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Expert Guide: Should I Go to Community College First?

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Posted by Ashley Robinson | Feb 28, 2021 5:00:00 PM

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Community college can be a great option for many students who are ready to step into higher education but aren’t ready to go to a four-year university for financial, academic, or a host of other reasons. 

But how do you know if going to a community college first is right for you? In this article, we’re going to give you an honest assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of going to community college before pursuing a four-year degree. So if you’re asking yourself, “Should I go to community college first? Is it bad to go to community college then transfer?” this article will help you out! We’ll cover the following in this article: 

  • What a community college is
  • Reasons for going to community college first, then university
  • Reasons to go to vocational school first
  • Reasons to start at a four-year college
  • A visual comparison of community college vs vocational school vs 4-year college

Let’s get started!




What Is a Community College? 

Let’s start by defining what makes a community college different from a four-year college. 

Sometimes also called junior colleges or two-year colleges, community colleges are mostly two-year, public institutions that provide entry level post-secondary education. In the U.S., community colleges offer a range of degree programs and grant professional certificates, diplomas, and associate’s degrees. They differ from four-year colleges in that an associate’s degree is the highest degree you can earn—community colleges don’t give out bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, or Ph.Ds. 

Community college provides the foundational education that students need to be successful in a variety of ways. For instance, there are some careers that don’t require a four-year degree but do require a certificate or associate’s degree. Students can take a course of study that prepares them to pass state and national examinations and obtain professional certification in a range of areas. Most community colleges offer associate’s degrees or professional certification for nursing, computer repair, welding, and paralegal jobs, among others. Professional training programs at community colleges are often geared toward preparation in skilled trades for the job market in the local community. 

Community colleges can also help students earn core credits to make it easier, and more affordable, to attend a four-year university. Community colleges allow students to take the “core” course requirements needed to transfer to a four-year college. Upon completion of an associate’s degree, community college students can apply for admittance to a four-year institution as a transfer student. If they meet that university’s transfer requirements, they can gain admission to that school...and start their journey toward earning a bachelor’s degree. And usually, that university will count some—or even all!—of a student’s community college coursework toward their degree program. 

In other words, while you can’t get a bachelor’s degree at a community college, a community college can prepare you to get a bachelor’s degree at a four-year university. 


What Are Community Colleges Like? 

Most community colleges are typically small, inclusive, and accessible to students of  all academic abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds. As a result, community colleges are designed to be flexible. Most students who attend them have work, family, or other responsibilities, so community colleges offer many night and online courses to help students reach their goals. 

Also unlike four-year colleges, community colleges don’t really cultivate a typical college experience. It’s unusual for community colleges to offer things like on-campus housing or Greek organizations. Instead, they tend to focus more on preparing students to successfully enter the workforce or get into a four-year college. 

Despite these differences, community colleges are still colleges, which means you’ll still be taking academically rigorous courses that will further what you learned in college. Additionally, Community colleges employ well-trained, highly educated faculty who are passionate about working with community college students. Part- and full-time faculty at community colleges will have master’s degrees, and many, like Dr. Jill Biden, have doctoral degrees too! While having a community college professor who’s also First Lady of the United States is rare, it is typical for community college faculty to be dedicated to their students. 


Is It Bad to Go to Community College First? 

A common question about community college is, “Is it bad to go to community college then transfer to a four-year college?” The perception that it’s bad to go to community college first is based on stereotypes about community colleges. And, by and large, these stereotypes aren’t true! 

Like we mentioned earlier, community colleges are still colleges. And they’re designed to help you achieve your goals, whether that’s gaining more training for the workforce, or putting you in a position where you can be successful at a four-year university. You’ll still get a solid education, be taught by qualified professors, and get the academic experience you need to succeed. 

In other words, it isn’t bad to go to community college first. Community colleges simply offer a different type of higher education that has different goals than other higher education options. Going to community college then transferring to a four-year college is a great choice for many students!

Now that you know a little bit more about what a community college is, let’s look at some top reasons to start your higher education journey at a community college.



