As your child goes through the college search process, consider discussing the different types of colleges for their general education. When I was at college fairs as an admission counselor, I noticed that students didn’t understand the differences between a liberal arts college and community college and a community college and a university.

For example, a student would come to my table and say, “Do you have automotive technology?”

(I worked for a liberal arts college.)

It certainly wasn’t their fault — nobody taught them the differences. 

So, what is a community college, exactly?

You might know them as junior or technical colleges serving local communities. Your initial first reaction to the question might even be, “Uhhh… They’re affordable.” But you likely already know there’s more to it than that — but how much more?

Let’s find out the exact community college meaning, degrees offered, degree program length, costs — everything you’ll need to know about community colleges.

What is a Community College?

What are community colleges, besides schools offering 2 year college degrees?

At the risk of sounding like a textbook, here’s the community college definition: A community college, or a junior college or technical college, is a type of educational institution that provides postsecondary education with various programs, including associate degrees, certificates, and diploma programs. These colleges typically serve local communities, and many students can access them.

Community colleges play a crucial role in higher education by providing more affordable options for students who may not be ready or able to attend a four-year university. They often offer two-year associate degree programs, which can be a stepping stone for students who plan to transfer to a four-year institution to complete their bachelor’s degree. Community colleges often provide vocational and technical training programs that prepare students for specific careers.

These institutions are community-oriented and may offer a diverse range of courses, catering to the needs and interests of the local population. Community colleges are known for their flexibility and accessibility. They often focus on practical skills that can lead to immediate employment opportunities.

Is there a community college in your community? Talk with your child about that example so they learn to differentiate between types of colleges. Let’s walk through a few of the tenets of community colleges that make them appealing to the right student.

By the way, what is a junior college vs community college? They are the same thing.

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Characteristics of a Community College

What are the major tenets of a community college? Let’s look at some of the broader characteristics of community colleges, starting with two of their hallmarks — accessibility and affordability — because that’s the crux of community colleges, right?


Community colleges strive to provide accessible higher education to many individuals, including recent high school graduates, working adults, and those seeking career advancement or retraining opportunities.

Many community colleges have open admission policies, which means they accept all students who have completed high school or earned a GED certificate, regardless of academic background or achievement.


Community colleges generally offer lower tuition than four-year institutions, making higher education more financially feasible for students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Local Service

Community colleges work in your backyard. They often prioritize serving the needs of their local communities by offering relevant educational programs, workforce development initiatives and community outreach efforts. They actively engage with local businesses, industries, government agencies, and community organizations to address workforce needs, promote economic development, and foster civic engagement.

Community colleges frequently provide pathways for your child to transfer credits to four-year colleges and universities, enabling them to pursue bachelor’s degrees and beyond.

Career and Technical Education (CTE)

Community colleges offer a variety of career-focused programs and vocational training opportunities designed to prepare students for entry into specific industries or professions.

Community colleges serve as hubs for lifelong learning, offering non-credit courses, adult education programs and professional development opportunities for individuals seeking to enhance their skills or pursue personal interests.

Student Support 

Community colleges typically offer support services to help students succeed academically, including tutoring, counseling, career advising, and assistance with financial aid and enrollment processes.


Community colleges often provide flexible scheduling options, including evening, weekend, and online courses, to accommodate their student population’s diverse needs and schedules.

Campus Size

Community college campuses can vary widely, and there isn’t a standard size for all community colleges. The size of a community college campus depends on factors such as location, student enrollment, available facilities and programs offered. Some community colleges have smaller campuses serving a more localized population, while others may have larger campuses accommodating more students.

On average, community college campuses can range from a few acres to larger campuses with multiple buildings and facilities. Some are absolutely gargantuan — the size of small universities!

Thinking of visiting a community college? Learn the questions to ask on college visits.


Classes in a community college can vary widely depending on the specific college, the program or major your child chooses and the course level. Community college classes tend to be smaller than those at four-year universities, which may be music to a parents’ ear: More personalized attention from instructors and greater opportunities for class participation.

As you already know, many community college programs focus on practical, hands-on skills that prepare students for specific careers.


So, who would be teaching your child at a community college? It’s a great question because you may wonder what credentials community college instructors hold. In truth, they typically hold educational credentials and professional experience. They can vary depending on the college, the subject area, and the course level. 

Common credentials that community college instructors have include: 

  • Master’s degrees
  • Professional experience
  • Doctorate (Ph.D.) or Ed.D.)
  • Teaching experience
  • Industry certifications 
  • Continuing education (ongoing professional development to say current in the field and enhance teaching skills)
  • Licensure or accreditation

However, you’ll likely feel great realizing that Instructors at community colleges are usually accessible and approachable and generally want to help your child when necessary.


Community colleges typically have limited on-campus housing options compared to four-year universities. Many community colleges do not provide on-campus housing at all. Students often live:

  • Off-campus in nearby apartments
  • Rental housing
  • At home, with family 

However, some community colleges may offer limited on-campus housing options, particularly those in urban or densely populated areas.

