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What Is a Community College?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A community college is an academic institution committed to higher learning, but on a smaller, more local scale than a traditional college or university. Most community colleges offer associate’s degrees, which can be completed in about two years, as well as general courses of interest offered on a class-by-class basis. The goals of most community colleges are twofold. First, they are an affordable way to get access to university-level material. Second, they are a means of providing a range of educational opportunities to local residents, which can both boost job potential and improve awareness of such things as arts and foreign languages.

Degree Program Offerings

There is a lot of variety when it comes to community colleges. Some are large, offering a wide range of courses, while others are limited to certain areas or specialties. In most cases, the only degree that a student can earn at a community college is an associate’s degree. The associate’s degree is a two-year degree that is less prestigious than the four-year bachelor’s degree offered by most traditional four-year universities.

A number of entry-level jobs require an associate’s degree, including most related to trade, industry, and office management. Students often pursue this course of study as a means of breaking into a career path. Others use it as a way to jump-start a more robust college education, as most universities will accept the credits earned in furtherance of an associate’s degree.

Education-Only Courses

Most community colleges offer a number of courses outside of degree program tracks for students who may be interested in learning more, but who do not need or want to earn a diploma. These sorts of courses are often very casual, and are designed to offer local residents an opportunity to explore something new. Courses in pottery, dance, and foreign languages are popular. Some industry-based courses, like basic accounting or word processing, also fall into this category. People looking for a primer often find community college classes to be the most effective, inexpensive means of reaching their goals.

Entry and Time Requirements

Most of the time, entry requirements are fairly low for either degree or education-only courses. Students must usually hold a high school diploma or equivalent and, with some exceptions, have fluency in the language of instruction. Though the associate’s degree can typically be finished within two years, schools rarely set time constraints. This allows students to go slowly with the material, fitting courses in when possible and taking as much time as needed to fulfill all degree requirements.

Appeal to High School Students and Recent Graduates

Many high schoolers view community college as a means of getting ahead when it comes to college credits. A number of high schools, particularly in the United States, have paired with local community colleges to allow students to take some of their required classes on community college campuses.

The first advantage to this scenario is challenge, as students are often forced to learn at a higher level on the college campus than they were in their high school classroom. In many cases, they can also double up on the credits earned, fulfilling both high school and college requirements. In this way, students can enter college with some credits already out of the way, which saves both time and money.

Students who are worried about the social or academic transition to university life may also pursue community education as a transition step. Community colleges are strictly non-residential, which means that students must commute to and from classes, often while living at home. For many, this sort of “soft” transition from high school is a good way to pave the road to eventually moving on to a more dynamic college campus.

Cost Considerations

Community colleges almost always cost less per credit hour than traditional universities. People who are looking for a way to off-set the often high tuitions charged by traditional schools will often begin at community college as a way of saving money.

There are many ways to offset education costs, like applying to easy scholarships and leveraging scholarship platforms that help students find good opportunities.

Cost considerations also extend to more casual learners. Taking art lessons or computer classes from studios or through private tutors can be very costly. Enrolling in a local community college course is often quite inexpensive in comparison, and many find that the classes are small enough to still receive a lot of one-on-one attention.

Community Growth and Development

In many regions, community colleges are seen as means of boosting the economic potential of a certain area. Governments often underwrite or subsidize the schools as a way of encouraging them to continue offering educational opportunities to the public.

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Discussion Comments

By anon302099 — On Nov 07, 2012

I think the biggest problem is knowing the benefits of Community College in the first place, and how to really succeed.

By StraightLine — On Aug 15, 2010

@GrassyKnoll - The problem with criticizing defense spending is that no one ever seems to have a viable alternative to cutting education funding. If war funding gets pulled, it's going to derail the country's military activities, and will as you might say, create inevitable consequences later. What is your alternative to help close the stat'es budget deficits? I haven't heard a good one yet, I've only heard criticisms. It's impossible to make everyone happy when government decisions are on the table.

By GrassyKnoll — On Aug 15, 2010

@davis22 - Education gets sidelined to save funding because it is a really easy way for the state and/or federal government to come up with a relatively large amount of money without having to immediately deal with the inevitably detrimental effect that the cuts will have. The government is fine with dumping unimaginable amounts of money that it doesn't have on war and "defense", but when it comes to education, it's just not very important to most people, and the state's votes reflect that fact.

People and societies rarely work collectively to examine the possible consequences of decisions. It happens in our government and governments all over the world all the time. Just look at the 2008 Housing Bust. Government officials lost their jobs in the 1990's for suggesting to their peers that the loosely regulated housing standards of the time would come back to haunt the country later! It's the same with education, and probably more so now than ever before.

By davis22 — On Aug 15, 2010

I've noticed a large range in quality among community colleges, much like there are among universities and colleges. Diablo Valley College in Northern California, for instance, has a number of excellent programs from the sciences to the arts. Other classes however, are treated almost like a joke by the students, staff, and the school's sources of funding. It's too bad though, that a lot community colleges, both good and bad, have had to cut so many staff members because of decreased education funding. I wonder why it is that education is always the first thing to be compromised when the economy is having a tough time.

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