Community College vs. a Four-Year University: 8 Key Differences

If you’re a high school student considering your next step, traditional four-year colleges are probably on your radar. But did you know that 66% of undergraduate students in the U.S. have been, or are currently enrolled in a community college? 

Junior colleges can be a great place to start your higher education. They’re affordable, accessible, and most allow you to transfer your credits to four-year universities. Before you decide where to pursue your education, take a closer look at community colleges and how they stack up against four-year institutions. 

Community college vs. a four-year university

You’ve probably heard stories about life on college campuses. But do you know much about how community colleges compare to four-year schools? Here are 8 key areas you should consider. 

Cost of attendance 

For the average student, determining how to pay for college is a key factor in deciding where to go. According to Forbes, it’s 169% more expensive to go to college today than it was in 1980. But there is still one place you can find a deal on the cost of tuition: community college. With an average cost of $1,865 per semester, community college is almost one-third of the price of a traditional four-year school. At an in-state, public university (which tends to be the most cost-effective of all four-year options), one semester will run you $4,839. 

Beyond tuition, the additional costs associated with pursuing a degree, like room & board, tend to be less expensive at two-year community colleges. Junior colleges are more likely to be close to your hometown. The proximity allows many students to save money by living at home or finding inexpensive housing in a lower-cost-of-living area. 

Lower bills also mean less student debt. The average American borrower with a bachelor’s degree owes $28,950 in student loan debt. Pursuing a two-year degree, or even beginning at a community college, could keep you from joining them. In contrast, the average associate’s-degree-holder only has $19,600 in debt.

Financial aid opportunities

You might be under the impression community colleges offer little to no financial aid. Not true. Financial aid is available to almost any student pursuing higher education. 

In fact, 33% of federal Pell Grants and 12% of subsidized federal loans are awarded to community college students each year. A handful of U.S. states even offer tuition-free programs for their community colleges. 

No matter where you pursue your education, make sure you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) every year.

Like all financial aid, scholarships and grants subsidize the cost of a degree. Unlike all forms of financial aid, though, scholarships and grants will never need to be repaid

Some scholarship opportunities are specific to students at four-year schools but scholarships for community college students do exist. And just like traditional universities, junior colleges give school-specific scholarships to their students, too. Use Going Merry to find high-dollar awards that fit your profile.

Degree programs  

At community colleges, undergraduate students work toward an associate’s degree, which is typically awarded after two years or sixty hours of study. Similar to four-year schools, you can find associate’s degrees focused on any number of topics from culinary arts to business. Community colleges do tend to be smaller than four-year schools, though, so make sure yours offers what you’re looking to study. 

You also might find that your local community college focuses on more specialized, job-specific programs. Many junior colleges prepare students to enter the workforce in fields that require associate’s degrees, like firefighting or nursing. Upon graduation, junior college students can find a high-paying job with their associate’s degree – or transfer their credits to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a four-year school. 

At a four-year school, undergraduates work toward a bachelor’s degree. The time to complete these degrees can vary between three to six (or even more) years. Basically, however long it takes a student to earn 120 credit hours and complete their degree requirements. You can earn a bachelor’s degree in any number of fields. At some four-year universities, students can even work toward a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at the same time. 

Quality of education 

It’s difficult to say definitively whether the quality of education at a four-year school is better or worse than at a community college. There are many factors to consider – like professors, strength of curriculum, class size, degree program, etc. However, the best education is going to be the one that’s most effective for you. 

One major factor to consider is the quality of professors at each institution. Today, most community college professors hold the same professional requirements (i.e. a master’s and/or doctorate degree) as four-year college professors. But community colleges tend to offer smaller class sizes ranging from 25 to 35 students, which generally means each student gets more individualized attention. 

In comparison, entry-level classes at big universities can hold hundreds of students – and many are taught by graduate students or teaching assistants instead of actual professors. Additionally, many university professors are tasked with research in addition to their teaching load, which could translate to less time to work directly with students. 

At community colleges, professors have fewer additional tasks. However, many are part-time employees, leaving them less time to meet with students outside of the classroom. While four-year schools tend to employ widely-known, published professors, you may find more passionate, hands-on professors at a community college. 


At either type of institution, a full-time student is defined as anyone taking 12 credits or more per semester. But because 64.2% of community college students are studying part-time, these schools offer more flexibility in how you use earn those 12 or more credits. 

For example, community colleges offer classes later in the day to accommodate students with full-time jobs or on a non-traditional schedule, like during the summer or mid-semester. The flexible schedule of community college is a major “pro” for a lot of nontraditional students who have to work and care for family in addition to studying.

Regardless of where you pursue your degree, it is possible to create a flexible class schedule. It just might be more difficult at a four-year school as a first-year student. At many colleges, seniors get to choose their class schedules first. This could mean that freshmen are stuck with the leftovers, particularly when it comes to general education classes that enroll students of all grade levels. 

