Should I Go to Community College First? (Before University)

There are many paths that lead to a higher degree but going through a community college first will set you on the right one for many reasons. This in-depth guide will show you exactly how to plan for your higher education and save a lot of money on tuition while still getting a quality education.

Key Takeaways

There are many paths that lead to a higher degree but going through a community college first will set you on the right one for many reasons. This in-depth guide will show you exactly how to plan for your higher education and save a lot of money on tuition while still getting a quality education.

More than half of all American students start off with community college first and then move on to complete their bachelor’s or even their master’s degree. The reason for this is the great cost savings on tuition when you attend community college.

When you couple that with the fact that community colleges now help you transfer your credits to 4-year universities, you will realize that you have a great way to start higher education. 

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This may all seem complicated but don’t worry though, in this guide we have you completely covered from the planning to the transfer stages and of course, everything in between. So let’s get started on taking the first step to your higher education.

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Why should I go to community college first?

There is a long list of reasons why so many American students opt to go to community college first including saving on tuition, improving their GPA, getting a feel of a particular major, etc.

But first, those of us who aren't sure what the difference between a community college and a university is should read the next part because it's important for our conversation on the subject.

Community college vs university

The main distinction between a community college and a university is the length of their curricula. 

The majority of community colleges offer two-year degrees called associate’s degree, whereas universities offer four-year degrees, namely bachelor’s degree. Universities also offer a master’s program which community colleges normally don’t.

Now there are exceptions to the rule, and in rare instances, a community college might offer a four-year program and there is even one community college that offers a master’s degree. This is what confuses some students in differentiating between the institutions.

A community college, on the other hand, is most recognized for its short-term certificate and associate's degree programs.

Why community college is good to start with

The apparent question that comes to mind is why even bother to go to community college if we want to acquire a bachelor's degree from a university later?

As it turns out, a growing number of American students are opting for community college because of the numerous advantages it provides. 

According to the NCSES (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics), more than half of the respondents (52%) had previously attended a community college and 25% had received an associate's degree from one.

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Benefits of going to community college

No student wants to be saddled with hefty student loans for the rest of their lives!

While the average student loan is expected to take 10 years to pay off at the time of signing, research shows that the average American student takes 21 years to pay it off completely.

According to, students in the United States owe $1.48 trillion in student loans.

Community college is an excellent option because it is a tenth of the price of a university. You will save a lot of money if you acquire your associate's degree at a community college and then transfer directly into your third year at a university.

While cost is one of the most important factors, it is not the only one. 

Four of the most compelling reasons for Americans to attend community college are stated below.

Related: We also have a great article that has a full list of benefits that you should go through. 

  • Affordability 
    Consider the average community college tuition, which is $3,440. Now, consider the cost of tuition at an average private university, which is $32,410
    Related: Here is an excellent article that looks at free community colleges.
    Community colleges begin to make sense just by glancing at these numbers. So the best approach is to attend community college for two years before transferring to a university.
  • Admissions are easier
    Community colleges have far easier admissions than universities. This is true because community colleges are designed to benefit the communities in which they are based. In most instances, if you have a GPA of 2.0 or higher in high school, you will be automatically accepted.
    Even if your GPA isn't excellent, you can still build a case for yourself and likely be accepted if you take some remedial classes.
    In fact, many students who are unable to enter universities due to their grades attend community colleges in order to have a second chance to study hard and improve their GPA. This will significantly increase their chances of being accepted into a university.
  • Flexible schedule
    Community colleges are a uniquely American idea, having been established by the federal government to serve the localities in which they are based. 
    This distinguishes them because they provide an opportunity for education to those individuals who would otherwise be deprived of it
    This enables non-traditional students to acquire an education, such as those that are also young parents, have full-time or part-time jobs, and students who find themselves in similar demanding situations. In fact, part-time students account for roughly 60% of community college students.
    Community colleges, for example, provide students the choice of taking classes during the day or evening. A traditional university would simply not be able to accommodate the needs of such students.
  • Smaller class sizes that are more conducive to learning
    Some students enjoy large university campuses with large classes, however, this setting is not conducive to studying for most pupils.
    Full-time or part-time employees, parents, and those with similar backgrounds are too preoccupied with their daily lives to attend a traditional institution. This is why they prefer smaller classes where they can interact with the lecturers more easily!
    In comparison to a university class, which might have anywhere from 150 to 300 students, the average community college class has 25 to 35 people
    Not only are the classes structured to improve student-teacher engagement, but community college instructors are also more understanding of their challenges.