If available, the on-campus housing at community colleges is generally more modest than larger universities. It may include dormitory-style rooms or apartments, often with shared facilities. Community college housing is often designed to be more cost-effective and practical, catering to the needs of local and commuting students. Amidst these practical considerations, it’s crucial for students to also think about the security of their personal belongings.

Securing renters insurance for college students is a prudent measure, safeguarding against the unexpected and ensuring that while they benefit from the convenience and affordability of community college housing, they’re also prepared for any unforeseen events.

It’s important to note that the availability and types of housing options can vary significantly between community colleges, so students interested in attending a particular institution should check with that college directly for information on housing options.

Learn more: What is Room and Board?

What Degrees Do Community Colleges Offer?

Community colleges offer two-year associate degrees, certificate programs, and vocational training. Some of these degrees could be a jumping-off point for a four-year college.

Community colleges offer a variety of degrees and credentials to cater to their students’ diverse needs and goals. The main types of degrees offered at community colleges include:

  • Associate of Arts (AA): An AA emphasizes the liberal arts (a broad-based education) and is often designed for transfer to a four-year college or university.
  • Associate of Science (AS): An AS focuses on scientific and technical subjects and may be transfer-oriented.
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS): An AAS emphasizes practical skills and vocational training and helps individuals aim for immediate entry into the workforce.
  • Certificates and diplomas: Short-term programs provide specialized training in a specific field, often leading to entry-level employment. Diploma programs are similar to certificate programs but may have a longer duration and cover a broader range of skills.
  • Transfer programs: Many community colleges have agreements with four-year institutions to facilitate the seamless transfer of credits. Students can start at a community college and later transfer to a university to complete their bachelor’s degree.
  • Career and technical education (CTE) programs: You can find CTE programs in health care, information technology, business and manufacturing fields, which provide hands-on training and skills needed for specific careers. They may also offer continuing education for various career types.
  • General education: Community colleges often provide general education courses that fulfill lower-division requirements for a bachelor’s degree. 

Do community colleges all offer the same degrees and programs? 

Not at all. They can vary by institution, so have your child check their options at various community colleges. These flexible options make community colleges attractive for individuals seeking affordable education and training for various career paths.

Degree Program Length

The amount of time it’ll take to complete a degree from start to finish depends on the type of program you choose to go after. It usually takes between six months and two years to achieve a degree. Students can take evenings or weekends classes, which can be handy while juggling other responsibilities.

Here’s a general guide to how long it takes to get each degree, but remember there will always be outliers. 

  • Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS): Two years for full-time students
  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS): Two years for full-time students 
  • Transfer programs: Two years 
  • Career and technical education programs: Vary in duration but generally last no more than two years
  • General education programs: Some community colleges offer one-year certificate programs, while others may have two-year associate degree programs. 

Costs of Community College

In 2023-24, the College Board reported the cost of a public two-year college in-district as $3,990 for full-time students, $100 higher than in 2022-23. The average published (sticker) tuition and fees among other types of colleges include the following: 

  • Public four-year in-state: $11,260, $270 higher than in 2022-23 
  • Public four-year out-of-state: $29,150, $850 higher than in 2022-23 
  • Private nonprofit four-year: $41,540, $1,600 higher than in 2022-23 

What do those costs break down to? The costs of attending a community college can vary based on factors such as location, residency status and programs, and they break down into smaller parts:

  • Tuition and fees: Community colleges generally have lower tuition rates than four-year institutions. Tuition costs can vary based on whether you are an in-state resident, out-of-state resident, or international student. 
  • Textbooks and supplies: The cost of textbooks and required course materials can add to the overall expense. Some students explore options like buying used books or renting to save money.
  • Transportation: Consider the cost of commuting to and from the community college. This includes gas or diesel, public transportation fees or parking costs.
  • Housing and living expenses: If you live off-campus, you must budget for housing, utilities, and other living expenses. Commuting students should factor in any additional costs associated with transportation.
  • Health insurance: Some community colleges require students to have health insurance. If you don’t have coverage through other means, you may need to purchase a health insurance plan through the college.
  • Technology and equipment: Depending on the program of study, students may need to invest in specific technology or equipment, such as a computer or software.
  • Personal expenses: Budget for personal expenses like food, clothing and other miscellaneous items.
  • Student activity fees: Community colleges may charge student activity fees to support campus events, organizations and services.

Tuition and fees can vary significantly from one community college to another. Additionally, in-state residents usually benefit from lower tuition than out-of-state residents. Check the specific community college’s website or contact the college’s financial aid office for detailed information on tuition, fees and other associated expenses. Many community colleges provide a net price calculator on their websites to help estimate the total cost of attendance.

It’s important to explore all available options and work with the community college’s financial aid office to understand your child’s specific financial assistance programs and resources. Additionally, consider budgeting and managing expenses wisely to maximize the available financial resources.

