: Career pathway certificate

See how it’s possible to have several options? You won’t have to get a two-year degree if you don’t want to.

How are Community Colleges Different from Other Types of Institutions?

Here are a few other major types of postsecondary institutions:

  • A public (or state) university receives significant public funds from the government of that state.
  • A private university is not funded by the government.
  • A liberal arts college is smaller than either of these types of institutions and is also not government funded.

All states in the United States have public and private colleges and universities.

Community college instructors spend most of their time teaching and working with students. They usually don’t spend as much time working on research as their counterparts at four-year public research institutions. Professors at large research universities spend a great deal of time conducting original research. They often spend less time teaching. 

Liberal arts colleges offer four-year bachelor’s degrees. Professors at liberal arts colleges teach broad-based courses instead of the specific training you’ll find at a community college. They offer classics like history, mathematics, art and English — you won’t find majors like industrial technology or welding at a liberal arts college.

Professors also spend most of their time teaching instead of conducting research. Liberal arts colleges typically offer:

  • Small class sizes
  • Accessible professors
  • No teaching assistants
  • A focus on undergraduate education, rather than a full focus on research and graduate education (this means that professors with a terminal degree in their field teach classes)

Community college students on a four-year track can elect to attend a liberal arts college, private university or large public university. You’ll be a transfer student if you continue your studies at a four-year college or university.

Most community colleges are commuter colleges. This means that most students do not live on campus. In contrast, private colleges and universities in particular offer a residential community.  

Earnings Potential

The most glaring difference between a high school diploma, associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree could be how much you can earn over a lifetime. Here’s a quick snapshot, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce:

  • High school diploma: $1.3 million
  • Associate’s degree: $1.7 million
  • Bachelor’s degree: $2.2 million

Obviously, money isn’t everything. Maybe your child’s lifelong dream has always been to become a dental hygienist. Don’t let these figures scare both of you away. Many associate’s degrees can result in an excellent salary and offer great lifetime earnings potential.

Pros and Cons of a Community College

There are several reasons students choose to attend a community college — and there are also several cons your child may want to seriously consider.


  • Affordable tuition
  • Flexible schedule
  • Can be a good way to transition from high school to college
  • Small class sizes
  • Offer the convenience of living at home
  • Can help you figure out what you want to study
  • May give you a chance to strengthen your grade point average


  • Curriculum is more limited and less rigorous
  • Student life is less robust
  • Commuter school isn’t for everyone
  • Professors with a terminal degree in their field aren’t usually what the norm at a community college.

What are your child’s highest priorities? For example, let’s say your kid’s looking for an active social life and a challenging curriculum. In that case, a community college might not be a great fit. On the other hand, if your child’s priority is to save money and live at home, then a community college could be your best choice.

It also may be a great option right now. Community college is a great first step if you’re not interested in navigating coronavirus far away from home.

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How to Apply to a Community College 

Applying to a community college is a little more cut-and-dried than writing college essays for Ivy League schools. You can just decide which school you’d like to attend and apply.

Step 1: Do your research. 

It’s true that it’s super-easy to find a community college to attend — chances are, there’s one in your town. Just make sure that the community college offers the program you want. Let’s say you plan to study robotics but you find that your local community college doesn’t have that program. It’s not going to make much sense for you to go to school there, is it?

Check out the community college’s website, schedule a college visit and visit the campus. Ask good questions on your tour. You can do all of this before you apply — or you can apply first and then visit a community college. You may feel most comfortable with a mask on or opt for a virtual tour right now.

Step 2: Fill out the application. 

Your child will be able to find the community college application on its website — most community colleges have their own application portals. Find the “Apply” button. You’ll have to fill out many of the same details on each application:

  • Name
  • Address 
  • Citizenship
  • Address, including state of residence
  • High school
  • Goals in college, such as an associate’s degree or certificate

Your child may be required to prove residency in the state. Your child may need to provide proof of residence through a:

  • Driver’s license
  • Bank account information
  • Voter or vehicle registration
  • Your taxes

Contact the community college admission office if you’re not sure what your child needs to provide.

Note: Your child’s transcripts will be enough to prove residency. As long as your child attends high school in the same state as the community college for at least a year, that will be sufficient evidence that your child is a resident.

Step 3: Submit transcripts.

You won’t need to get letters of recommendation, write an essay or send in your SAT or ACT scores. You’ll only need to show the school your child’s high school transcripts.

Submit those transcripts if your child hasn’t yet graduated from high school. Doing so will prove that your child intends to graduate from high school. Ask your child’s school counselor to send transcripts to the community college.

How Much Does a Community College Cost? 

Great question. Simply put, the average in-state tuition and fees at community colleges were $3,660 in 2018-2019. This is the lowest cost among all higher education sectors, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. This compares to $10,230 for in-state students at four-year public universities and $26,290 for out-of-state students at four-year public universities. The cost to attend a private, nonprofit four-year institution in 2018-2019 was $35,830, according to that same report.

What kind of financial aid can your student get at a community college? First, you’ll have to file the FAFSA for need-based financial aid.

  • Grants: Financial aid that you don’t have to pay back. 
  • Work-study: You can get a job at the community college you attend. Just like a regular job, you get to collect a check for the hours you work.
  • Loans: Financial aid that you have to pay them back with interest.

Want to learn more about how to get need-based aid? Check out the basic eligibility requirements.

Does a Community College Fit Your Student’s Needs Now?

A year ago, your student may never have even thought about the possibility of attending a community college. However, the world has changed — and there are so many paths your child can go to become an accountant, doctor or journalist.

It doesn’t have to look like this anymore:


It can look like this:


Why not?

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