The Top 2 Reasons to Start at Community College

If you’re asking yourself, “Should I go to community college first?” but you aren’t sure how to decide, we’re here to help. There are many viable reasons for going to community college first, but we’re going to go over two of the most common ones here. Two of the best reasons for going to community college for 2 years then transferring are affordability and academic flexibility. 


Reason 1: Affordability 

It’s pretty simple: community college just costs less than four-year colleges. 

In fact, community college tuition is usually thousands of dollars lower than tuition at four-year institutions. On top of that, a high percentage of community college students also receive federal financial aid, with private aid being an option as well. Because community college allows students to fulfill many core course requirements before starting at a four-year university, those students will likely pay significantly less for core classes (which will cost a lot more per class at a university). 

So by starting coursework at a community college, students can lower the overall cost of their bachelor’s degree!

Many community college students also save on the “hidden” costs of college, like activity fees, parking, and room and board. Community colleges usually offer limited extracurricular activities, which means the college fees students pay are lower than at a four-year institution. Also, since community colleges are commuter schools, they tend to be more friendly toward students who have to drive to campus. That means parking is usually cheaper, if not free. 

As far as living accommodations go, community college students aren’t required to live on campus—though some schools offer the option—so many students will choose to live at home with family or in more affordable off-campus housing. Room and board adds significantly to the cost of attending four-year colleges, so this is another major way that community college can be more affordable. 


Reason 2: Flexibility 

Additionally, community colleges often provide the academic flexibility that students need. Many community college courses are offered at night, which is an excellent option for students who work or have families. Online course offerings are increasing at community colleges as well, giving students another way to seamlessly integrate college courses into their busy schedules. 

Community colleges are also equipped to meet an array of student skill levels and academic needs. Students who require remedial courses will typically find dedicated faculty and quality courses that can help them really improve their skills. At the same time, students who choose to attend community college first for convenience will find courses that are challenging, engaging, and effective at preparing them for continuing their education at a four-year university. 

Students who want a more intimate learning environment may find the small classes at community colleges appealing, too. It’s common for community college faculty to be solely focused on teaching. This often gives them time and flexibility for offering academic support outside of class to help students achieve their goals. Classes sizes are typically smaller at community colleges as well. Students may have the opportunity to engage meaningfully with classmates, play an active role in classroom learning, and work closely with professors. So if you benefit from hands-on teaching and one-on-one learning, a community college can provide an ideal learning environment for you. 

Above all, it’s important to remember that attending community college isn’t just a back-up plan or second choice to attending a four-year college. So, if you’re still asking, “Is it bad to go to community college then transfer?” we’re here to tell you that it’s definitely not! Community college gives students the chance to save money and gain excellent preparation for their future careers and/or the demands of academic life at a four-year college. 



If you want to go into a skilled trade, going to vocational school after high school is a good option. 


Top 3 Reasons to Go to Vocational School First

Community college is a great choice if you’re not ready for a four-year college right out of high school. But there’s another option, too: vocational schools. Vocational schools are designed to help you prepare and gain licensure for a job in a skilled trade field, like plumbing, welding, carpentry, and diesel mechanics. 

Here are three reasons to consider going to trade school. (And if you want to know more about trade schools, be sure to check out our in-depth guide.


Reason 1: Your Career Field Doesn’t Require a Bachelor’s Degree 

Yep, you read that right: not all careers require a four-year degree. In fact, a four-year degree might even be a bad thing if you’re planning on going into a skilled trade. 

Here’s why: in order to become a tradesperson, you’ll need a certificate or licensure depending on your field. Trade schools are set up to give you the training you need to do your job well, and they’ll jumpstart your career by giving you the licenses you need to start practicing your trade right away. 

In these fields, a four-year degree can often be overkill. You need a different kind of education for a trade, so getting a bachelor’s degree could be a huge waste of time and money. Also, four-year colleges typically don’t offer trade licensure programs at all, so you’d have to go earn your license after you graduated anyway. 


