Those who have considered this question have likely spent many nights debating for one side or the other, and those who haven’t probably wouldn’t want to. Once you truly understand how perplexing the notion of going to community college versus university is, it becomes really hard to pick one or the other; in a good number of cases, there’s usually no direct answer, and it’s all about preferences for a given student and his/her family.
There’s a wrongfully assigned stigma to community college that exists these days, and it has likely impacted thousands of students from making what could have been a much better choice. “I’m too smart to go to community college”, “I got into my dream university, community college is an obvious no”, or “community college isn’t real college” are arguments I’ve heard in person and seen on the web countless times, and it baffles me that so many people fail to realize how truly amazing of an option community college can be (a strong emphasis on the word “can”; there are cases in which university may be the obvious choice, and hopefully this article will address all the factors of this debate and push for a strong conclusion in your specific case). This article will cover the structural makeup of various post-high school educational institutions; if you know enough about this, feel free to skip to my next article also on Empowerly blog, “Community College or University? Part 2 — Pros and Cons”.
First, some background to better understand what’s going on. University is usually what readily comes to most students’ minds when they hear the word “college”. These educational institutions feature various undergraduate programs and graduate programs, though the variety and ranking of these programs varies from college to college. Most undergraduate programs are set to be completed in four years (though taking less/more time is usually no problem and in fact common), and ideally you would spend all four years at this one location. Universities fall between public/private categorizations. Public universities are usually state-funded and state-founded, and as such, tend to be cheaper with governments doing much of the spending. According to College Board, public school tuition, on average, costs $9,560 for state residents, and about $24,930 for out-of-state residents (yes, if you plan to attend a public university but don’t live in its state, expect to pay quite a lot more). Public universities tend to have many more students and high students per instructor ratios (imagine a packed music hall with hundreds of students just for one class), but they also tend to be more diverse and offer more majors/programs to students (and of course, they cost loss).
Private universities are considered independent from government funding (but do receive some tax breaks and things of the sort). As a result, college tuition is considerably higher: it averages about $33,480 across the United States, around four times as much as in-state public university (more statistics on college prices and more can be found [here]). So why would anyone go to a private educational institution? They tend to be a more “premium” experience; this means smaller numbers of students per teacher, general academic excellence (most of the “top” schools you can think of are probably private), more student flexibility, increased student resources, and so on (search Synocate for plenty of articles highlighting the public vs. private experience!). Those are the basics of public vs. private, and I’ll leave deciding which is better to you.
Community college, on the other hand, is quite a bit different. Many people refer to it as “two-year college” because for a good number of attendees, the purpose is to join for two years and then transfer into a university (although associate’s degrees are available to those who decide not to leave community college; you can find information for those easily online at your local community college’s website). Community college, therefore, is somewhat of a transition period between high school and university that captures qualities from both. Like high school, expect to compete with your peers for the best grades while maintaining solid extracurriculars because at some point, you will have to apply to university as a transfer student (and a lot like applying for university while in high school, there’s a complete application in which you will attempt to make your case for being a top-notch applicant). Community college is a lot like university in terms of class structure — you pick your own times for your own classes that are geared towards your major (a major that you won’t get until you first transfer to a university and spend a few years there as well). Community colleges are generally open to all applicants, meaning you likely won’t face much competition (or any at all), and in plenty of cases students are guaranteed admission. Average costs tend to be below $5,000, so the case for community college tends to go something like this: you save a whole lot of money and get to eventually graduate from university like the rest of your peers. (Obviously it’s not that simple, as you’ll see in my next post)
Structurally, universities and community colleges are extremely different. One functions on a four-year program with significantly high fees and many decisions (choosing private or public and then choosing a specific school is a lot of work), but guarantees admission into an educational institution and a degree at the end (given proper work); the other is a great choice in terms of saving two years’ worth of college tuition, but tends to provide a different class of education (and quite a few other challenges). Now that you understand the logistical differences between the two, read Part 2 of this article to see a thorough pros/cons list that covers the good and bad of each, and hopefully you will be able to come to your own decision soon!