Will a university accept my community college credits?

With the right planning, yes it will! So what do we mean by planning? To begin with, you must take into consideration that various universities have varying degrees of cooperation with various community colleges.

Some colleges will accept partial credits, some will accept full credits, while yet others may refuse to accept any at all. All you have to do now is figure out which university will take the majority, if not all, of the credits you expect to earn at a community college.

If you work closely with your academic advisor at both the community college and the institutions you intend to attend you can have all your credits transferred. 

These counselors are specialists who have been specially trained to assist you in getting the most out of your transfer.

You can directly enroll in the university as a junior in the third year of a bachelor's program after completing your 2-year associate's degree program at the community college. 

You can immediately see the dividends this simple plan will pay off if you had a look at the typical fees for community college vs. university we shared earlier.

When should you transfer to university from your community college?

Many students wonder how and when to transfer from community college to university. Should they complete the two-year program and earn an associate's degree, or should they transfer halfway through?

The truth is, there is no single right answer. If you ask us, “Do I have to graduate from community college to transfer?” We will simply say each case is unique and your timing for transfer to university depends on many factors.

If the main reason for your coming to community college was to save on tuition, like it is in most cases, then it makes no sense to transfer early. Sticking to community college for two years and transferring only when your associate's degree program is completed will save you a lot of money.

Also, if your community college has a good articulation agreement in place, your transfer is guaranteed, therefore there is no sense in transferring early.

If your articulation agreement only permits you to transfer particular credits or courses and nothing more, you should focus on these courses or classes only and not waste any more time at the college.

Certain institutions may require you to take the majority of your classes at their institution in order to graduate. In any such scenario, you should consider how to get the most out of your community college before applying for a transfer.

Additionally, if you are wondering how many credits do you need to transfer from a community college to a university, then the answer is anywhere from 30 to 60. Your associate's degree is worth 60 credit hours, but you can transfer after taking 30 credit hours in one year.

As a result, the answer to the question "How long does it take to transfer from community college to university?" is dependent on all of the aforementioned factors but ideally you should do 2 years at community college then transfer to university.

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If I take a break after earning my associate's degree, would my credits expire?

This is a frequently asked question. Many students do not take a sabbatical after college because they want to relax; they do so for practical reasons. The most typical reason is that you need to start earning money right away since you're in financial need.

Typically when you have an associate's degree and are in the midst of a financial crisis, it can be very tempting to get a job immediately and return to school after a hiatus. However, this interval usually becomes longer and longer.

Students in such a situation may worry how long their transferred credits will last. There isn't a simple answer to this one, either. It is entirely dependent on the course and the institutions involved.

Generally speaking, credits should never expire, yet even the most accommodating universities rarely accept transfer credits after ten years. They may expire even sooner in cases where the nature of the course material evolves quickly with time, such as in IT or medicine.

Another issue is that articulation agreements do not have an indefinite lifespan. When the agreement ends, so does the cooperation between the college and the universities.

Rare cases like the one with Southeastern University in Washington, DC, are also possible. The college lost all of its accreditations over time as a result of bad administration and poor decision-making.

It had to shut down permanently, and students from the college struggled to transfer credits. This is an extreme case of course but the lesson to learn is that it’s ok to take a short break after college but you should not drag it out longer than a year or so.

If you're considering taking a break...

  1. Give yourself a deadline to return to university and create a concrete plan on when and how to return. When you're weighed down by day-to-day problems, it's easy to lose sight of the big picture.
  2. Make sure you inform your university on how long you plan to take a sabbatical and if they have any special instructions for you.

Final Word

Is it cheaper to go to community college first? Yes, it is a smart idea to use community college as a stepping stone to a university, and more than 5.4 million students in the United States do so to save money and take advantage of other fantastic benefits that community colleges provide.

However, you must plan your transition from a 2-year community college to a 4-year bachelor's program to avoid wasting time and money. Depending on the institution, a differing number of credits may be accepted for transfer.

We've given out all of the information you'll need in our guide above to ensure that your transfer is complete and secured.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Should I go to a university or a community college?

Is it good to transfer from a community college to a university?

Can you transfer to a university after 1 year of community college?

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