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Everything You Need to Know About Community Colleges -- FAQ

Alexandra Pannoni, Emma Kerr


What Is Community College?

Community colleges are primarily public higher education institutions that strive to provide affordable and accessible educational opportunities to all.

An associate degree, which takes about two years to complete full time, is usually the highest degree available, but community college students can also receive certificates and job training. Many students begin their postsecondary studies at community colleges before transferring to a four-year institution to pursue a bachelor's degree.

Most community colleges are commuter schools and do not offer living facilities to students.

How Are Community Colleges Different From Four-Year Colleges and Universities?

The types of degrees offered is one of the main differences between community colleges and four-year colleges and universities, Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant vice provost of research and program assessment for the office of student academic success at Ohio State University--Columbus, wrote in an email. Almost all community colleges are open-access, which means almost anyone who applies is accepted.

Usually the highest degree a student can earn at a community college is an associate degree. Most community colleges do not have residential facilities for students.

The population of students tends to be older, too -- the average age of a community college student is 28, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Four-year colleges and universities award bachelor's degrees, and many award graduate and doctoral degrees as well; most also have more selective admissions than most community colleges. Many four-year colleges and universities offer living facilities to students. Most full time students at four-year colleges and universities are under 25 years old.

What Are the Benefits of Attending a Community College?

Small class sizes, affordability, convenience and faculty who are focused on teaching -- as opposed to research -- are often cited as the main benefits of attending a community college.

"Community colleges provide that really good, affordable option in higher education," says Mark D'Amico, associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina--Charlotte and president of the Council for the Study of Community Colleges. "Community colleges are always changing, creating new programs to meet current workforce needs, to help individuals get skills for jobs that are available now."

What Types of Jobs Are Available to Community College Graduates?

The most popular majors for community college graduates include liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some common jobs for people with a community college education include registered nurses, managers, accountants, police officers, electricians and diagnostic-related technologists, according to a 2012 report by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

What Is a Technical College?

Technical colleges tend to focus on credentials that lead directly to the workforce, Smith Jaggars wrote in an email.

Some community colleges are technical colleges, while others are transfer-focused, she says. Other community colleges offer a blend of both kinds of educational programs.


Do I Have to Apply for Admission to Attend a Community College?

Students may have to submit an application, but most community colleges have open admissions policies. This means that students typically do not have to fulfill any academic requirements or compete with others for admission.

Almost anyone who applies to a community college with open admissions is accepted.

However, many community colleges may have selective admissions to certain high-demand programs, such as nursing, Smith Jaggars wrote in an email. But if a student doesn't qualify for a specific program, there is generally another program he or she can enroll in.

Community colleges usually review and admit applicants year-round.

Do I Need a High School Diploma or Its Equivalent to Enroll in a Community College?

Not usually. Most community colleges offer open admissions, which means that applicants do not have to fulfill any academic requirements to enroll.

Can I Attend a Community College While Still in High School?

Most high school students can take college courses at a community college, usually within a dual enrollment program. In these programs, high school students take courses at a community college and receive both high school and college credits. Sometimes these courses are held at the student's high school.

Can I Enroll in Just One or Two Courses at a Community College?

Yes. About 60% of all community college students attend part time, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Are There Any Placement Tests I Need to Take to Register for Community College Courses?

Most new students at community colleges have to take placement tests before registering for classes. One hundred percent of public two-year colleges reported using a math placement test to assign students to developmental courses in a 2011 survey, and 94% reported using a reading test.

Community colleges use the scores from these exams to determine if a student should complete remedial coursework, or developmental education as it is sometimes called, before a student enrolls in college-level classes, according to a report from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

What Is Remedial Education and Coursework?

Remedial education, sometimes called developmental education, aims to prepare students who are considered underprepared for college-level courses.

More than two-thirds of community college students take at least one developmental course, according to a 2018 study by the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness at the Teachers College at Columbia University. These remedial courses are non-credit courses, aiming to improve student skills and success in college-level programs.

Most community colleges offer developmental courses for institutional credit, Smith Jaggars wrote in an email. This means that students enrolled in these courses are a part of an accredited program and qualify for federal financial aid, but the classes do not count toward graduation requirements.

Can I Attend a Community College Outside of My Hometown or State?

Yes. However, some districts offer lower tuition to in-district students, Smith Jaggars wrote in an email.

"But students typically attend the closest or most convenient community college; most don't seem to 'shop around' for different colleges, probably because they need something that is nearby to work or family obligations," she said.

Out-of-district and out-of-state residents are sometimes charged a higher tuition.

[Read: How Students Can Cut Costs With Community College Pathways.]

Is It Easy to Transfer to a Four-Year College or University From a Community College?

The ease of transferring from a community college to a four-year college or university varies greatly based on many factors, including the state of residence, the educational institutions involved and even the student's organizational skills.

Transferring is becoming easier for some, says D'Amico, depending on the state, institution and the student's major.

"Understand how courses transfer in to particular degree programs," he says. "It's not just that a course will transfer, it's how it will transfer."

