Community College vs University | Everything You Need to Know

Community College vs. University Blog Cover
Santiago Mallea

Santiago Mallea

Content Writer At Gradehacker

There are thousands of community colleges and universities around the United States. With so many options, requirements, and aspects you need to consider, it can be hard to choose where to go. You may know what you want to study, but you are unsure where you’ll do it.

This is when the community college vs university face off comes in.

Maybe you want to pursue a nursing degree, but you don’t have the time or money to enroll in a private university. Or perhaps you have always thought of attending a community college, but you know that you’ll need to study in a university to get your bachelor’s degree.

The problem is that there are so many alternatives that choosing where to go and which path to follow is not as easy as it seems. You’ll need to think about how much it will cost you, how many hours you’ll spend studying, how many years it will take you to finish, and how good the education you will receive will be.

The truth is that community colleges and universities have both pros and cons, and to choose one over the other, you need to understand which they are and how they adapt to your specific needs.

Here at Gradehacker, we do everything to help students improve their educational journey. We know how hard it can be to pick where to study and want you to choose what’s best for you. 

That’s why we are talking about community colleges vs. universities and showing you the benefits and challenges each one has.

Let’s begin!

Community College vs. University Students walking to university

Degree Programs

First, we start with the basics. What level of degree can you get with each?

Community College

In a community college, you will find more basic education programs. They focus on providing associate degrees and career certificates which can take half the time you would need in a university to graduate. Even though it’s not the same as getting a bachelor’s degree, you can get your certificate in only two years!

Two-year community colleges are the perfect choice if you want to earn a certificate fast and find a better job in the short term.


On the other hand, universities usually span their programs for four years, twice as community colleges. However, four-year university students spend the first two years studying general education requirements, such as math or history.

And here’s a tip you should have in mind!

These general classes are known as “gen-eds,” which are also taught in community colleges. That’s why some two-year schools have admission agreements with public universities that let their undergraduate students transfer their credits to complete the final two years and pursue a bachelor’s degree!

Maybe it’s not as comfortable as pursuing your undergraduate degree in the same place, but if you get an associate’s degree in a community college first and then find a university to transfer your credits to finish your degree, you can end up saving a lot of money!

How much money? Keep reading below!

Community College vs. University Girl Outside

Cost of Tuition

Undoubtedly, how much each costs is one of the most significant differences between each type of school. Even though the number varies depending on which schools you compare, the gap is still extensive.


As expected, universities have a much higher per year cost. According to EducationData, a four-year college costs an average of $35,331 per year, including books, housing, supplies, and other expenses. So, an average four-year program might cost over $140,000.

However, if we consider student loans interests and loss of income, a bachelor’s degree can exceed $400,000!

The best way to save some money is to choose a public four-year college in your home state, as it costs approximately $25,487 for one academic year. Similarly, an out-of-state university charges an average of $27,023.

Private colleges have the highest cost, with an average of $53,217 per year.

The good news is that after paying so much, the salaries for jobs available after graduating can make the return on your educational investment. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average salary for graduates in 2021 ranges from $50,681 to $75,900.

Still, to make your college journey profitable, you need to find a job that can make up the thousands of dollars you spent by paying tuition or acquiring student debt. While you won’t see any return on your educational investment until you get a job, the truth is that with a college degree you have more chances of finding one fast.

Community College

Differently, community college is a lot cheaper than universities. According to EducationData, the average cost in 2021 of community college tuition is $1,865 per semester or $7,460 in total.

You pay five times less for a year than you would pay by going to a private university.

One reason why you don’t pay as much as a community college student is because these institutions don’t include costs like campus infrastructure, housing, meals, and extracurricular programs. You still need to pay for books, lab fees, and technology, but at least the tuition fee is much cheaper.

Just as with universities, there is a significant difference between public and private institutions. In-state public community colleges charge their students an average of $3,400, while out-of-state students pay approximately $8,210 for college tuition.

If you pursue a two-year degree in a private community college, the average annual tuition starts at $15,100 and can be as high as $25,000.

Community College vs. University Students in a community college


Another key difference is the requirements each education institution asks for. How do you enroll?


Each university has its own requirements and admission standards. Generally, they accept students who meet a certain GPA or who were able to pass a standardized test. But there are also other essential factors such as admissions essays, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities. Not all of them are mandatory, but the more you meet, the more chances you’ll have of being selected.

A great downside of universities is that they charge for their application form. According to US News, the average application fee is about $45. And while some four-year schools charge less, there are others like Harvard University and Boston college that charge above $75, and others such as Columbia, Stanford, and Arkansas Baptist College that are around $100.

Of course, these fees cannot be refunded. So if you apply, pay for it, and don’t get accepted, you will not get your money back.

Community College

One of the benefits of community college is that nearly all have open admissions.

Unlike universities, they don’t ask you to meet a standard GPA or include letters of recommendation. You don’t even need to have the best grades or test scores from school!

By having a high school degree, you can access higher education and enroll in a two-year college. Still, be attentive that this open admissions policy does not necessarily mean that you will enroll. Community college classes tend to fill up faster, so you’ll want to register early to ensure your place.

And, community colleges don’t charge or have a real low fee for the application process.

Plus, if you get your associate’s degree in a two-year college first, you can transfer your credits to a university without having to take the standardized test. Check with the university you want to go to and give it a try!


Another great difference between community colleges and universities is the amount of time you can dedicate to your classes.

Community College

You have more flexibility by attending community college classes, meaning you can learn at your own rhythm. This is mainly useful for non-traditional students, who have to continue working and taking care of their families while they study.

Moreover, according to the  National Center for Education Statistics, of the 5.6 million students in 2-year institutions in Fall 2019, 63% (3.5 million) attended part-time.