How Community Colleges Differ from Universities

What is a community college vs university? Community colleges and universities are two distinct types of higher education institutions, each with its own characteristics and purposes.

Here are some key differences between community colleges and universities.

Degrees Offered

So, we mentioned the community college degree types earlier. Conversely, universities offer a wide range of degrees, including bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Universities are known for providing comprehensive and in-depth education across various disciplines.

Program Duration

Community college programs are generally shorter in duration, with many students completing their education in two years or less. Community colleges often emphasize practical, hands-on training.

University bachelor’s degree programs typically take four years to complete. Master’s and doctoral programs add additional study, research and specialization years.

Admission Criteria

At universities, admission criteria are generally more competitive, with universities seeking students who meet specific academic standards, standardized test scores and other requirements.

Learn more: How Long Do Admission Officers Read Applications?

Class Size

Community colleges tend to have smaller classes, allowing for more personalized attention and interaction between students and instructors. Universities may have larger class sizes, especially in introductory courses, and students may interact less directly with professors.

Cost of Tuition

Community colleges provide a more affordable option for students seeking to complete general education requirements or obtain vocational training. Universities generally have higher tuition costs, which can vary based on factors such as the degree program level and whether the student is an in-state or out-of-state resident.

Focus on Research

Community college professors primarily focus on teaching and may have fewer student research opportunities. 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 institutions. 

At large research universities, professors usually spend a good amount of time conducting original research and often spend less time teaching. Emphasize both teaching and research. Universities often provide research opportunities for students, especially at the graduate level.

Campus Life

Community colleges offer a much different social aspect because most community colleges are commuter colleges. Most students do not live on campus, meaning it has a much less residential community feeling. Universities offer a more traditional campus experience with diverse student activities, clubs and organizations.

So, is one “better” than the other?

Not at all. Community colleges and universities play vital roles in the education system, serving different needs and populations. It depends on your child’s individual goals, preferences and career aspirations. Starting at a community college and later transferring to a university is completely viable.

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How Community Colleges Differ from Liberal Arts Colleges 

Similar to a university, you will experience a residential community differently at a liberal arts college compared to a community college. First of all, what is a liberal arts college? 

Community college students on a four-year track can elect to attend a liberal arts college after two years as a transfer student. Majors will look different at a community college than a liberal arts institution. You’ll find a focus on the classics — you won’t find majors like industrial technology or welding at a liberal arts college. Remember the differences the next time you go to a college fair! 

Here are key differences between community colleges and liberal arts colleges.

Degree Offerings

Liberal arts colleges provide bachelor’s degrees in a broad range of liberal arts disciplines. They focus on a well-rounded education emphasizing the liberal arts, including humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and the arts.

Opposed to a curriculum often tailored to meet local workforce needs, liberal arts colleges emphasize a broad-based education focusing on critical thinking, communication skills and a well-rounded understanding of various disciplines.

Program Duration

Liberal arts programs are typically four-year bachelor’s degree programs. Some liberal arts colleges may also offer graduate programs, but the primary focus is on undergraduate education.

Size and Class Structure

Community colleges tend to have larger enrollments, and class sizes can vary. Liberal arts colleges are often smaller, with smaller class sizes that facilitate more personalized attention. The focus is on fostering close interactions between students and faculty.

Admissions Criteria

Liberal arts colleges typically have selective admissions processes (or more so than community colleges, anyway!). They admit students who meet specific academic standards, demonstrate a strong academic background, and show potential for success in a liberal arts environment.

Campus Culture

Liberal arts colleges foster a more intimate and close-knit campus community. Students may be encouraged to participate in a variety of extracurricular activities.

Both community colleges and liberal arts colleges serve important roles in higher education, catering to different educational goals and preferences. Students should consider their career aspirations, academic interests and preferred learning environment when choosing between these institutions.

Pros and Cons of a Community College

There are several reasons students choose to attend a community college — and there are several cons you may want to consider seriously. However, they also depend on your child’s personal preferences and perspectives:


Pros could include:

  • Affordable tuition
  • Flexible schedule
  • Can be a good way to transition from high school to college
  • Small class sizes
  • Convenience of living at home
  • Can help you figure out what you want to study


Cons include: 

  • Curriculum is usually 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 the norm

What are your kids’ highest priorities? For example, if our child seeks an active social life and a challenging curriculum. A community college may not be the best fit. On the other hand, if your son’s priority is to save money, and that’s it, then a community college could be the best choice.

Does a Community College Fit Your Child’s Needs?

The value of attending a community college depends on your child’s individual goals, circumstances and career aspirations. Your child can do a lot to consider the cost, transfer opportunities, flexibility, practical training, diversity on campus, long-term goals, class sizes, workforce needs, skill development and transitional support.

Suppose your child wants to use a community college as a stepping stone to a university or find fulfilling careers directly after completing a community college program — all the power to them! The worth of a community college education depends on how well it aligns with your child’s personal and professional objectives.

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