He suggests students meet with an experienced adviser to discuss which credits will transfer, whether the institution has an agreement with nearby colleges to ensure credits transfer, and whether those credits will count as electives or toward a major's requirements.

Students can take advantage of articulation agreements -- which generally confirm that the credits earned at one institution will apply at another -- to make the process easier. But policies vary greatly state by state and institution by institution.

Community college students considering transferring should start thinking about their educational goals and plan for transferring as soon as possible, experts say.

What Is the Typical Transfer Relationship Between a State's Community Colleges and Public Four-Year Colleges and Universities?

It varies. Some states have smoother transfer systems than others, Smith Jaggars said in an email. And within a given state, some community colleges have better transfer relationships with some specific four-year institutions than others.

Articulation agreements can make the process smoother.

These agreements are between educational institutions and allow students to move seamlessly from one institution to the other while minimizing their loss of earned academic credits.

Whether or not a student's school has an agreement in place, early planning helps.

"They should choose their destination four-year college and program as soon in advance as possible, and then make sure they are taking the 'right' courses at the community college," said Smith Jaggars, in terms of the courses the four-year institution will accept toward graduation requirements in the student's desired degree program.

[Read: Make the Leap From Community College to a 4-Year University.]

Academic Life

What Kinds of Credentials Can Be Earned at a Community College?

Community colleges mainly award associate degrees and postsecondary certificates. Associate degrees usually take about two years to complete full time. Certificates can take anywhere from a few months to several years to complete.

Can I Earn a Bachelor's Degree at a Community College?

Though not very common, the number of community colleges offering bachelor's degrees is growing. The Community College Baccalaureate Association reports that in more than a third of U.S. states, two-year colleges grant bachelor's degrees.

What Is an Associate Degree?

An associate degree is an undergraduate degree that typically takes two years to complete full time. There are mainly three types of associate degrees: an Associate of Arts, an Associate of Science and an Associate of Applied Science, according to a 2012 report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

The Associate of Arts and the Associate of Science degrees are often used as a pathway to a bachelor's degree. These degree programs are considered condensed versions of bachelor's degree programs as they include a mix of general education requirements and elective course work, according to the 2012 CEW report.

Over a career, a high school graduate earns $1.4 million, as compared to an associate degree holder, who earns $1.8 million, according to a 2018 CEW report. This jumps to $2.5 million for bachelor's degree holders.

What Is a Certificate?

Postsecondary certificates are awarded by educational institutions, but usually do not take as long to earn as a degree. Certificates can take anywhere from a few months to several years to complete, depending on the program.

Most certificate programs are highly focused on a specific field and are geared toward particular occupations. Common certificate fields of study include health care, cosmetology, auto mechanics, and computer and information services, according to the 2012 CEW report.

Postsecondary certificates are earned for college credit and thus the courses could eventually be applied toward graduation requirements in a formal degree program, such as in an associate degree program.

How Long Does It Take to Earn an Associate Degree or Certificate From a Community College?

Associate degrees usually take two years to complete full time.

The time to complete a postsecondary certificate depends on the field of study and extent of the program, but the majority of certificate programs can be completed in less than one year, according to the 2012 CEW report.

What Can I Do With a Certificate From a Community College?

Certificates are offered in a variety of academic disciplines and could be used to pursue a better job in a number of industries.

Common fields include auto mechanics, construction trades, computer and information services, business and office management, transportation and materials moving, health care and cosmetology, according to the 2012 CEW report.

Individuals who possess a postsecondary certificate earn nearly 40% more than a high school graduate when they work in the field they studied, according to the same CEW report.

Are the Instructors at Community Colleges of the Same Quality as Those at Four-Year Colleges and Universities?

Evaluating instructor quality at community colleges depends on how you compare instructors at community colleges to those at four-year colleges and universities.

Community college instructors spend most of their time teaching and working with students, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 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, according to the BLS.

Instructors at both types of institutions must usually have at least a graduate degree.

How Many Hours per Week per Course Should I Expect to Study Outside of Class?

For every one hour of lecture per week, students should plan to study for at least two hours per week, some experts say.

That's about 30 hours per week for a student taking five classes, as each course usually requires about three hours of lecture per week.

What Is the Difference Between Credit and Noncredit Classes?

Classes that are earned for credit count toward graduation requirements in an accredited program of study, such as in an associate degree program, Smith Jaggars wrote in an email.

Noncredit classes do not count toward graduation requirements.

These courses are generally for unaccredited programs, certifications or exam prep, says Smith Jaggars, and do not qualify for federal financial aid.

Do Most Community Colleges Offer Online Courses?

Yes. Most students who take online courses at a community college take one or two online courses per semester for the sake of the flexibility around their work schedule, but they fill out the rest of their schedule with face-to-face classes, Smith Jaggars wrote in an email.

Online classes at a community college can offer benefits such as convenience and affordability, according to some experts.

Do Community Colleges Offer Evening or Weekend Classes to Cater to Students Who Work Full Time?