Reason 2: You Don’t Want a Bachelor’s Degree in the Near Future

Unlike community college, trade school courses usually don’t transfer to a four-year university. So unlike community college, all those classes you pay for while you’re earning your licensure aren’t going to give you a leg up if you plan on pursuing a four-year degree. 

This isn’t a big deal if you’re not planning on getting a bachelor’s degree, though! If going “back to school” isn’t in your future plans—and a career in a skilled trade is what you want—then starting at a trade school is a solid decision. 


Reason 3: Your Community College Doesn’t Have Trade Programs

Some community colleges now offer trade training in certain high-demand areas, like plumbing and computer coding. But this is a new area for many community colleges since their primary goal is to help students prepare for a transition to a four-year university. As a result, not all community colleges offer trade certification or licensure...and the programs they do offer are likely limited. So if trade training in your desired trade isn’t offered at your community college, it makes more sense to go straight to a trade school after high school! 




The Top 3 Reasons to Go to a 4-Year College First

For some students, going straight to a four-year university is the best choice for them. If you’re on the fence about whether to start at community college or go to a four-year college right out of the gate, consider these top three reasons to go to a four-year college from the start: advanced academic offerings, vibrant campus life, and kickstarting your long-term professional goals.


Reason 1: Advanced Academic Offerings

Students who need a bachelor’s degree for their future career and are ready for college’s advanced coursework might consider going straight to a four-year institution. The truth is that many fields require job candidates to have, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in order to qualify for a position. This is especially true in fields that require advanced training—like education, engineering, and architecture, to name a few. 

And depending on how you did in high school, you may be able to start taking advanced courses pretty early on in your collegiate career. AP courses, IB courses, and dual-credit courses can help you earn college credit before ever stepping foot on a college campus. Getting into your upper level studies as soon as possible can save you time and money as you earn your bachelor’s degree.


Reason 2: Vibrant Campus Life 

Outside of the classroom, four-year colleges tend to have a more vibrant campus life than community colleges. Unlike community colleges, which serve adult students of all ages, four-year colleges usually tailor campus life to students who are in the 18-22 age range. 

For many students, a four-year college provides the opportunity to move away from home and live with their friends...while also studying for their classes. And universities understand that the social aspect of college is important, too: that’s why they offer on-campus housing, student-run organizations, lots of extracurricular activities, and of course, collegiate athletics.

For students who really want the typical college social experience, starting at a four-year college provides the chance to connect with an energetic community of peers.


Reason 3: Kickstart Your Long-Term Goals 

Finally, starting at a four-year college is a good option for students who know exactly what they want to do after college

For instance, if you want to be a medical doctor and are ready to dive straight into preparing for this profession, you may benefit from starting at a four-year college. Starting at a four-year college will help you build early connections with faculty who can write you recommendations for medical school. You’ll also start college with a community of peers who have the same long-term goals as you.

But more importantly, medical programs require you to have a bachelor’s degree before they’ll admit you into medical school—a necessary step in the journey to becoming a doctor. Unfortunately, community colleges don’t offer bachelor’s degrees, which means that you’ll have to attend and graduate from a four-year college before you can enter a graduate program. By starting out at a four-year institution, you’ll be on the path to achieving your dreams from day one. 

If you’re still asking yourself, “Is it bad to go to community college then transfer?”, remember: going to a four-year college first isn’t necessarily better than going to community college or vocational school. But it may be the best option for students who have specific plans for their future or want a traditional college experience! Evaluating your goals is the best way to decide if starting at a four-year college is the best choice for you.


Community College vs Vocational School vs 4-Year College: A Quick Comparison

We’ve covered the top reasons why you might choose to start your higher education journey at a community college, vocational school, or four-year college. But we want to make it easy to evaluate all the pros and cons of each type of school side by side! 

To help you weigh these educational options with all the facts on hand, we’ve put together a table that maps out six important factors to consider as you choose a type of college. 

