Are you looking for an affordable way to begin your college education? Are you hesitant to make the commitment of a traditional four-year degree program? Community college might be the answer you’re seeking.
There was once a significant stigma surrounding community college. Some thought that going to community college was a marker of an inferior social class or poor intelligence.
Thankfully, the tides have turned in favor of community college. Americans have realized that community college is simply another type of education.
But is community college free? What are the costs associated with going to community college?
Keep reading and we’ll tell you all about it.
What Is Community College?
The first community colleges in America were called “junior colleges” or “trade colleges,” and they date back to 1901. Community colleges are uniquely American institutions.
When the United States government established the first community colleges, they also invented the Associate’s degree. An Associate’s degree is a two-year degree that one obtains either as part of vocational training or on their way to a Bachelor’s degree.
Nowadays, community colleges are thriving as alternatives to traditional four-year degree programs. Community colleges are publically owned and often open enrollment.
This means that anyone with a high school diploma can enroll in a community college program; they aren’t designed to be exclusive.
Most community colleges focus on awarding Associate’s degrees and trade education. It is also common for students who intend on getting their Bachelor’s degree to start off with an Associate’s degree from a community college.
Community colleges offer education in a limited number of areas. Usually, these programs focus on “practical” skills such as business or real estate.
Community colleges also offer typical prerequisites that four-year colleges require. These classes include basic mathematics, English, foreign language, history, and science courses.
Community colleges offer accessible education to students from low-income families. They also offer the most flexibility to students who want to go to school part-time.
However, community colleges have been growing in popularity in recent years. About 47% of all students enrolled in public universities go to community college.
Is Community College Free?
The whole point of the invention of community college was to make education widely accessible. Before 1901, education was a privilege that few could afford.
As a result, community college programs are designed to be very affordable. Currently, 19 states offer completely free community college education through a series of federal community college grants.
Even if your state doesn’t offer these grants, you probably don’t need to worry too much about community college costs.
Many community colleges give their students the opportunity to apply for need-based financial aid. We’ll get into that more in a moment.
Even if you are paying for your community college classes out of pocket, you will not need to spend nearly as much money as you would at a traditional university.
The average American college class costs about $935. The average community college class, however, costs just a little over $100.
Since community colleges allow you to choose your classes on an a la carte basis, you won’t need to worry about spending more than you can handle.
Even without any financial aid or free college grants, it may cost you as little as $1,500 to complete your Associate’s degree at a community college. Plus, you can complete that degree with a flexible schedule that allows you to work outside of school.
Pell Grants for Community College
Let’s talk a little more about the financial aid options that are available to community college students. If your state doesn’t offer free community college, you can still get the cost of your education covered by Pell Grants.
You can apply for Pell Grants even if your education is free. You can use your financial aid awards to cover housing, transportation, and other costs that are secondary to your education.
The federal government awards Pell Grants to students who display the most financial need. Only students who have not completed their first undergraduate degree can be eligible for Pell Grants.
That means that Pell Grants are perfect for low-income students who are starting their education at a community college.
Unlike typical student loans, Pell Grants do not need to be repaid. They are just small sums of money (usually between $1,000 and $2,000) that you can use to get your education started.
If you can demonstrate enough financial need, you may be able to get your entire community college education covered by Pell Grants.
You can also combine these grants with smaller scholarships.
No matter what your budget is, there is almost always a way for you to completely subsidize your community college degree.
Community College Pros and Cons
Affordability is only one of the community college benefits that you can take advantage of. Of course, there are also drawbacks to a community college education.
Let’s break down all the pros and cons of taking community college classes.
We’ve already talked about how affordable community college is. A major point in favor of community college is that almost everyone can afford to go.
While most community colleges mainly offer Associate’s degrees, that is starting to change. As of 2018, many community colleges can offer Bachelor’s degrees.
If you want to get your Bachelor’s degree but don’t want to attend a traditional four-year program, you may be able to complete your entire undergraduate education at a community college!
Many professions may not even require a Bachelor’s degree, which means you could get all your qualifications at a community college.
Let’s say, for example, that you want to start your own business. You can take a few community college classes on business management and financial literacy to prepare.