Yes. However, many community colleges offer limited numbers of evening and weekend classes, so students who need flexibility may have to take online courses instead, Smith Jaggars wrote in an email.

Student Life

What's the Profile of an Average Community College Student?

The average age of a community college student is 28, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. About two-thirds of community college students attend school part time. Most students work either part or full time.

Nearly half of students enrolled in community college are white. Twenty-five percent are Hispanic, and 13% are black.

Just under one-third of students are first-generation college students, and 15% are single parents. Twenty percent are students with disabilities.

Do International Students Attend Community Colleges?

Yes. Over 94,000 international students attended community colleges during the 2017-2018 school year, according to data from the Institute of International Education. This represents about 9% of all international student enrollment.

Community colleges can serve as a gateway for international students to attend four-year colleges and universities, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. International students attend community colleges because it can cut costs in half.

Federal law allows international students to stay in the U.S. for up to one year after completing an associate degree.

Prospective students can research U.S. community colleges by visiting individual community college websites and the AACC website, among other resources.

What Is the Social Scene Like at Community Colleges?

Community colleges are typically commuter schools. The average age of students at community colleges tends to be older. Many community colleges offer a selection of student organizations that students can become involved with, but the social atmosphere at community colleges tends to be drastically different from that at residential four-year colleges and universities.

Do Community Colleges Offer Extracurricular Activities?

Despite the notion that community colleges offer limited opportunities to connect with other students outside of class, most community colleges offer a variety of student clubs and organizations that allow students to socialize with their peers.

Many offer athletic opportunities, too. Dozens of community colleges compete against one another in sports and are members of the National Junior College Athletic Association.

Campus Services

Do Community Colleges Offer Career Services to Students and Graduates?

Many community colleges have career services offices that offer resources such as career counseling or workshops on creating resumes, for example.

Another benefit is that community college instructors typically have a background in industry, not academia, which is the typical background of instructors at four-year colleges and universities. Community college instructors may be able to offer their students a real-world perspective of the field they are studying.

What Types of Opportunities Do Community Colleges Offer to Nontraditional Adult Learners?

The types of services available at community colleges vary by institution, but many offer some resources to assist nontraditional, adult learners who may be juggling school with work, family and other obligations. The American Association of Community Colleges reports 38% of community college students are ages 22-39 and 9% are over 40 years old.

Some students at community colleges may be able to earn credit for what they already know, such as through a job or the military, via prior learning assessments.

Some community colleges offer day care centers for students' children and flexible course delivery options, such as online and evening and weekend classes.

What Types of Services Do Community Colleges Offer to Military Veterans?

Most community colleges have programs or services specifically designed to assist members of the military and veterans. In fact, Post 9/11 GI benefits may be helping students succeed in community college. The AACC reports that about seven out of 10 student veterans using Post 9/11 GI benefits completed or were progressing in their programs between August 2009 and December 2013.

Many community colleges partner with veteran-serving institutions, says Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the AACC. Veterans may also benefit from states and colleges that have waived some forms of tuition for veterans.

Do Community Colleges Offer Dorms?

Most community colleges do not offer housing to students. About 28% of community colleges provide on-campus housing, according to 2015 data from the American Association of Community Colleges.

International students considering community college may want to look into homestay programs, where students pay a fee to stay in a private room of a host family or individual near the school.

What Types of Services Do Community Colleges Offer to English Language Learners?

Many community colleges offer English language classes to students whose first language is not English, which can help prepare them for a college-level English writing class. Community colleges may be a good fit for international students because they generally have low tuition rates and offer students an easier transition to U.S.-style academics, experts say.

The types of services offered at community colleges aim to cater to the specific needs of its local community, D'Amico says. So an area with a high population of non-English speakers can expect to see more resources and courses to meet that need at the local community college.

Cost and Financial Aid

How Do Community College Costs Compare With Those for Four-Year Colleges and Universities?

Community colleges tend to be considerably cheaper than four-year colleges and universities.

The average total tuition, fees and room and board rates at all two-year institutions in the U.S. was about $10,432 during the 2015-2016 academic year, according to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics. The average total tuition, fees, and room and board rates at all four-year institutions in the U.S. was about $26,120 during the same year.

Do Community Colleges Offer Financial Aid?

Yes. About 60% of community college students who apply for financial aid receive some, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. In most cases, the same kind of aid available to students at four-year institutions will be available to students at community colleges. Federal grants, such as the Pell Grant, federal student loans, state aid and institutional aid are among the most common forms of financial aid received by community college students.

"Community colleges are going to often provide a pretty affordable option for students," D'Amico says. "Students who are pursuing credit-based certificates, degrees or credentials would potentially be eligible to use their federal financial aid, whether that's Pell Grants, or in some cases that would be loans."

[Read: 5 Costly Financial Aid Mistakes Community College Students Make.]

Do I Have to Pay for Remedial Classes?

Yes. But for most students this cost can be covered by financial aid, Smith Jaggars wrote in an email.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips, news and more in the U.S. News Paying for Community College center.

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