If you're looking for an accessible way to further your education and improve your job prospects, community colleges offer a number of benefits and serve as an excellent choice for students from all walks of life.
Is Community College Right for You?
While the path from kindergarten to high school graduation is clearly marked, what comes next is often much murkier. After getting their high school diploma, graduates are free to choose their own path, but this can sometimes seem more like a curse than a blessing. On the one hand, you have plenty of options, but on the other, it's very easy to be overwhelmed by the abundance of choices. Should you continue your education? Or enter the workforce directly? What about an internship? This can be one of the most difficult decisions, as every student has unique needs, wants, and goals. There is no universal 'right' answer; a path that is ideal for one student may be ruinous for another.
If you'd like to continue your education and pursue a post-secondary degree, you should strongly consider community college as an alternative to the 4-year process of earning a bachelor's degree. Community colleges offer a plethora of degree fields, and boast many of the same learning resources and opportunities as the big universities.
1. Low-Risk Exploration
Committing to a bachelor's degree requires a major investment of both your time and money. These degrees typically take about four years to earn, sometimes even longer depending on your major's requirements. The College Board reports that tuition prices have risen significantly in recent years, climbing eleven percent in the past five years and reaching an average annual fee of about $32,000 for private schools and $9,000 for public schools.
Such a high cost might make you hesitant, and rightfully so. If you enroll in a program and decide that it's not a good fit, your tuition bill will still be thousands of dollars even if you drop out after only a single year. That's a lot of money with very little to show in return.
Community college, on the other hand, is drastically less expensive, especially if you attend a local school. In the same report mentioned above, The College Board lists the average tuition of 2-year colleges in 2015 as $3,435, meaning you can earn a 2-year degree for less than the cost of a single year at an average 4-year university. Even if you travel out-of-state for community college, tuition rates are still much lower. This lower cost means you're free to explore your interests with minimal financial risk. If you decide to pursue a degree in engineering only to realize that the field no longer interests you, you can drop out relatively painlessly. You'll still incur a bill, but nothing as large as the kind you'd get at a 4-year university.
2. Concentrated Learning
What if you know exactly what you want to study? Maybe you've wanted to be a mechanic since you were young, or maybe the idea of working in a legal office has always captivated you. While community colleges allow you to explore new, more general interests, they also provide highly specialized training that can immediately prepare you for your dream job.
These colleges typically feature workforce development programs that prepare students for specific careers. Rather than grant a degree, these programs typically award certificates or diplomas that students can use as proof of their experience and knowledge. For example, this automotive technology program provides training for aspiring mechanics. Unlike degree programs, it does not feature general requirements in subjects like English composition or math because these skills are not relevant to the profession.
These programs are great if you are convinced of your goals, but if you'd like to enroll in such a program, it's a good idea to reflect on your choice, if only to be sure that this is what you want. While these programs provide an intensive understanding of a given topic, they are not very flexible and do not prepare graduates for anything outside of their concentration.
2-year degrees are also attractive for students who do not need a bachelor's degree. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that paralegals need only an associate's degree to begin entry-level work, so if you'd like to be one, you can save time and money by avoiding a bachelor's degree program. The BLS also lists a number of other careers (such as air traffic controller, web developer, and nuclear technician) that also only require an associate's degree.
3. Set Yourself Up for Further Education Possibilities
Even if you've done your research and determined that your academic and professional goals necessitate the completion of a bachelor's degree, it doesn't mean you should rule out community college just yet.
Most 4-year universities have a credit transfer program wherein courses completed at a community college count towards a bachelor's degree. As this article shows, most courses completed in the first two years of any major (even in the scientific and mathematic disciplines, such as bioengineering and accounting) focus on the completion of general education requirements and prerequisite courses that are typically offered by most community colleges.
This approach means that you can complete basic courses at a community college for your first two years, and then transfer to a university and spend another two years taking advantage of the school's resources (labs, libraries, etc.) Using this strategy will allow you to receive the intensive education that a bachelor's degree offers without having to spend as much money or prematurely commit to a lengthy program.
4. Diverse Resources and Tools
You might be worrying that the lower cost of community college is an indication that you won't receive the same quality of education, but this is not the case. Just because these schools don't have the renowned athletic teams and sprawling campuses that some 4-year schools offer doesn't mean that the educational experience is any less authentic or valid.
Community colleges feature experienced and knowledgeable faculty along with state-of-the-art laboratories and libraries to help you with your studies. The smaller student body ensures that these resources remain accessible to all students. Many colleges provide the same learning tools that 4-year schools offer, such as online courses, career counseling, and tutoring services. Students looking to get involved in extracurricular activities also have plenty of options, such as student-run clubs, academic organizations, and athletic teams. In some cases, community college students can even study abroad through programs such as the one found at Montgomery College.
5. Learn Without Disrupting Your Routine
In addition to the lower tuition fees, students who stay local when they enroll in community college enjoy plenty of other benefits.
If you're younger, living at home can be a source of comfort as you adjust to a new routine and enter the next stage of your life. Nearby friends and family can provide invaluable support, both financially and emotionally. Though community college is a major commitment, it will not consume your entire schedule. You can use your spare time to research careers, look for bachelor's degree programs to transfer into, or find a part-time job to earn a little extra income.
If you're a little older, chances are you already have a job. Community colleges are known to offer flexible scheduling options, such as evening and weekend classes, that permit you to keep your job while you pursue a degree or certificate (individual results may vary. Be sure to check with a school to confirm their availability). By choosing a school close to your current location, you can avoid the hassle of packing, moving, finding a new job, and getting settled in a new town. Instead, you can complete your program without having to forsake your other commitments or disrupt your daily routine.