Melissa Brock

Melissa Brock

Writer & Blogger

My name is Melissa and I’m a longtime admission professional, personal finance writer, editor  and parent of two (very!) busy kiddos. I couldn’t make it all happen without my husband, Steve.

I hatched my site because I’ve heard so many head-scratching questions from parents. I’ve journeyed in the footsteps of hundreds of families, trekked to dozens of college fairs and even weighed the (billions?) of college savings options for my own two kiddos.

What is a Community College?

by | Dec 15, 2019 | Ask the admission office | 0 comments

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 you know which type of school is best for you. Do your due diligence and visit before you commit to a college. In the meantime, we’ll give you some solid information about community colleges to guide you.

What are the academic options at a community college?

Community colleges offer two-year associate’s degrees, certificate programs and vocational training. You might choose to go directly into the workforce after your degree or you might choose to pursue a four-year degree after you graduate from community college.

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 you’re trying to juggle other responsibilities, like a job.

Why would you want to get a certificate program? Let’s say you want to learn something new that will help your 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 you’re interested in business management. Here are a few different ways your 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 who are 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 at a community college

The most glaring difference between a high school diploma, associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree could be how much you’ll earn over your 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 lifelong dream has always been to become a dental hygienist. Don’t let these figures scare 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 you 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 highest priorities? For example, let’s say you’re 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 priority is to save money and live at home, then a community college could be your best choice.

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.

Step 2: Fill out the application. 

You’ll 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

You may be required to prove that you have residency in the state where you’ve applied. You may need to provide proof of residence, which you can do through your parents’ (if you’re a dependent) or your own, if you’re not:

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

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

Step 3: Submit your high school diploma, GED or 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 high school diploma or GED.

Submit your transcripts if you haven’t yet graduated from high school. Doing so will prove that you intend to graduate from high school. Ask your school counselor to send your transcripts to the community college you’ve applied to.

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

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 you get at a community college? First, you’ll have to file the FAFSA if you want to receive 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 needs best?

What’s the best way to find out whether a community college is right for you? Ready… Let’s answer together on three! One… Two! Three!

Visit the campus!



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