Pros and Cons of Community College
By Joe Messinger, CFP®
October 29, 2021
When choosing a college, 45% of people in a recent survey named cost their primary consideration. The runner-up reasons were:
- Major offered
- University’s reputation
Cost was the most important factor when making their choice. When weighing the choices, community college can be a valuable college option for post-high-school education.
Students fail to graduate college because of the high cost, their lack of college readiness, or outside responsibilities and scheduling difficulties. Faced with these challenges today, families should at least take a moment to weigh the pros and cons of community college.
Let’s take a look at the pros first.
Community college is not the same as it was when we were young.
Community college today can be more than just a place to gain your general education requirements. Today’s community colleges receive funding and maintain partnerships with everyone from federal agencies like NASA, to charities like the Gates Foundation, to businesses like Ford Motor Company, Honda, Apple, and Facebook to help them stay on the cutting edge of technology. They often offer programs in cybersecurity, electro-mechanical engineering, digital marketing, or automotive technology to name a few. (We used some of the offerings at Columbus State Community College for examples.)
With their smaller size, community colleges can make changes more quickly to implement new programs to meet the needs of the careers of tomorrow. In addition, community colleges attract excellent professors that often times have real-world experience to convey to students and they want to be a part of these growing programs.
Students struggling with college readiness can ease into college.
US high school graduating students can struggle with some of the basic areas of study that state colleges require. Often, this is through no fault of their own. They may have had large class sizes, overbooked schedules with extracurriculars, or lack of access to tutors or other resources that would help them get a leg up on subjects they didn’t feel confident in. These students are faced with taking remedial level courses when they get to college.
Attending community college can ease these students into a college setting. Students can focus on their coursework without the distractions of moving to a new setting and being totally on their own. With smaller class sizes, community college can provide the comfort of a high school feel, while still offering challenging classes.
Students who struggle may not be sure if college is the right choice for them. Community college, with its open admission policy and lower cost, can let students try college out with less commitment and expense.
Students can make college fit their schedules and goals.
Community college offers more flexibility for students needing to work outside of school. Working while attending a traditional four-year college can be much more challenging. Students at a traditional college need to commit to a full-time course load to graduate in time and keep costs in line. At community college, students can choose to attend part-time and arrange their classes around their schedules with a little more ease.
Students can also choose a two-year degree or a certificate program to launch them more quickly into a career. They can learn exactly what they need to in their career-oriented field and get an early start in high-paying fields. (Scroll through this list from Columbus State, and take note of the many varied certificates and associate degree options.)
Last but not least, it costs less.
We are listing low cost as the last “pro” factor on our list. The low cost may be the initial reason a family takes a moment to consider community college. However after some digging, they may discover it is not the primary reason to choose this path. But there is no denying that the lower cost is a definite bonus!
To give an example, annual tuition at Columbus State is $5,038. Tuition for in-state freshmen at Ohio State University at the Columbus campus is $11,936, with an extra $13,352 for room and board to consider.
Note that the savings vary by state. Community college prices can vary widely depending on the state primarily due to the amount of aid that college receives from the state.
What about the cons?
The transfer of community college credits can require careful planning.
It really is all about being properly prepared with a plan to reach their end goal. If a student goes to community college without a plan and takes a random course load, they may be faced with an uphill climb getting those credits to transfer in an efficient way. Students need to know the transfer policy of the college they hope to graduate from. To be truly cost-effective, each community college credit needs to count towards their four-year degree.
Take advantage of special programs available in your state that facilitate the process. As an example in Ohio, Columbus State offers its Preferred Pathway program. Students transfer their credits seamlessly to one of nine in-state colleges and 4 private colleges to continue completion of their bachelor’s degree.
The biggest roadblock to community college is that it is not the college experience parents may remember.
True. Attending community college is not the same as packing the car full of towels, sheets, and shower caddies, living in a dorm, eating dining hall food, and finding your way in a whole new world. Community college does not have campus life, with football games and fraternity parties. Students are simply not as involved, and the student body includes non-traditional students returning to college to improve their skills. Students will need to make an effort to meet people, talk to the person next to them in class, and maybe have lunch together. They may also need to figure out how to get in socialization outside of their school by joining groups or organizations that align with their interests and goals.
However, not being the “typical” college experience can still be a good thing. Social skills will be honed while the student has the security of living at home. Students can ease into successful study habits without the distraction of campus life.
But, there is no getting around the fact that some students will still need that college experience, and they should get it. If community college were right for everyone, then everyone would do it. The same can be said for attending a traditional four-year college. The key is considering all the options available in detail to find the best fit.
How do you know what choice is right?
We have discussed some of the pros and cons of community college, but how does a family best approach this? We would advocate leaving your options open. Still apply to 6 to 8 colleges and universities on the regular timeline and make sure you meet their admission and financial aid deadlines in the fall of the senior year of high school. As we state in many prior posts, the sticker price of college is irrelevant and the true out-of-pocket cost of college is all that matters. The problem is, you don’t truly know what that cost is until you have the financial aid award letter from the college in the spring of the senior year of high school.
By and large, colleges aim to create 4-year packages with renewable scholarships to attract a stellar freshmen class. By applying on the regular timeline you can submit your applications for admissions and financial aid and analyze the financial aid award letters to determine your out-of-pocket cost for the education. If you ultimately choose a community college, you should also inquire about scholarships that may be available for transfer students. Once you have all of the cards on the table, you can then weigh your options for the best fit financially and socially.
Bonus consideration: Another money-saving option with community colleges.
Most states in the US have some form of dual enrollment option where students can earn college credit while still in high school. In Ohio, this program is called College Credit Plus (CCP). Students can fulfill their general education credits for college before they even graduate high school. In Ohio, courses can be taken at community colleges for CCP even during the summer.
A final thought…
What do all of these people have in common?
- Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet
- Eileen Collins, former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut
- Joyce Luther Kennard, California Supreme Court justice
- Jeanne Kirkpatrick, former United Nations ambassador
- Nolan Ryan, retired Major League Baseball professional athlete
- Jim Lehrer, news anchor
- Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright
- James Sinegal, co-founder and chief executive officer of Costco
- Maxwell Taylor, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
They all attended community college. Community college was the right fit for these former students. Families need to weigh the pros and cons carefully for their child’s specific wants and needs to make the best match for their future.
Originally published 8/2018