[ The Money Side of Lifeā„¢ ]

College Crossing: Navigating your higher ed route

By Ashley Backus on October 31st, 2011 •

The path to a college degree isn't a one-way street. For some, heading off on the fast track to university life is the perfect kick-start to college. Others take a community college pit stop to fine-tune their credentials or take advantage of lower tuition for the first two years. It's not just finances that set the two apart; there are other vital differences between starting at a two- or four-year school.

Educational Experience

We always want to be sure we're getting solid curriculum from competent instruc¬tors. Universities generally offer more advanced coursework and degree options, and professors at universities are more likely to have more schooling and spend time conducting research. On the other hand, community college instructors tend to devote more of their time and energy to teaching, and may have more real-world experience. Which of these is most valuable may depend on what degree or training you're looking for.

Community colleges typically have lower acceptance criteria, which can give you a year or two to earn a GPA that will impress university admissions. Also, transfer students don't always have to provide SAT/ACT test scores. If your scores stink or you just don't want to go through the inhumanity of a four-hour test, time in a community college could cover your rear.

A study by the University of Texas found that college students reported feeling more engaged in their classes at small colleges. This could be because texting, whispering, and sleeping can go unno¬ticed in a huge amphitheater. However, if you want a small-school feel, you don't necessarily have to go to a community college--universities come in all sizes.

Ultimately, quality education doesn't depend on where you get it; it depends on the teachers themselves. If possible, meet faculty at prospective schools to get a sense of where you will receive the best education. Also search for feedback from former students at ratemyprofessors.com. (Don't judge too quickly. Some students may give a bad review simply because they received a poor grade. Read several entries before making up your mind.)


University students can sign up for a dorm room as easily as signing up for classes. On-campus housing functions as a stepping-stone to living away from home; many dorms come with resident assistants (usually known as RAs), meal services and laundry facilities. Living on campus also offers easy opportunities to meet fellow students. Sororities, fraternities, co-ops and townhouses off campus offer academic-year contracts and a short walk to class. Community colleges typically don't provide dorms or on-campus housing, so you'll likely have to look for a place to live on your own. If you can round up a carpool of roommates, finding a place to live usually isn't too tough.

Social Life

After a day of hitting the books, you'll want to meet new people and make new friends on campus. Because community colleges generally attract a plethora of people from all walks of life, a huge disparity may exist among students. More than 60% of community college students are under age 25, but 16% are 35 years and older. Community college students are also more likely to have children and attend school part-time than those attending four-year universities.

In contrast, 75% of university students are under 25 years old, and universities typically offer a wider range of activities and clubs catered to young undergrads. Your social life can really explode at a university, with no shortage of toga parties or indie music festivals to attend, and a higher population of first-year students your own age. But if you pick a community college in a university town, you may be able to take advantage of college campus life and activities without paying the higher prices.

The Bottom Line

There's an obvious payoff to obtaining a four-year university degree. On average, college graduates with bachelor's degrees make $14,000 more per year than those with associate's degrees. But that doesn't mean you have to spend all four years at a university. Community college isn't just an economical detour; starting at one and then transferring can be as rewarding to your college experience as it is to your wallet.

Sources: An Examination of Students' Levels of Engagement in Educational Practices in Community Colleges by Maria M. Cazabon; mla.org; census.gov; fastweb.com; pewsocialtrends.org; ratemyprofessors.com; scholarships.com; mass.edu; mdc.edu; collegeboard.org; sdsu.edu; uoregon.edu; forbes.com; ed.gov; thejournal.com; iwpr.org; bls.gov; ohiocommunitycolleges.org; oregonstate.edu; educationnext.org