Plus, many community colleges offer night classes, something rarely found in traditional universities.

If you have work obligations and family responsibilities or simply want to study at your own pace by taking two or three classes per semester, you’ll find the flexibility you are looking for in community colleges!


On the contrary, universities have a more rigid schedule, mainly for people with full-time availability. The same report of the NCES shows that among the 11.0 million undergraduate students enrolled in a four-year institution, 74% (8.2 million) attended full time.

While part-time studying in universities is possible, it is clear that to strive as a university student, you have to be prepared to fit their timetable into your schedule.

Community College vs. University Students friends gathering

Financial Aid

We’ve discussed the costs of each educational institution, but how about the financial aid you can get for them?


Four-year schools usually have more financial aid options available for their students, especially larger institutions. They offer multiple scholarships that community colleges could only dream of having. They could be meant for people with specific feats in sports, music, or other programs.

And it’s even better if you are a full-time student because you’ll be able to check out other scholarships given by external organizations. For example, if you are a non-traditional student or are enrolled in a nursing program, you can read our blogs to find the best scholarships for you!

The same goes if you are directly involved with the military. Check out the best scholarships if you are a member of the military or if you are a military spouse.

Community College

While financial aid isn’t exclusive for four-year college students, community colleges don’t have as many options available. This is explained by the fact that most of its students choose part-time study, and many scholarships are specifically targeted to full-time students.

Still, there are a few alternatives out there for you. For example, federal student loans for part-time students require them to have taken six credit hours or be in two courses. If you apply and they grant you the scholarship, you’ll need to keep attending classes, or you’ll lose your aid award.

Class Size and Academic Quality

Now, let’s see how each classroom experience is.

Community College

Community college classes were seen as less serious and rigorous than university lessons for many years. Fortunately, the academic standards have improved, as the majority of community schools have professors with master’s or doctoral degrees in their field.

Furthermore, teachers are more likely to have years of experience working in their industry, unlike university professors who have a more academic background. Still, you might get a younger teacher who is not as experienced as the rest of the faculty body.

Regarding the lessons, community colleges usually have smaller classes, between 20 and 40 people. This allows the teacher to provide a more personalized experience, get to know their students better, and answer their questions more clearly.


There is no doubt that universities generally have a more academic teachers body. Some might not have the same years of working experience as community college professors have, however, they do possess an impressive academic background and are more than capable of providing the best learning experience possible.

All of their full-time professors have a master’s or doctoral degree and are experts in their career field.

However, universities usually have large classes, and some even have to accommodate their students in auditoriums to give the lectures. Many public universities have an average class size that surpasses 50 students, and others even exceed 100 per lesson!

Even though these crowded lectures are prepared to be taught to this number of people, the learning experience can be more challenging, as according to this study, the average grade of a class declines as the class size increases.

Community College vs. University Friends Outside

Student life

Last but not least, we have one of the most overlooked aspects of college, the actual campus experience.


Most universities are designed to home students on or near their campus during the entire academic year. There are many different places where students live: residence halls, theme houses, fraternities, sororities, and nearby off-campus housing. 

The university experience comes with lots of activities. You can enroll in multiple clubs or join your school sports team. If not, you might also enjoy events such as sports games, musical or theatrical performances, comedy nights, lectures, and more!

Universities usually encourage their students to get involved with social activities, which increases your school spirit and will most likely improve your overall experience!

Community College

Even though it does make them a more affordable option, community colleges don’t invest too much in campus facilities, social activities, athletics programs, and student clubs. Some might have one or a few of them, but it depends on the school, however, none of these features will be as good as the ones you find in a university.

Still, if you are a non-traditional or part-time student, and don’t care about watching the basketball game, going to a fraternity party, or even joining a student club, then you won’t mind much about it.

Which One Should You Choose?

So, community college or university. Which one is for you?

Well, it all depends on your needs.

Community College Pros and Cons

If you want to save a considerable amount of money, study while fulfilling your responsibilities, and earn an associate’s degree that could eventually lead you to pursue a bachelor’s degree, then you should seriously consider enrolling in a community college. You have more flexibility to balance your life with your studies, and you’ll have a more personalized experience too!

And if finishing your associate’s degree is not enough, you can always continue your studies at a university!


Cheaper tuition cost

Fewer scholarships available

More flexibility (perfect for non-traditional students)

Campus life is not important

Smaller classes

Some teachers might not have the same academic backgrounds as universities ones

More personalized learning experience

Only offers basic education programs

Experienced teachers

Easy and open admission process

University Pros and Cons

On the other hand, if you are looking for a bachelor’s degree, want a complete campus experience, and have the economic background to afford it, a four-year program in a university will have everything you need. The admission process is harder to pass, and the price difference with community colleges is enormous. Still, if you are accepted into the college of your dreams, you can check if they offer some financial aid. And if not, there will most likely be a scholarship out there for you!

Teachers have an outstanding academic background, but classes can be so large that they might be more general. Still, they will be more than enough to educate you.


Better degree programs

Higher tuition cost

Teachers with excellent academic experience

Less flexibility (prepared for full-time students)

More scholarships available

Larger classes

Plenty of activities that sum up the campus experience

Complex admission process with unique requirements

After you graduate, you can find a better job that returns on what you spent

And remember! You can always get your associate’s degree and save a lot of money by attending a community college then transferring your credits to a university to graduate with a bachelor’s degree!

After reading this article, you need to understand your needs, see the pros and cons of each, and consider which institution type fits them best!

You now have all you need to know to make an informed decision. If you want to start a new college degree and want to consider some options to alleviate your experience, you can always contact us to help you with your essays, exams, classes, and even your whole degree!

If you want to continue learning how to improve your college journey, check out some of our other articles: