What's the Difference Between Community College and University?

As you’re thinking about your post-high school plans — yes, high school will end someday — you might be wondering whether you should attend a community college or a university. There are lots of choices you’ll need to make soon, and that’s a good thing. Having choices means you’ll be able to find the path that’s right for you and your goals. Although attending a community college or attending a university are both good choices, you’ll want to be aware of the difference between community college and university so you can apply to and attend the one that’s a good fit for you.

Difference #1: What you’ll be able to study

Depending on your interests, you’ll be able to find a variety of programs and degrees at both community colleges and universities. The difference between community college and university in this case will come in the variety of programs offered, as well as the degree you’ll actually graduate with. Universities, or what some call four-year universities, tend to be larger and therefore have a greater variety of degrees that you can pursue, such as history, biology, or business. When you graduate from a four-year university, you will typically receive a bachelor’s degree, or a BA or BS. Universities may also offer education at the graduate level, such as master’s degrees, doctoral degrees, law degrees, and more. In contrast, community colleges tend to be smaller, with fewer options overall, and you will usually graduate with an associate’s degree in about two years depending on whether you choose to study full time or part time. Community colleges also tend to offer certifications and diplomas that lead directly into becoming qualified for a job, especially in health professions.
What this means for you: you can find your perfect match at either a university or a community college.

Difference #2: Flexibility with your time

Four-year universities where you’ll pursue a bachelor’s degree may not offer a lot of flexibility when it comes to scheduling. Unless it’s a school that serves a working or older population, it might be difficult for you to find a variety of class times for the courses you want to take, especially if you work during the day and would prefer to attend class in the evening. Community colleges excel in serving students who might be working full-time, balancing parenting or caregiving duties, or have other competing obligations.
What this means for you: Although you can work around your schedule at both community colleges or universities, community colleges tend to be more flexible for students juggling a full-time work schedule who need to study in the evening or part-time.

Difference #3: Tuition costs

This difference between community college and university is the one you’re probably most familiar with. Community college tuition is often a fraction of the cost of attending a state four-year university, not to mention private universities. Because factoring in how much school is going to cost is important to all students, you’ll want to weigh the pros and cons of taking on debt. Although community college classes may cost less than classes at a four-year university, don’t let cost alone dictate where you choose to attend. By exploring grants, scholarship opportunities, and need-based aid, you may find that the costs are comparable. If you would like to get your bachelor’s degree from a four-year university, you can often start at a community college and take many common, required courses at a much lower tuition. Then, you can apply to a university as a transfer student. One caveat: make sure that your credits will be eligible to transfer from your community college to the university you’ll apply to. The last thing you want is to have to take — and pay for — a class twice.
What this means for you: Community college is a great way to save money on higher education. You will get quality teaching, support, and career services at a fraction of the cost. And, you can still attend a four-year university later if you want.

Difference #4: School environment

Although it’s impossible to make generalizations about the hundreds of universities you could apply to, many universities tend to have a more active student life, more on-campus activities, opportunities to do research and explore topics in depth, and more resources for students than community colleges. At the same time, university class sizes tend to be much bigger than community college classes, and they’re less likely to have remedial courses if you arrive struggling in a particular subject. Although you’ll have an excellent support network in both types of schools, community colleges are very good at serving students who need a little more time adjusting to studying after high school, or serving non-traditional and working students.
What this means for you: Try and visit schools you’re interested in and get a feel for what each school will be like. What are the students doing outside of class? Do most people commute? What are professors like and are they available for extra help? All of these questions will help you decide on which environment will best support your educational goals.