What is community college?

Submitted by grace.mccabe on Thu, 07/21/2022 - 15:06

Among several options for post-secondary education is community college. But what exactly is a community college? What makes it different to a university? 

Here we explain what a community college is and look at the pros and cons of attending one after high school. 

What is a community college? 

Community colleges can look different depending which country you are applying in. In Australia, community colleges are small, private establishments that offer short courses in subjects related to self-improvement or hobbies. In Malaysia, community colleges offer vocational and technical skill training and courses for school leavers before they enter the working world.

In the Philippines and the UK, community colleges offer regular education to students aged 11 to 18 during the day and then offer night classes or part-time education to older students. Finally, community colleges in India offer diplomas, advanced diplomas and certificate courses in a similar way to those in the US and Canada, designed to prepare students for potential further education. 

In this article we are looking at community colleges that provide further education, with a focus on those in the United States and Canada. 

A community college is a two-year higher education institution where students can study for a certificate or diploma and then transfer to a university to complete a bachelor’s degree. These colleges are publicly funded and therefore open to anyone with a high school diploma.

In Canada these colleges are often referred to as “polytechnic institutes” and in the US they are also known as “junior colleges” or “technical colleges” to differentiate them from universities. They are run by independent government units known as community college districts or by alternative administrative bodies. 

People attend community college for many reasons, including: 

  • Access to post-secondary education 
  • Training on specific workplace skills 
  • Community enrichment programmes 
  • Cultural activities 
  • Retraining 
  • Learning a language
  • Preparation for university

How much does community college cost? 

Because of public funding and the shorter programmes on offer, community colleges are not as expensive as universities, averaging at one third of the cost of a public university and one-tenth the cost of a private university or Ivy League school

The average cost of attending a public community college is $2,713 each year. When comparing this to a public four-year college or university, which on average costs $7,605 annually, community college is significantly cheaper. Some students attend community college first and then transfer to university later to help save money.

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Who can attend community college? 

Community colleges are not selective and therefore don’t specify a particular GPA or academic requirement, allowing anyone with a high school diploma to attend, including international students. 

Students who may not have performed well at school or those who have not been in education for years can all attend. However, not all programmes are available. Students will be asked to sit a placement test before the year begins and will then be advised on which programmes will best suit their academic ability. Some programmes will be offered only to those who score highly enough in the initial placement test. 

Registration at the beginning of the year is often on a first-come, first-served basis so courses fill up quickly. 

Many applicants choosing to attend community college are often those wishing to save money while still based at home, to improve their grades before heading to university or to study part-time to balance studying with family or work life.

How do I apply to community college?

Community college is open to all students, including international students who may be looking for a more affordable pathway to higher education in the US. To apply, first research community colleges and what courses they offer. Once you have chosen one that offers classes you are interested in, take a note of its application deadlines, enrolment dates and tuition fees. Some programmes may have specific start dates, but others may allow you to enrol any semester.

The next step is to narrow down your choices and begin the application process. For most applications you will need information such as ID/passport, social security number or resident card and birth certificate. Applications also require proof of address such as a rental agreement or utility bill and your academic history, SAT scores, high school diploma etc.

International students may also be asked to sit an English proficiency test. The requirements may vary depending on which community college you are interested in. For example, San Diego City Community College requires a TOEFL qualification. However, Delaware County Community College in Pennsylvania does not require any TOEFL or IELTS results.

After you complete the application and pay your tuition fees or organise financial aid, you will be asked to sit a placement exam. This will test your mathematics, science and literacy skills. Based on your score you will be placed into classes that match your ability. 

Finally, you will attend orientation and can begin registering for classes you want to attend. 

What are classes like at community college? 

Community colleges offer associate degrees that usually take two years to complete and shorter courses, at the end of which students receive professional certifications. Students who want to continue to a bachelor’s degree can transfer once they have achieved their associate degree. 

The students who attend community college have diverse backgrounds and situations. This means that not everyone can attend class every day. Therefore, many community colleges have taken advantage of hybrid classes, combining in-person lessons with digital learning. 

Class sizes are often small, ranging from 15 to 20 students, and they provide an intermediate level of learning between high school and university. Some students may be retaking a subject they struggled with in high school while others may be learning something new. 

What are living-learning communities in college? 

Living-learning communities are designed to group students who share interests in the same subjects and help them move into a residential living community on campus. This allows students to access specialised resources and have more contact with teachers who teach that subject. 

Students who live in an LLC will share their experience with like-minded peers in and outside the classroom. Many colleges offer this as a way for first-year students to make friends and become integrated into the college community.

Community college versus university  

If you are looking for a shorter higher education experience with lower tuition fees and a less intense admission process, community college might be the next step. At community college, students can revisit topics they may have struggled with in the past and classes are smaller allowing more one-on-one time with the teacher. It is also easier to study part-time and fit your education around your life.

However, if you want to start working on your bachelor’s degree immediately, take a larger variety of classes at an institution with a solid reputation then university may be the next best step. At university, students will jump straight into an in-depth education, can declare their major and begin life as an adult away from home sooner. 

Community college can be the ideal next step if it offers the flexibility and education level you need as it can help prepare you for work or to move on to university when you are ready. 


If university doesn’t sound like the next step for you, you may want to go to community college first before committing to going to university. But what is community college?