For a work venture like that, you don’t necessarily need to get a Bachelor’s degree; you just need to beef up your background knowledge.
This kind of flexibility is exactly what makes community colleges the right choice for a lot of people; they allow you to take classes a la carte. This means that, if you have a full-time job or family to take care of, you can still squeeze in a class here and there.
At a community college in your area, you may be able to get all the training you need on a flexible schedule and at little to no cost.
Now let’s talk about some of the drawbacks of a community college education. Community college is a great choice for lots of people, but it isn’t suited for all career paths.
If you are an artist (whether that be visual arts, performing arts, dramatic arts, or literary arts), a community college education may not be necessary for you.
Community colleges mostly offer entry-level arts education. Art classes at community colleges are designed for people who need an art credit as a prerequisite; not people who are looking for in-depth knowledge.
There are some other highly specialized degrees that you cannot complete at a community college. These include medicine, engineering, laboratory science, and higher mathematics.
You may be able to start your degree in one of those fields at a community college, but you will probably have to attend a four-year university and possibly graduate school as well.
The last real drawback of community college is that it doesn’t offer you the stereotypical American collegiate experience. You most likely won’t live in a dorm, join a sorority or fraternity, or participate in many clubs.
Of course, none of those things are essential to your education; but you should know not to expect them from a community college.
What Can You Do With a Community College Degree?
So, you’ve decided that community college is right for you and you’re on your way to getting your degree. What will you be able to do with your Associate’s degree or trade skills?
Community college is a great resource for aspiring business owners. With just a few classes, you can gain knowledge that is essential to running your own business.
If you aren’t sure what field you want to go into, you can take community college classes as a means of figuring out where your passion lies.
Try a sampler of many different types of classes; a little math, a little business, a little art, a little science. Sometimes the best way to figure out your career path is to dip your toes into a couple of different waters.
Many American students leave undergraduate school with a debilitating amount of student loan debt. This makes graduate school daunting or impossible.
If you get your Bachelor’s degree at a community college, you won’t have to worry so much about the cost of graduate school!
This is a great option for students who know that graduate school is in their future. If you’re an aspiring lawyer, professor, or medical student, this may be a great option for you.
You can work while getting your Bachelor’s degree and save up money. That way, your future education or business endeavors won’t become financially burdensome.
Getting a Bachelor’s Degree Through Community College
Not all community colleges offer Bachelor’s degree programs. However, you can still use community college classes to work toward your Bachelor’s.
Most four-year universities accept transfer credits from community colleges.
Why not take prerequisite courses at a community college and save yourself a significant amount of money?
You can even apply to a four-year university and then defer for a year while you take basic community college classes. After that year is up, transfer your credits for a major head start!
As we mentioned earlier, the average community college course is almost $900 cheaper than the average college course!
Let’s say you take 5 or 6 prerequisite courses at a community college before enrolling at a traditional university. You will easily save yourself around $5,000 on the cost of your degree.
Plus, you can also delay the costs of moving to a new place and paying for dormitory housing.
Many community college students take courses while living in their family’s home and working part-time. This is one of the best ways for young adults to achieve financial independence.
Some community colleges even offer pre-college courses to high school students. This allows high school students from low-income families to jumpstart their college education.
Is There a Future for Tuition-Free College?
The average cost of an American college education is extremely high. That’s why community colleges are so appealing to many students.
Recently, the Democratic party has started to make campaign promises about lowering the cost of college; or making it free.
However, the most recent White House reports say that the Biden administration has dropped its promise to make community college free.
Young Americans all across the political spectrum are crying out for affordable education and student loan debt relief. However, neither of these things have yet been successfully implemented on a mass scale.
There may still be hope for tuition-free college of all types, at least across American public universities.
However, this process will likely take a while. For today’s college students, community college remains the best way to make sure education is flexible and affordable.
Get Your Education on Your Terms
Now that you know all about the cost of community college, you can find the perfect program for you. Find out if your state offers free community college and, if not, look into Pell Grants and other scholarship opportunities.
If you need help finding financial aid, your local community college may have an advisor who can sit down with you one-on-one and help you research.
Community colleges are there to help students from all walks of life succeed. Don’t be afraid to ask for the resources you need!