Check out the table below to compare the pros and cons of community college, vocational school, and 4-year college in terms of location, cost, financial aid, on-campus housing, commuter friendliness, and non-traditional students. 

Community College
Vocational School
4-Year College
Usually located in bigger cities.
Sometimes have multiple campuses to make it easier to attend. 
Typically geared toward accommodating local students.
Can be found in both big cities and rural areas. 
Can be found in small, medium, and large cities. Not common in very small rural areas. 
With the exception of very large or very urban schools, classes are held on one big campus.
Average annual tuition for public community college is approximately $4,808 for in-state students and $8,589 for out-of-state students.
Total overall cost for the entire program is approximately $33,000.
Average cost of annual tuition at any four-year institution is $20,471 (not including room, board, fees, etc.).
Financial Aid
Students are eligible for federal financial aid programs, including federal and private loans to students and federal, state/local, and institutional grants.
In 2017-2018, 78% of all first-time, two-year community college students received some form of financial aid. 
Merit- and need-based scholarship opportunities are available. 
Programs that last longer than 15 weeks are eligible for all forms of federal student aid, including grants and student loans.
Programs that are shorter than 15 weeks are only eligible for the federal Direct Loan program.
Scholarship opportunities are available.
Students are eligible for federal financial aid programs, including federal and private loans to students and federal, state/local, and institutional grants.
In 2017-2018, 86% of all first-time, four-year college students received financial aid.
Merit- and need-based scholarships are available. 
On-Campus Housing
Sometimes available, but rarely. Students are not required to live on campus. 
Almost never available. 
Almost always available. Students of all classifications have on-campus housing options. Certain students may be required to live on campus. 
Average cost of room and board at four-year public colleges is $10,614. 
Commuter Friendly
Some schools require freshmen to live on campus during their first year. 
Non-Traditional Students
Typically geared toward non-traditional students in terms of course scheduling, academic coaching, and types of courses offered.
Designed to accommodate students who have families and part- or full-time jobs.
Typically geared toward any student who wants to learn a trade. 
Accessible to non-traditional students, but not necessarily designed to accommodate non-traditional students in terms of scheduling and program completion requirements. 
Typically geared toward students aged 18-22, but relatively accessible to non-traditional students in terms of course scheduling and offerings. 
Numerous evening and online classes are ideal for non-traditional students. Course workload may not be considerate of students with families or full-time jobs.




Should I Go to Community College First? The Big Takeaways

Going to community college first then university is a choice that thousands of students make every year. In this article, we’ve overviewed the pros and cons of going to community college then transferring to a four-year college.

To help you answer the question, “Should I go to community college first,” here are the three key takeaways from this article below. 

  • Community college is usually more affordable than four-year colleges. Students who want to start at a community college then transfer to university will have the chance to save thousands of dollars and gain adequate preparation for the academic standards of a four-year college. And, remember: there are financial aid options for community college students too!

  • Community college offers academic flexibility. Students with various skill levels and academic needs will be welcomed and accommodated at community college. Remediation, vocational training, professional certification preparation, and associate’s degrees for transfer to a four-year college are all available at community colleges. |

  • Community college prepares you to transfer to a four-year college. Repeat after us: Is it bad to go to community college then transfer? No, it’s not! In fact, this may be the most important takeaway: community colleges provide excellent preparation for academic success at a four-year college. Through community college, you’ll develop and enhance the skills you need to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the field of your choosing. 



What’s Next? 

Concerned about how you’ll pay for school? Depending on your situation, going to college may not be as expensive as you think. This guide breaks down the real costs of attending a university and can help you figure out how to pay for school. 

Another good way to alleviate the cost of college is to apply for financial aid. At most schools, this requires submitting the FAFSA. Check out our walkthrough of the FAFSA submission process. (And don’t miss this article that goes over every university that offers 100% financial aid!

And of course, don’t miss out on scholarship opportunities. Scholarships are free money for college! We’ll teach you how to find—and apply!—for scholarships to help make college a little more affordable. 


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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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