When most colleges shut down their campuses in the spring of 2020, it seemed unthinkable that the COVID-19 pandemic would continue to disrupt higher education into 2021.
But with the pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, some students are wondering if it's better to go to community college until the pandemic ends.
What is a community college? A community college is a two-year school that awards associate degrees and certificates. Community colleges generally cost less than a four-year college or university, and many two-year schools offer transfer degrees designed to meet the general education requirements for a bachelor's degree.
For example, undergrads can knock out their intro-level classes at a community college before transferring into a bachelor's program to complete their studies. This option can help students save money and make progress toward their degrees, even during the pandemic.
Let's take a closer look at the pros and cons of community college during the pandemic.
Pro: Cost of Community College
For most undergrads, college is about more than classes. It's also about on-campus events, college sports, and connecting with people in person. But the pandemic has shut down many of the perks that attract students to four-year colleges.
If you're not going to get the full package at a university, why not consider a community college? After all, attending community college can save students thousands of dollars on their way to a four-year degree.
How much does community college cost? While the exact answer depends on the school, overall, community college costs a lot less than a four-year college. In the 2019-2020 school year, the average annual cost at a two-year public college was $3,700. In contrast, in-state tuition at a four-year public school cost $10,440. Out-of-state tuition cost an even higher $26,820, while private colleges charged an average of $36,880 in tuition.
Students who attend community college for two years before transferring to a university to complete a bachelor's degree save at least $13,000 in tuition — or as much as $66,000, if they transfer to a private school. That translates into less student debt and lower student loan payments after graduation.
Con: Lose Out on 4-Year Friendships
Many undergrads make lifelong connections at college. Meeting new people — friends, future job connections, romantic partners — is a big part of the college experience. By attending community college and then transferring to a four-year school, undergrads miss out on spending all four years at one school.
Friends can make a big difference in college. While undergrads spend an average of 15 hours each week in class, they clock up 86 hours each week with their friends, according to Professor Janice McCabe. A strong friend group makes students feel more connected to their school, and undergrads with friends also perform better academically.
Of course, you can still make friends as a transfer student. But making new friends, learning a new campus, and figuring out a new school halfway through your education can be a lot to handle.
Pro: Community Colleges Tend to Be Local
The middle of a pandemic isn't exactly the best time to move out of state. Even before COVID-19, 80% of college students chose a school in their home state, according to a Sallie Mae and Ipsos report. And during the COVID-19 era, it makes a lot of sense to stay close to home.
Even before COVID-19, 80% of college students chose a school in their home state.
That's another benefit of choosing a community college: They tend to be local. In addition to saving on tuition, community college students can save by not moving away. More than half of college students live at home, while the annual cost of room and board in college can easily exceed $10,000 per year. Even renting off-campus housing in your hometown often costs less than moving out-of-state and renting.
Choosing a local school also helps students stay connected with friends and family. It's much easier to visit home during a pandemic if it's a short drive versus a cross-country flight away.
Con: Perks and Prestige at Four-Year Universities
Four-year universities tend to beat community colleges when it comes to prestige. Whether you're considering a flagship state university or an elite private school, universities boast name recognition and extensive alumni networks. They also offer resources to help graduates launch their careers, including resource centers, career advising, and internship opportunities with prominent companies. A diploma from a four-year university can open doors.
On top of prestige, universities tend to offer more perks than community colleges. Even during the pandemic, university students can participate in virtual movie nights, virtual yoga programs, and all kinds of virtual seasonal events. Although many universities have modified their on-campus programs, some also still let students live in dorms and participate in Greek life.
While transfer students can still benefit from these perks and the prestige of a university, they don't get the full four-year college experience.
Pro: More Flexibility
Community college students are used to juggling multiple priorities. According to the Community College Research Center, 80% of community college students work, and nearly 40% work full-time while in school. In addition, the Institute for Women's Police Research reports that 26% of community college students are parents. As a result, community colleges design their schedules to maximize flexibility.
Having the flexibility to arrange school around work and family responsibilities helps undergrads rack up credits toward their degrees, even during the pandemic.
Here's the truth: COVID-19 has disrupted everyone's schedules. Having the flexibility to arrange school around work and family responsibilities helps undergrads rack up credits toward their degrees, even during the pandemic.
For example, at a community college, students can take classes in the evening or on weekends. Many two-year colleges also offer online or hybrid classes. Right now, more flexibility can mean the difference between earning college credits or putting off school completely.
Con: Fewer Programs
Want to major in Canadian studies or astrobiology? How about paper science and engineering? You'll probably need to attend a four-year university. While community colleges usually offer dozens of degrees and certificates, they don't provide as much variety as a four-year college.
On the other hand, community colleges offer more vocational and technical programs. Students considering careers in allied healthcare, manufacturing, the culinary arts, or emergency services may actually find more options at a two-year school.
Students planning to earn a bachelor's degree should consider the role community colleges can play in higher education. During the first two years at a university, undergrads typically don't take specialized upper-division classes anyway. After completing general education requirements at a community college, students can transfer into a specialized program at a four-year school.
However, students who choose this route should make sure their credits will transfer to a four-year college or university.
The pandemic has disrupted college plans for millions of students. In Fall 2020, freshmen enrollment dropped over 16% at colleges and universities and 23% at community colleges.
Yet attending a two-year college can help undergrads continue to make progress toward their degrees while saving money.
The pros and cons of community college show that a two-year college might not be the right option for every student, but it's not unusual to attend community college. The Community College Research Center estimates that 44% of all undergraduates enroll at a community college, and nearly half of people with a bachelor's degree attended community college as part of their postsecondary education.
Before taking a step back from higher education, students should consider whether a local community college can help them reach their academic goals.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.
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