How long does community college realistically take?
Different community colleges offer different kinds of programs. Typically, an associate’s degree, a level of qualification between a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree, takes two years or four semesters to complete. For most community colleges, this is the lengthiest degree offered.
A small percentage of community colleges also offer a 4-year bachelor’s degree. While this is a rarity, it is still a possibility for some. Other courses offered include workforce training, skill development, etc. These kinds of programs can be completed in a year and sometimes even less, depending on the course itself.
However, even with these set durations, it is not necessary at all that the program/course finishes within this typical timeline. In fact, the very reason why most students choose community college is so they can pace their education as per their needs.
There can be many unexpected events that may affect your academic career, from family/work obligations, financial constraints to other emergencies. According to a study by Admissionsly, only 13% of students graduate in two years at community colleges. Many students choose community college because a more rigorous four-year university program is simply not as accommodating.
Why is community college so flexible?
Community colleges were built to support communities. They are unique in the way that they provide the opportunity to those who would otherwise be unable to have access to higher education. Around 60% of students studying at community colleges are part-time students.
This creates a positive environment for non-traditional students such as young parents, full-time or part-time employees, and students with difficult circumstances. Applying to a community college not only provides a low-cost opportunity but also allows a more accommodating space for students to satisfy these needs.
When will it benefit you to take longer to complete your college?
For many, community college is a shot at education while balancing work, family, emergencies, etc. Real-life is all about opportunity cost and most four-year university degree programs make you choose between getting a job,/ having a family or getting an education. With a two-year program that you can pace at your convenience, you don’t have to pick one for the other. Hence, earning a degree or certificate in these circumstances outside the traditional timeline is absolutely ok! Here are 5 key scenarios in which it will be ideal for you to apply to a community college.
1. You are a full-time or part-time employee
Juggling work and academics simultaneously is no small feat. According to the 2018 College Student Employment study, many undergraduate students aged 16 to 64 are employed at the same time they are enrolled in school, with full-time undergraduates working 35 hours or more per week. While studying is important; many full-time employees cannot put their financial responsibilities on hold.
Because of employment, prospective students are unable to attend multiple classes in a week at a regular 4-year university program. If you find that you are in the same situation, then your local community college will be far more accommodating to your work schedules. For example, you can take night classes or even mini-mesters.
2. You are a parent
In the US, there are over 4.8 million undergraduate students who are also parents. Having so many responsibilities can often be stressful and can disrupt degree completion. Certain community colleges, on the other hand, are not only accommodating to set your own pace to complete your degree but also provide student-parent benefits such as daycares, after-school child care, food, and housing assistance.
If you are a parent now you don’t have to choose between family and education and set your own pace to complete an associate’s degree. You can even take a single class at a time to just build a specific skill to help you earn more. Here is an article that specifically looks into taking a single class at a community college.
3. Financial affordability is an issue for you
Financial affordability plays a major role in a student’s academic trajectory. As student debt increases yearly, undergrad students become hesitant while deciding where to study for their higher education. According to the 2018-2019 U.S. News Data report, the average annual fee for private colleges was a whopping $35,830. In comparison, community colleges cost an annual average of $3,660 for in-state students; a fraction of what 4-year universities/colleges cost.
Related: What states offer free community college
4. You are facing a family emergency
One thing is for certain, life can be extremely unpredictable. There is no guarantee of what curveball life may throw at you, whether it's health reasons, taking care of a loved one, moving places, etc. Circumstances like these can often alter your academic plans, and while it may slow down the pace you were at previously, it shouldn’t stop you from earning your degree or certification.
5. You find the subjects in your course very difficult
Students who have struggled with studies for any number of reasons, including the list above, find it difficult to complete education and generally drop out. While community college is considered to be easier compared to other 4-year universities/colleges, it still also requires students to actively engage in assignments, essays, projects, tests, and follow strict deadlines.
The good news is that at least with community colleges you can benefit from the one-to-one attention, take remedial classes or slow down the pace altogether to help you get better grades. This can be particularly helpful if you are focusing on a specific trade or technical subject.
Related: Community College vs Technical College: A Breakdown
What should I consider when pacing my studies?
While it’s great to pace your studies as you need to, please do keep the following things in mind especially if you plan to transfer those credits to a 4-year university program.
The shelf life of your college credits
A common misconception is that your college credits are there for life. Students are caught off-guard when they find out that the university they are applying to no longer accepts their credits.
While most courses have an average shelf life of 10 years you should not rely on this general rule of thumb and check with all your future prospective universities/colleges about credit transfer and their window of acceptability.
Courses in which there is frequent real-world growth such as web development expire much quicker than credits in subjects like math.
The 3 R’s
The 3 R’s (Relevance, Recency, and Reputation) will give you a good indication of the probability of your credit being accepted by another institution.
Relevance, in regards to your community college credits, means two things; The first is whether the courses you took at community college qualify as Core Curriculum/General Education (General Education is a required curriculum that makes up the foundation of an undergraduate degree).
The second is whether the courses you took are relevant to your area of further study. Certain courses and universities/colleges have prerequisites and electives, although this is not always the case, it is important to keep in mind when deciding the university/college you wish to transfer your credits to. Credits from a music class, for example, might not be accepted by an architecture program.
Although a rarity, sometimes the recency of a degree or certification is considered important when transferring your credits. This happens in ever-evolving or up-and-coming fields of study such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), medicine, STEM, etc.
In these types of fields, outdated coursework/curriculum by even 3 or 4 years loses its value. Generally, however, universities/colleges allow a 5-10 years shelf life for your credits as discussed above.
It is absolutely vital to ensure that the community college you are studying at is accredited (accredited institution means an institution of higher education accredited by a regional accrediting agency recognized by the United States Department of Education).
If it is not, it will not be possible to transfer your credits to any educational institution. Confirm if the community college you are applying to is accredited if you aim to transfer credits later.
To summarize, while most community college programs take 2 years or less to complete, they rarely do so in real life. But this is primarily for the benefit of students who find these programs flexible enough to allow them to pace their studies according to the demands of their real life. If you are in any one of the situations discussed above, applying to a community college is the right choice for you. For a list of accredited colleges you can click here.