Community colleges are just as popular as four-year colleges in the US. Half of all higher education students in the US enroll in community college. But what is a community college?
Community colleges are junior colleges or technical colleges that offer two-year associate degree programs. Many students who attend community college choose to continue their studies by pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution. Students may transfer to four-year institutions either during their community college semesters or upon completion of their associate degree.
On average, community colleges are much smaller than traditional four-year institutions. They provide smaller classroom settings and have flexible course offerings and options. Let’s explore what programs you could pursue at a community college.
Community College Programs
Most community colleges offer a variety of different programs. Though most students pursue a 60-credit associate degree, some students pursue shorter programs. Most community colleges also offer one-year certificate and diploma programs. More recently, some large community colleges have also expanded to offer select bachelor’s degree programs.
An associate degree is the lowest level college degree a student can earn. The degree requires 60 credit hours or about 16 to 18 courses.
Typically, students complete an associate degree within four semesters, about two years. This can vary significantly depending on a student’s other commitments or if the student pursues the degree part-time.
An associate degree gives students basic expertise on their chosen degree. There are two types of associate degree options, an associate of arts and an associate of science. The main difference is that an AA may have more general distribution liberal arts requirements while an AS will focus more on hard sciences like biology and chemistry.
For some professions, an associate degree may be sufficient. For others, it may be just enough to get started in entry-level positions. Students seeking higher roles may be required to pursue higher degree levels.
Some community colleges have one-year diploma or certificate programs for students interested in learning more about a specific field without enrolling in a degree program. Some students enrolled in degree programs will pursue certificate programs to add a specialization to their program. For example, a student in an associate degree program in early childhood education may choose to get a certificate in bilingual early childhood education to gain specialized skills.
Community College Majors
All associate degrees require some liberal arts coursework in the form of general education requirements. Though each college has slightly different requirements, most general education liberal arts requirements include the four core academic subjects of math, science, history, English, and sometimes foreign languages.
Students enrolled in community colleges will have to fulfill their general education requirements in addition to the course requirements for their chosen major.
Community colleges offer many majors to study. Most community colleges offer a wide variety of programs, including professional track associate degrees like business, technology programs, and industry-specific certifications.
Many community college students also choose programs that require further studies, like teacher education programs, engineering, or other technical fields. Some community colleges also offer programs in the fine arts, including visual art and the performing arts.
Community colleges are the perfect place to explore creative interests in a low-stress environment. Whether students focus on fine arts or simply take fine arts courses to fulfill elective requirements, community colleges give students a chance to develop important and applicable creative skills.
Community College Transfer Options
Many students attend community colleges for two to four semesters with plans to eventually transfer to four-year institutions. The transfer rate ranges from college to college, but overall the national transfer rate is 20 percent. This means that about 1 in 5 community college students transfers from a two-year to a four-year institution. Research shows that students are more successful when transferring after earning their associate degree than students who transfer before they earn the degree.
The Difference Between Community Colleges, Junior Colleges, and Technical Colleges?
Technically, there is no actual difference between a community college and a junior college. The only difference is in the name and in the history of the two systems.
Junior Colleges were established as brother institutions to larger four-year colleges and universities. Students who could not immediately enter the four-year institution could start their education with more basic, general education courses at the junior college. Then, they could apply to continue their studies at the four-year university.
Community colleges were established to meet the needs of their local communities, hence the name. Though they are not necessarily affiliated with a four-year institution, community colleges serve a very similar function to junior colleges. Students can earn credits for up to two years and then if they choose, apply to continue their education at a four-year school.
Technical colleges or trade schools are two-year programs that resemble community colleges at first glance. However, technical colleges differ in that they focus exclusively on training for a specific profession.
Technical colleges won’t have the same kinds of liberal arts general education requirements that are foundational to the community college model. Instead, technical college students focus entirely on learning the hard skills they will need for their technical careers in fields like automotive technology, culinary arts, and cosmetology.
Best Community Colleges in the US
Though most community colleges offer similar programs, some are better than others. Community colleges tend to be ranked based on the quality and variety of their programs, their graduation rates, and the rate at which their students transfer into four-year colleges. Cost-to-value outcomes are also taken into account. The more successful students are and the less the college costs, the higher the cost-to-value rating of the community college.
Finally, location and accessibility to four-year schools also play a role in community college rankings. Most top community colleges are located near or around large four-year institutions that they may have formal or informal transfer agreements with.
