Community colleges often get a bad rap in the media and even in high schools. However, these two-year colleges help millions of adults earn a degree or certification at a fraction of the cost of a four-year institution.
Below, we’ll talk about community colleges and answer the question, “Are Community Colleges Bad?”.
What is a Community College?
A community college is a taxpayer-supported two-year higher education institution that provides certification programs, two-year degree programs, and continuing education classes. Some students use community college as a stepping stone, preparing them for a four-year college. Others plan to go right from community college into the workforce.
Some examples of areas you can study include:
- Automotive Technology
- Building Construction Management
- Computer Science
- Criminal Justice
- Culinary Arts
- Dental Hygiene
- Early Childhood Care and Education
- Fire Science Technology
- Paralegal Studies
- Surgical Technology
- Web Development
Community colleges, also called technical colleges or junior colleges, sometimes work in partnership with public four-year colleges and universities in the state. For example, in California, students complete the first part of their degree at a California community college and then transfer all of their credits to a California state school.
In recent years, more and more states have allowed community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees, making community college an even more viable alternative to a traditional four-year institution.
Why Do People Think Community Colleges are Bad?
Community colleges have a negative reputation for several reasons, which we’ll explore below.
They Accept Anyone
The selectivity of a college or university is often equated with its prestige. For example, the Ivy League schools all boast low acceptance rates. Harvard University, Princeton University, and Columbia University all accept fewer than six percent of applicants.
Most community colleges utilize open enrollment policies. Anyone who meets basic criteria—like having a high school diploma or its equivalent—can apply and enroll. This includes older working adults who only have a GED, students who barely passed high school, and individuals who perhaps failed out of a university but want to give college a second chance.
The fact that nearly everyone who applies gets accepted can create the impression that community colleges are less rigorous, not prestigious, and thus, bad.
This isn’t the case, though. Community colleges simply operate differently than a four-year college or university. They were designed to be more accessible so that more people could earn a degree or a trade certification. It doesn’t mean classes are any less difficult or that you’ll be any less prepared to enter the workforce.
Their Outcomes Aren’t Good
Outcome metrics is another way to compare colleges and universities. The government tracks retention rates and graduation rates. A retention rate is the percentage of first-year students who return for a second year. A graduation rate is the percentage of first-year students who graduate with 4 years, 6 years, and 8 years. The higher the retention rate and four-year graduation rate, the better job a school does preparing students.
Community colleges accept students from all different academic abilities and backgrounds. Their programs vary tremendously too. Plus, not every student attends community college for the same purpose. Some students attend for two years and then transfer to a four-year university. Some working adults just take one or two courses at a time. Other students attend full-time to complete a certification or an associate degree.
Given the different purposes of a community college, it’s harder to track the outcomes on a community college campus.
Additionally, it was only recently, in 2018, that the metrics used to measure outcomes expanded to include more of a community college’s population.
Roughly 65% of community college students are part-time students, transfer students, or both. Old data excluded those students. The federal government’s new metric, Outcome Measures, now tracks outcomes for all types of community college students. The new data shows that community colleges have been doing better than they were getting credit for.
Students Don’t Get the Full College Experience
While some community colleges have residence halls and dorm life, most do not. The notion of moving away from college into a dorm room is appealing to many high school students. It’s often equated with enjoying the “full college experience.”
Some see a lack of on-campus housing as a bad thing about community colleges, but it’s actually a benefit. Just take a look at the average cost of room and board for 2020-2021.
2020-2021 Average Estimated Room & Board Expenses for Undergraduate Students
|Public 2-Year In-District Community College||$9,080|
|Public 4-Year In-State College or University||$11,620|
|Public 4-Year Out-of-State College or University||$11,620|
|Private Nonprofit 4-Year||$13,120|
Data from CollegeBoard
The costs listed above are estimates based on actual costs last year adjusted for inflation. Community college students save an average of $2,540 or $4,040 on room and board compared to a four-year public college and a four-year non-profit private college, respectively.
Community college students also have more flexibility when it comes to room and board. Some private and public colleges and universities require underclassmen students to live on campus. Many require all residential students to purchase a meal plan. In other words, students at those schools must pay fixed prices for room and board unless approved to commute from off-campus.
If you attend community college, you can live at home or in an off-campus apartment. You can also grocery shop and eat on your own budget instead of purchasing a required meal plan. This gives you more control over how much you’ll actually spend on housing and food.
With Community Colleges, You Get What You Pay For
In America, we associate quality with price. If you’re paying tens of thousands of dollars for an education, it must be a prestigious, high-quality education. If you’re only paying a couple thousand dollars, it must be a bad education. That’s part of the logic used to justify going into debt to attend expensive colleges and universities.
Just because a community college is cheap, doesn’t mean it’s a low-quality education. Community colleges were designed to be inexpensive to encourage more people to continue their education beyond high school.
Many keep costs lower by eliminating on-campus housing, cutting out extracurriculars like athletics, employing more adjuncts, and using a small property. Even at a lower price, community colleges still offer many of the perks flaunted by pricey four-year universities, like small class sizes and experiential learning opportunities.
Prestige Doesn’t Matter Anyway
It’s also worth mentioning that research shows that employers don’t care as much about your alma mater as you might think. In 2013, Gallup surveyed business leaders, asking how important “where the candidate received his or her college degree” was when making hiring decisions. Fifty-four percent said it was not very important or not important at all.
And not only is your alma mater not important to most business leaders, but it’s also not relevant to other outcomes after college.
A 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index surveyed more than 30,000 college graduates across the United States to see if grads have “great jobs” and “great lives”. It found that
“Where graduates went to college—public or private, small or large, very selective or not selective—hardly matters at all to their current well-being and their work lives in comparison to their experiences in college.”
Community colleges can supply students with the experiences—like building connections with professors and doing internships—needed to succeed after graduation.
How Much Does Community College Cost?
One of the biggest benefits of community college is its low average cost. Let’s take a look at just how much cheaper community college can be.
2020-2021 Average Published Tuition and Fees for Undergraduate Students
|Public 2-Year In-District Community College||$3,770|
|Public 4-Year In-State College or University||$10,560|
|Public 4-Year Out-of-State College or University||$27,020|
|Private Nonprofit 4-Year College or University||$37,650|
Data from CollegeBoard
Most students do not pay the published price of college, but it’s still important to look at. It shows you the starting point. For example, you’d need 64.3% knocked off the sticker price of a four-year in-state college or university to bring it down to the advertised price of community college. The advertised cost of one year at a four-year private nonprofit college or university equals the cost of nearly 10 years at a community college.
So, Are Community Colleges Bad?
Community colleges may not offer fancy residential campuses or a selective admissions process, but they offer plenty of benefits. And a community college is far from a bad option if you want to pursue a career that requires education beyond high school.
With college, what matters most is the effort you put in and how you use your time. The business leaders from the 2013 Gallup poll cared most about a job candidate’s knowledge in the field and applied skills. A community college can prepare you to succeed in the workplace by providing relevant coursework and hands-on experiences.
To succeed at community college, take your classes seriously, join clubs on campus to build connections with other students, build relationships with your professors, and seek out internship opportunities. It’s your work ethic and skills that will impress future employers (or college admissions counselors if you’re looking to transfer).
Most importantly, go into community college with a plan, whether it’s to spend a semester figuring out what you want to study, earning an associate degree and entering the workforce, or taking general education classes and then transferring to a four-year university.
Check out these articles to learn more about community college, two-year degrees, and choosing a college: