In 1959, a young Air Force veteran moved to Los Angeles to break into the entertainment industry. He took a job as a clerk at Los Angeles City College so he could save for expensive acting lessons at Pasadena Playhouse.
Learning of his plans, a colleague at LACC reminded him that classes there were free or nearly free, so why pay more? So the young man enrolled in Theatre 101, 102, and the class that would change his life: Speech.
His name was Morgan Freeman, and he went on to win an Oscar in 2004 and play God twice, crediting his community college experience as a launching pad.
Even though his colleague’s advice is now 60 years old, it still rings true today; why pay more? After all, tuition at public and private non-profit universities has skyrocketed 50% to 65% since 2000 adjusting for inflation, whereas the price for community college has hardly budged.
How much does community college cost?
For the 2018-2019 school year, the average cost of annual tuition at community college was around $3,700. However, the “average” here doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
First, 24 out of 50 states offer tuition-free community colleges. If you live in the north, on the west coast, or in the upper midwest you’re probably in luck.
Next, states that do charge tuition for community colleges tend to offer generous grants and tax benefits to most students. For a conservative estimate, plan to pay around $5,000 per year or less for community college.
However, don’t forget to factor room and board into your budget. Depending on where you choose to live and learn, room and board alone can be well over $10,000 for the year.
How much can you save by going to community college?
In their 2018-2019 Pricing Trends Report, College Board offers a pretty clear picture of how much you can save by going to community college versus a public, or private, four-year college.
I did some math and created a table of how much you could save if you go to community college for your bachelor’s degree instead of a public or private four-year institution (yes, community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees, too!).
I also factored in how much you could save if you opt for a two-year associate degree at community college vs. a four-year bachelor’s degree everywhere else since a lot of folks choose that option for the six-figure savings.
Annual savings Total savings on four-year Bachelor's degree Total savings - two-year Associate's degree vs. four-year Bachelor's degree
Community college vs. public
$9,230 $36,920 $62,360
Community college vs. public four-year out-of-state $25,610 $102,440 $127,880
Community college vs. private four-year $37,150 $148,600 $174,040
As you can plainly see, the amount you’ll save by going to community college versus a traditional four-year institution is staggering. Maybe that’s why my pop used to joke that I should drive a brand new Aston Martin to community college and save money over going to a four-year as I did.
Why is community college so much cheaper than four-year universities?
Aside from being publicly funded, the #1 reason community college is so affordable is low overhead.
Community colleges are, generally speaking, lean operations. Most of them lack giant campuses, fancy dorms, and sports teams that make college feel like, well, college. However, as a result of not having to maintain all that infrastructure, community colleges can afford to charge much, much less.
Plus, since they are often non-residential, community colleges allow students to live wherever, with whomever they want. Living with mom and dad while you get your associate degree may preclude you from living out your Van Wilder fantasies, but it’ll save you thousands by graduation.
By contrast, many four-year institutions require students to live on campus for their freshman year, and in some cases, even through junior or senior year. Worse still, the cost of sharing a tiny dorm with a roommate can be equally as expensive as having a local apartment all to yourself.
So between low overhead and flexible housing, community colleges can afford to charge significantly less for tuition than big four-year institutions. In a way, I view community college as the “store-bought brand” of college. Sure, it lacks the fancy packaging and brand recognition, but underneath, it’s a similar product for a fraction of the price.
However, when it comes to your degree, some say that brand recognition still matters.
How much can you make with a degree from a community college?
CNN Money did a whole story on how much you can earn with a two-year degree from community college versus a four-year degree from a traditional college or university, and their findings were pretty wild.
In Tennessee and Virginia, graduates with a two-year associate degree from community college earn, on average, several thousand more than holders of bachelor’s degrees.
That’s because there are too many graduates with generalized bachelor’s degrees and not enough with specialized associate degrees. The American workforce is starving for job applicants with so-called “middle skills” provided by associate degrees; “lab technicians, teachers in early childhood programs, computer engineers, draftsmen, radiation therapists, paralegals, and machinists” are all high-paying roles that only require a two-year degree.
In fact, here are the top 10 highest-paying roles that only require an associate degree according to Forbes. The list is from 2012, but it should at least serve to illustrate the monetary value of a two-year degree.
Role Median salary
Air Traffic Controller $108,040
Construction Manager $83,860
Radiation Therapist $74,980
Nuclear Medicine Technologist $68,560
Dental Hygienist $68,250
Nuclear Technician $68,090
Registered Nurse $64,690
Diagnostic Medical Sonographers $64,380
Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technicians $58,080
Electrical and Electrical Engineering $56,040
Unsurprisingly these are mostly STEM roles, but many non-STEM roles in journalism, education, administration, etc. may only require a two-year degree. To find out, google “[your industry] associate degree earnings” and see what you can find.
It’s worth considering also that graduates of two-year degrees have two big inherent advantages over grads with a bachelor’s degree. First, they’ll graduate with magnitudes less debt. Second, they can begin work two years sooner.
In the short term, community college grads can earn similar, even higher salaries than their four-year competitors. Over the course of an entire career, however, the researchers found that two-year grads earn $500,000 more than high school graduates but $500,000 less than four-year grads.
The underlying theory is that a bachelor’s degree is the key to higher management roles, so many community college graduates will return to school at some point in their career to secure their four-year degree.
Read more: Should You Go Back To School As An Adult?
What are the advantages of community college?
Let’s put everything together. What are the clear advantages of attending community college versus a traditional four-year public or private university?
The biggest advantage of attending community college is the staggering cost savings. Even if you’re getting in-state tuition at your local university, you’ll end up saving $60,000 over four years if you get your bachelor’s at community college instead.
If you opt for community college over your dream private university, you could save you and your family well over $150,000, not accounting for interest owed to Sallie Mae.
Community colleges offer two-year associate degrees that are magnitudes cheaper than four-year bachelor’s degrees and will enable you to enter the workforce sooner. With a two-year degree, you’ll graduate sooner, with significantly less debt (if any), and will be able to begin earning a full-time income twice as fast.
Marketability and employment prospects
According to USA Today, employment growth for graduates with an associate degree is “surging.” During Q1 and Q2 of 2019, employment for grads with an associate degree or some college increased 578,000, compared to just 314,000 for Americans with bachelor’s degrees.
Although the American job market is screaming for more community college grads, most students are still defaulting to four-year programs. That means that if you get an associate degree, not only will you save gobs of money, but you’ll have less competition in the job market as well.
Four-year institutions often require students to live on-campus and purchase a meal plan, neither of which comes cheap. On average, these students will pay between $44,000 and $48,000 in room and board expenses alone over four years.
By contrast, community colleges are non-residential, meaning students commute to and from campus from their own place. You can live with a friend, get a mortgage, or simply opt to live with your parents while you attend community college, saving tens of thousands on rent in the process (provided your folks offer you a free ride!).
Individual classes are far cheaper at community colleges than at four-year institutions, meaning you can learn a new language, switch majors, or simply take a semester off without a major impact on your personal finances.
Plus, while most four-year institutions generally operate on a nine-five schedule, community colleges tend to offer night classes to make life easier for students with jobs (or kids).
What are the disadvantages of community college?
Lack of campus life
One of the leading disadvantages of attending community college is that some students feel like they’re missing out on the traditional college experience.
As a graduate of a four-year program, I totally could’ve gone without the loud sports games, crazy parties, and overall debauchery. However, I also joined countless clubs, became a radio DJ, and had thousands of conversations with interesting people during my four years: all experiences I may not have had, at least to the same extent, at community college.
There’s something special about the traditional American college experience that’s hard to put into words. It’s absolutely not worth the price difference between a two-year and a four-year degree, but it’s worth mentioning because it’s something that a lot of community college students reportedly miss.
Low graduation rate
Community colleges have a significantly lower graduation rate compared to four-year institutions. According to the Hechinger Report, only about 4 in 10 community college enrollees graduate within six years, and a full quarter of those who start in the fall don’t return for the spring semester.
It’s hard to precisely quantify why graduation rates at community colleges are so low, but there are some popular theories. Many experts point to the lack of campus life; without a social network of friends going through the same classes and experiences as you are, it can be hard to stay focused and motivated. Others point to the fact that many enrollees in two-year degrees are first-generation college students and lack the guidance or familial support to get through school.