Santa Barbara City College
This is no standard community college. Santa Barbara Community College is located on a sprawling, scenic coastal campus in Santa Barbara, California with over 20,000 students. It has over 80 degree programs and 50 certificate programs to choose from, giving it one of the widest community college offerings in the country.
Walla Walla Community College
Located in the small Columbia Valley Washington State town of Walla Walla, Washington, Walla Walla Community College has everything you need in a community college. It offers programs in a wide variety of disciplines and specializes in technical and local community learning through its Ag Center for Excellence.
Valencia College is an excellent option for students who are hoping to transfer to any Florida state university. The college, which has five campuses throughout Central Florida, offers 12 pre-major tracks. If you graduate from Valencia with an associate degree, you are guaranteed admission to one of the many four-year schools in the Florida state system.
Saint Paul College
Saint Paul College is both a community college and a technical college located in one of Minnesota’s twin cities, Saint Paul. It offers many degree, certificate, and diploma options to meet many educational interests and needs.
De Anza College
This college is in the cultural and technological hub of Silicon Valley, nestled in Cupertino, California next to tech giants like Apple. Its International and Intercultural Studies program is also an extremely popular option for international students, attracting students from all over the world.
Broward College, formerly known as Broward Community College, offers many degree and diploma programs, with a handful of bachelor’s programs recently added as well. Located in one of the largest counties in Florida, the college is located in sunny Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Students have many pathways to transferring to either a bachelor’s program at the college or to a four-year university. The majority of students who transfer to four-year institutions go to a Florida state college, including nearby Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University.
Best Online Community Colleges
A growing number of community colleges are starting to offer online classes and even entirely online degree programs. That said, some other community colleges are only offering individual courses and certificate programs online.
Five of the best online community colleges are:
- Southern Regional Technical College
- Lanier Technical College
- Coastal Pines Technical College
- Southwest Mississippi Community College
- Rappahannock Community College
Southern Regional Technical College
Located in Thomasville, Georgia, Suthern Regional Technical College offers accredited degrees, diplomas, and technical certificates to its online and in-person students, both to in-state and out-of-state students. Some of SRTC’s majors include marketing management, criminal justice technology, and accounting. Most programs take five to six semesters to complete, and some may require the completion of an internship or externship.
SRTC also offers exceptional career guidance, including resources like:
- Virtual Job Shadow career planning simulator
- FOCUS 2 Explore College Selection Tool
- Purple Briefcase online job board
Lanier Technical College
Lanier Technical College boasts 50 online degrees, diplomas, and certificates. Its career-oriented offerings make Lanier an excellent choice for students seeking positions in fields like business technology and emergency management.
LTC’s associate degree offerings require 60 – 68 credits and take 5-6 semesters to complete. Its diploma and certificate programs require 47 – 55 credits and prepare students for the workforce. LTC’s courses are offered both synchronously and asynchronously, and some remote courses require some synchronous coursework.
Coastal Pines Technical College
Coastal Pines Technical College boasts 130 associate degrees, technical certificates, and continuing education programs. In addition to its on-campus and online courses, CPTC offers five synchronous online programs in accounting, business technology, criminal justice, early childcare and education, and marketing management. Students can choose to pursue a degree, diploma, or certificate option through each of these programs.
Additionally, CPTC’s career counseling services offer career guidance, resume help, and placement services.
Southwest Mississippi Community College
Southwest Mississippi Community College offers synchronous and asynchronous online courses and degrees through the Canvas online learning system. Each associate’s degree requires 62 credits of general education and core courses.
Distanced learners receive access to SMCC’s online library system and NetTutor program for academic assistance.
Rappahannock Community College
Rappahannock Community College offers online learners a variety of applied science degrees, career studies certificates, and certificate programs. In addition, the college’s transfer program allows students to earn their associate’s degree at RCC and then transfer to a four-year bachelor’s program at one of 41 partnering institutions, where they receive guaranteed admission.
Community colleges are an excellent educational option for many reasons. As the cost of higher education continues to rise to astronomical heights, the benefits of staying close to home are countless. Overall, a community college education is very affordable compared to a traditional four-year college education.
Though all community college students may not want to transfer to a four-year school, they have the option to continue their education at four-year institutions. Students can stay home and get their associate degree at a community college before continuing to earn a traditional bachelor’s degree elsewhere. Other students can earn their associate degree and go straight into the workforce in entry-level positions.
Whatever their ultimate goal, community college students have many paths to choose from. Consider this an introductory guide to community college and consider this list of the best community colleges to start your research.