Campus life 

One hallmark difference between a community college and a four-year university is the college experience. At a community college, you’re less likely to find a tight-knit community of students to eat in the dining hall with or pursue extracurricular activities alongside. Most junior colleges don’t offer on-campus dorms or school-sponsored athletics, whereas these aspects of student life are core to the traditional college experience. 

Another differing aspect of campus life is that community college students tend to be older, with over 40% in the 22-39-year-old age bracket. At a four-year school, the average age of a full-time undergraduate student is 22.7 years old. With so many community college students commuting to school, working part or full-time, and taking care of children, there’s less of a vibrant, on-campus scene. So, if you’re a high school senior craving a new community of peers, junior college probably won’t meet expectations. 

Job opportunities 

There are a number of lucrative and fulfilling career opportunities for associate’s degree holders. That said, the majority of the fastest-growing career paths in 2023 require a bachelor’s degree. 

If you’re not sure what you want to do after college, a bachelor’s degree gives you greater future flexibility – and better networking opportunities. A degree from a large university grants access to an alumni network. It’s through this network that many four-year institutions are able to provide students with internship and mentorship opportunities. And when you’re out there in the job market, having an alma mater in common with a hiring manager could be the “in” you need to get an interview. 

On top of that, a four-year degree isn’t enough for some career paths. If you want to be in a field where you need a master’s degree, you’ll most likely need to earn a bachelor’s first. Beyond the hard requirement of a bachelor’s degree, your master’s program will likely require major-specific classes that are only offered at a four-year university. 

Lifetime earning potential 

A recent study found that adults with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn an average of $70,000 per year, or $2.8 million in their lifetime. For an adult with an associate’s degree, the average lifetime earning potential is $2 million or $50,000 per year. While the earning potential of those with an associate’s degree is substantial, there’s a clear economic advantage—in both the short and long term—to holding a bachelor’s degree. 

Should I go to community college or a four-year university? 

Community college might be an ideal place to start your degree for a number of reasons. 

  • If you’re not sure what you want to study, you might want to fulfill your general education requirements at a community college. 
  • If you need to maintain a flexible schedule to manage both family and schoolwork, community college provides great flexibility. 
  • If your high school GPA or test scores aren’t high enough for your dream university, get those grades up at community college. 
  • Or if you just need to save some extra cash to afford your four-year degree, a community college can make that happen, too. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all equation to determine whether or not community college is right for you. But if you’ve always dreamed of going to a four-year school, there are just as many reasons why that might be better for you. 

  • If an emphasis on student life and community is really important to you, start as a freshman at a four-year college.
  • If you plan to pursue specific coursework with a specialized major, you might only find it a bigger university. 
  • Or if you receive a high-value scholarship, a private university could actually end up being less expensive. 

Either way, starting your degree at a community college can give you the best of both worlds. Take advantage of all that junior colleges offer (savings, flexibility, small class sizes, hands-on professors) and then transfer to a four-year school after you’ve completed your associate’s degree. 

How do I transfer from a community college to a four-year university? 

Transferring from a community college to a four-year institution is a multi-step process, but your junior college can probably help you through the transition. 

At most schools, transfer students will need to apply to four-year institutions similar to the way high school students do. The application is different but the concept is the same: Depending upon your school’s requirements, you might need to retake the SAT or ACT test. And don’t forget you’ll fill out the FAFSA® each year, regardless of whether or not you’re transferring. As you explore how to afford your tuition at a four-year school, check out scholarships for transfer students.

Once you’re accepted, the four-year institution will evaluate your community college transcript and determine how many transfer credits you’ll receive. If you’ve earned strong grades and taken general education classes, you could enter your four-year university as a junior. But in some situations, you might need to repeat a class or two. Avoid losing too many credits by attending a community college that has an articulation agreement in place with a four-year institution. These agreements allow students to transfer more easily without losing a lot of credits. 

Regardless of how you get there, once you complete 120 credits and fulfill the requirements of your degree program, you’ll be awarded a bachelor’s degree with only your four-year university’s name on it –– just as if you had attended the university all four years. 

Get matched to scholarships with Going Merry

Community colleges and four-year institutions both offer a unique set of advantages. If you want to take advantage of both, consider starting out at community college and transferring to a four-year university later. You’ll get the same bachelor’s degree as your university classmates for a fraction of the cost.

One of the best ways to offset the financial burden of a college degree – regardless of what type of institution you choose – is to win scholarships. And Going Merry is here to help you identify, apply for, and win as many college scholarships as possible. Our robust database offers all types of scholarships for all types of students. Sign up for Going Merry, create a profile, and let us match you to awards that you’re already eligible for.

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.


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