One of the most difficult decisions facing college-bound students is the choice to attend a community college or a university. Although community colleges are often regarded as less prestigious than universities, community colleges may offer courses similar to courses in the freshman and sophomore curricula of some universities, although differences do exist between the two. For example, an introductory biology class at a university may be more rigorous than an introductory biology class at a community college. Conversely, universities offer amenities such as on-campus housing that most community colleges do not provide.
Generally, community colleges have lower tuition rates than universities, but the rate might vary by community college. The website Big Future by the College Board estimates the average tuition for a community college to be about $3,150 a year, at time of publication. The Institute for Education Sciences, a governmental site, estimates the combined cost of tuition, room and board and fees for two-year public colleges to be $8,561 a year, at time of publication. The IES estimates the combined cost of tuition, room and board and fees for four-year public colleges to be $16,789 per year, at time of publication. The IES also states that students attending four-year private universities may pay a combined cost of $33,716 per year, at time of publication. Costs will vary, according to the individual university. Thus, by attending a community college for the first two years of their education, students stand to save a considerable amount of money. Financial aid awards from loans and grants may help offset the financial burden for students and parents.
On average, universities have larger student bodies than community colleges. With larger student bodies, more student organizations, including fraternities and sororities, form at universities. Community colleges usually have smaller class sizes than those of universities; it is not uncommon to have more than 100 students registered for one class at a university. Besides student body size, universities generally have bigger campuses than community colleges. Many community colleges have only one main building, whereas some universities are spread over a mile or more. Granted, exceptions exist -- some community colleges have several buildings, world-class libraries and state-of-the-art facilities and some universities have satellite campuses comprised of only one building. It is important to ask college recruiters about not only their student body size, but also their campus size.
During the first two years of any traditional degree program, most courses required are general in nature, focusing on writing, math, science and the social sciences, although this depends on the individual four-year college. A student can obtain these courses at a community college or a university, and with the help of a college adviser, a student can transfer from one institution to another. However, community colleges also offer degrees of a technical nature -- such as those needed for nursing, medical coding and computer repair -- which may take less than two years to complete. These programs may also be offered at some universities. Universities often offer a greater number of degrees that are specialized than community colleges. While a community college may offer a two-year associate degree in English, a university may offer more specialized degrees within the field of English, such as 18th Century Literature or Creative Writing, but at the four-year, bachelor degree level. Since many community college courses may be transferable into university degree programs, a student can choose a specialization within a field when that student transfers from a community college to a university.
Most major universities offer student housing options not found in community colleges. Dorm life can be an enriching part of college life. While the party atmosphere depicted in popular movies does exist in many universities, it is greatly exaggerated by Hollywood producers. Many dorms have noise regulations, and universities try to pair roommates with similar study habits. Universities that offer dormitories normally also offer a boarding package, which includes daily meals at university cafeterias. While many community colleges also offer on-campus dining options, most do not have the option to buy meal packages for the entire semester.
Sports and Activities
One of the biggest draws of a public university is its sports teams. While many community colleges have strong athletic departments, they do not receive the same level of recognition found in NCAA competitions. State university football and basketball games are nationally televised, and in most cases, students may attend games for a major discount, if not for free. Both universities and community colleges sponsor student activities. Special lectures, movie nights and campus festivals are popular in both environments. Universities offer fraternity and sorority organizations not normally found in community colleges, though many of the subject-related clubs, like debate team and drama club, are available at either institution type.
- The College Board: Trends in Higher Education; Trends in College Pricing; Average Published Undergraduate Charges by Sector, 2013-14
- FinAid.org: College Cost Projector
- Education Bug: Community College vs. University
- Big Future by the College Board.com: Community College: FAQs
- Institute of Education Sciences: Fast Facts; Tuition Costs of Colleges and Universities
Kat Stafford is an English professor and technology expert. She worked in the video-game industry and as a search-engine senior editor before beginning her career in higher education. Stafford has been editing and writing for more than 12 years, with work appearing in various online publications. She holds a Master of Arts in English from National University.