Finally, for many, it may simply be a financial issue. Even though community college is comparatively affordable, thousands per year is still hard on the budget.
Limited options for classes or degrees
Compared to a giant four-year institution with an undergrad enrollment in the tens of thousands, your local community college may have significantly fewer options for classes and associate/bachelor’s degrees.
Statistically, you’ll probably switch majors at least once in college. So even if you’re determined to be a nurse, and your local community college has an excellent nursing program, you might want to ensure that they offer your second and third choices, also.
Lack of networking
There’s a common saying that when you pay six figures for a four-year degree you’re not really paying for an education; you’re paying for access to that school’s professors and networking.
It’s extremely subjective whether the quality of education varies between community college and four-year college. What’s inescapably true, however, is that big-name companies and educators will be attracted to big-name schools. If you want to learn your trade from a well-known industry expert or celebrated researcher in your field, you’re more likely to have that option at a four-year institution.
Furthermore, if you’re looking for a generalized, entry-level role within a Fortune 500 company like Bain & Co. or Google, your chances are better with a four-year degree.
You may need a four-year degree for a promotion
On that note, it’s worth reiterating that over the course of a 40-year career, holders of a four-year degree will make $500,000 more than holders of a two-year degree. That’s because many upper management positions will require a bachelor’s degree.
You can research your specific industry or role to find out where you might hit a glass ceiling with your associate degree. If it’s very early on, you might consider getting an associate degree and transferring credits towards a bachelor’s degree to save time and money.
Who should (and shouldn’t) consider community college?
Community college might be for you if:
- You’re looking to graduate with little-to-no debt. If you’ve exhausted scholarship options and are facing down a six-figure loan to attend a four-year school, you may want to strongly consider an associate degree. It’s magnitudes more affordable in the short term, and you may be able to transfer credits later for a full bachelor’s.
- You’re looking to start earning full-time income ASAP. You might be looking to pay off existing debt or simply retire early. In either case, a fast way to start earning high-five figures is to graduate with a specialized technical degree from a community college.
- You’re already interested in a “middle-skill” position. If you know you want to be an Air Traffic Controller, Preschool Teacher, or another role that only requires a two-year degree to get started, why waste the extra two years and tens of thousands of dollars on a bachelor’s degree?
- You’d like to explore your opportunities. If you’re not sure where to go or what to do after high school, taking classes at community college while working part-time is an affordable, low-risk alternative to committing to a four-year college. In my personal opinion, it’s also much more conducive to your professional development.
By contrast, a community college might not be for you if:
- Your chosen career path requires a bachelor’s degree or higher. If you’re certain that you want to work for a Big Four consulting firm or go to med school, then a bachelor’s degree is probably a required step. Still, you might be able to save a bit on tuition by attending community college and transferring credits to a name-brand college. Just be sure to do your research!
- You’re eligible for a scholarship. It’s hard to compete with a full ride! Nearly 3% of undergrads in four-year programs are paying $0 to go to school. Your odds of securing a full-ride scholarship are much higher if you’re a minority, high-achiever, and/or star athlete. So before committing to community college on the basis of lower cost, do some due diligence and gauge your chances of securing a full-ride to your dream school.
- You highly value the traditional college experience. I don’t think anything I’m about to mention is worth going $100,000 into debt for, but if you’re seeking a tie-breaker between community college and a four-year institution, you might consider that the latter is more likely to offer the “traditional American college experience” with crazy parties, frisbees on the quad, and endless opportunities to connect with other students through clubs and extracurriculars.
While community college may not be able to offer some elements of the traditional college experience like clubs, quads, and TikTok-worthy debauchery, its overall value proposition can’t be ignored.
A two-year associate degree at your local community college can cost less than $10,000 and immediately launch you into a career paying in the high-five figures. The credits you earn may also apply towards a four-year degree at a name-brand university later, saving you tens of thousands in tuition. Finally, the flexibility and low overhead of attending community college enables you to learn in a low-cost, low-pressure environment.
If you’re looking to avoid debt and launch a career more quickly, community college is an excellent choice.