What Is a Community College?

What Is a Community College?
portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
By Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on August 25, 2021

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In 1901, Joliet Junior College opened with six students, making it the first community college in the United States. Today, nearly 12 million students attend community colleges each year. These learners study everything from agricultural science to web design. They can also choose academic majors that can transfer to four-year colleges.

But what is a community college? What's the difference between a community college, a junior college, and a regular college? And is community college worth it?

What Is a Community College Exactly?

A community college offers postsecondary education at an affordable rate. Once known as junior colleges, these institutions operate predominantly as two-year schools. Community colleges prepare graduates for the workforce.

Depending on their major, graduates can also transfer from a community college to a four-year school to earn a bachelor's degree.

Across the U.S., 1,044 community colleges serve nearly 12 million students. Around two-thirds of students earning credits at a community college enroll on a part-time basis, and nearly half of community college students are older than 22. Additionally, most community college students work while pursuing higher education.

Community colleges primarily award two-year associate degrees. Many also offer academic and vocational certificates, technical diplomas, GED classes, and continuing education classes. Some even offer four-year degrees, though this is less common.

What Degrees Do Community Colleges Offer?

Community colleges offer degrees in academic and vocational subjects. Many learners study academic disciplines like English, history, economics, sociology, mathematics, and biology. Often classified as transfer degrees by community colleges, earning a degree in one of these academic majors can prepare graduates to enroll in bachelor's programs.

Vocational degrees can prepare graduates for the workforce. Popular vocational options include allied health degrees like nursing, respiratory therapy, dental hygiene, and radiation therapy. Community colleges also offer vocational programs in automotive technology, the culinary arts, industrial manufacturing, and engineering technology.

In 2019, 1 million U.S. students graduated with an associate degree. The most common majors included the liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities, which made up 40% of earned degrees.

Nearly 20% of graduates studied the health professions, including allied health careers, and just over 10% studied business. Other common associate degrees include criminal justice, interdisciplinary studies, and computer and information sciences.

The Financial Benefits of Community College

Attending community college can help students save a significant amount of money.

On average, in-state community college students spent around $3,300 in tuition and fees in 2018-19. In contrast, students attending a public, in-state, four-year school paid an average of $9,200. Out-of-state students and those who choose private colleges pay even higher rates.

After completing an accredited associate degree, graduates can often transfer to a four-year college or university. Most schools waive the general education requirements of a bachelor's degree for transfer students with an associate degree. Enrolling in a community college for the first two years of college can save students tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and fees.

The cost of community college varies depending on your state. California charges the lowest tuition rate, capped at $46 per credit; however, around half the state's 2.1 million community college students pay no tuition, thanks to California's fee waivers and incentive programs.

In total, community college students in 17 states can attend tuition-free, two-year colleges. Nevertheless, these programs limit eligibility based on household income and academic promise. Moving forward, more states may enact similar measures — recent data shows that most Americans support free community college.

Is Community College Worth It?

Community college often offers a more affordable route to a college degree than a four-year school. For many students, a two-year degree pays off handsomely. For example, professionals with an associate degree earn more and have a lower unemployment rate than those who hold only a high school diploma. Community colleges can also serve as an affordable stepping stone to a bachelor's degree.

Furthermore, community college students report higher satisfaction levels than those attending four-year institutions.

The American Association of Community Colleges offers a community college finder to help prospective students find colleges in their area. After putting together a list of schools, students can research how to apply for community college.

Two-year colleges generally use an open admission policy and do not require standardized test scores to enroll. As long as applicants meet the minimum requirements, they can enroll.

Frequently Asked Questions About Community College

Can you get a bachelor's degree at a community college? true

Some community colleges grant bachelor's degrees. According to a 2018 Pew analysis, 90 community colleges in 19 states offer four-year degrees in addition to traditional two-year degrees. However, in most states, community colleges do not award bachelor's degrees. Around 40% of community college students transfer to four-year colleges to pursue a bachelor's degree.

Is community college free? true

Not usually. Community college generally costs $550-$3,360 per semester in tuition, depending on the state. That said, 17 states do offer free community college programs for students who qualify based on income or academics. These states include New York, California, and Indiana. President Joe Biden has also proposed a free community college plan.

How much is community college? true

The cost of community college varies widely depending on the state. In 2018-19, the average community college tuition cost around $3,300 per year.

In California — the state with the lowest tuition rates for community college students — learners paid an average of $1,270 in tuition and fees during the 2018-19 academic year. New Hampshire ranked as the most expensive state, with annual tuition and fees totaling about $7,600. These numbers are significantly lower than the national average for in-state public universities, which exceeded $9,200 in tuition and fees per year.

Do community colleges have dorms?

Most community colleges do not offer dorms. Instead, students live in the local area and commute to campus or take courses online. Some community colleges, however, do offer on-campus housing. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 28% of community colleges offered on-campus housing in 2015. Overall, only about 1% of community college students in the U.S. live on campus.

Feature Image: Tom Werner / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Many believe community college is less academically rigorous, but attending a two-year institution can benefit you both intellectually and financially. Students transfer colleges for many reasons, such as better fit or cheaper tuition. Discover the top 12 reasons students give for transferring colleges. Find information on the most affordable online community colleges. Learn more about what these schools offer and how students can save money on their education.