Community College vs. University: Financial Considerations

Sep 20, 2023 4 min read

You’ve decided you want to go to college. That’s great! Now, you need to decide which path is best for you: community college or university. Weighing the pros and cons of each can help you pick the best fit. 

Pros and Cons of Community College 

A four-year degree isn’t the only path to a fulfilling, high-paying career, but is community college worth it? In short: yes. Two-year schools have a host of benefits to consider when making your choice. We examine the pros and cons of attending a community college.

Pro: Cost-Effective

College tuition is soaring, which has many people re-thinking educational spending and student loan debt. But is community college cheaper than a university? Most students find that they can complete a two-year degree for a fraction of the cost of a four-year degree, and often have their student loans paid for by the time their counterparts graduate with their bachelor’s degrees. Better yet, the lower cost of tuition at community colleges means students may be able to avoid taking out loans altogether.

Even if you plan to get a bachelor’s degree, going to community college means you can complete many of the initial graduation requirements at a much more affordable rate than if you complete all requirements at a four-year school. 

Pro: Career-Focused

Not all careers require a bachelor’s degree. In fact, many high-paying jobs require only a two-year degree, such as air traffic controllers, construction managers and radiation therapists. Plus, openings for many careers that require a two-year degree are expected to grow, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These include jobs in healthcare, technology and engineering.

Pro: Stackable Credentials

When people graduate with an associate degree (the most common degree from a community college), they’ll likely take with them a host of credentials and certifications. Because community colleges are laser-focused on making students career-ready, they offer nationally recognized certifications, which vary by field and are recognized throughout the industry they support. To achieve these credentials, students must demonstrate their knowledge and proficiency, so they become key resume builders after graduation. Examples of industry-recognized certifications students can earn at a community college include:

  • MSSC: Certifies manufacturing skills.
  • MCSE: Certifies knowledge of Microsoft products and software engineering principles.
  • NAAEI: Certifies knowledge of real estate principles. 

Pro: Smaller Class Sizes

When you think of college lecture halls, you likely envision a classroom with stadium seating for 200 students. This isn’t the case in many community colleges where classes are intentionally kept small and often focus on hands-on instruction. Many community college students find academic success with this approach to learning and excel with the one-on-one attention they receive in community colleges. 

Pro: Flexible Scheduling

For students who work full-time or have children at home, community college makes it feasible to pursue a degree while still managing life’s demands. With a plethora of classes offered online and at night, plus a lighter workload overall, community college may be the best option for people with demanding schedules. 

Con: Limited Course Options

Community colleges are more affordable and often have smaller class sizes, but they may offer fewer curriculum options. Keep this in mind if your career interests require a niche area of study.

Con: Less Accountability 

Community college is great for self-starters and people who have a set goal in mind, but it can also make it easier to put your studies on hold, sometimes indefinitely. Academic advising at community colleges can be limited compared to the services offered at four-year institutions, putting students in charge of their own progress. 

Con: A Different College Experience

Living in the dorms. Hanging out on campus. Joining fraternities or sororities. If these common college experiences are priorities on your list of higher education aspirations, community college may not be for you. Community colleges are often smaller and don’t always offer the same on-campus experiences you may find at a larger university.

Pros and Cons of University 

With student loan debt on the rise, some are questioning the value of a college degree. However, the lessons students learn both in and out of the classroom make a four-year degree worth the investment. Here, we highlight the pros and cons of attending a university.

Pro: Soft Skills

Some of the most sought-after skills are mastered while students work to achieve their bachelor’s degrees. Skills like communication, writing, research, collaboration and leadership are developed in a university environment. Mastering these skills — regardless of major courses — will help a student succeed long after graduation, providing one of the biggest advantages of a university education. 

Pro: Career Prerequisite

Many careers — including many STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) positions — require a bachelor’s degree. Outside of STEM disciplines, people find that to manage people and climb the corporate ladder, a bachelor’s degree is not only beneficial — it’s an application requirement. 

Pro: Long-Term Earning Potential

Though attitudes are shifting, the long-term earning potential is still stronger for people with bachelor’s degrees. Although a four-year university is much more costly, the right college planning strategy can alleviate some of that financial weight, and universities typically offer more scholarship and financial aid options than community colleges. College graduates earn far more over a lifetime than their counterparts with only a high school diploma, or even their counterparts with an associate degree.

Pro: Networking Opportunities

Thanks to the myriad of clubs, organizations and affinity groups found on campus, the university experience can help you enter the workforce with a professional network already in place. Post-graduation, many alumni organizations offer mentoring and job-search services that can help recent grads get a foot in the door.

Con: Geographic Restrictions

Many four-year institutions require students to attend school in-person, and many schools require first-year students to live on campus. While this may contribute to the college experience, it can be a barrier for non-traditional students or students who would rather live at home.

Con: A Costly Investment

A four-year degree is a costly investment that needs to be carefully considered. According to Education Data, the average total cost of a four-year degree is approximately $145,000, and when accounting for student loan interest and loss of income, the ultimate cost of a bachelor’s degree can exceed $500,000. The average student loan debt in 2023 was $37,338 , and 20 years after entering school, half of the student borrowers still owe $20,000 each on outstanding loan balances. 

Con: Distractions

Universities are often large and come with plenty of opportunities to socialize, network and make connections with peers and professors. But with greater opportunities to socialize and engage come greater distractions. You’ll need to keep your priorities in mind to ensure you achieve your academic goals.

The bottom line? Only you can choose the right path for your unique situation. Before deciding on a course of action, consider long-term career goals, occupational outlooks and financial considerations.

Save Smartly

Talk to your Farm Bureau agent about smart ways to save for college — because preparation is always a wise investment. 

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