There are a total of 1,462 community colleges across the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education.  This report examines some key factors that distinguish their programs from four-year colleges/universities, as well as their similarities. To begin, community colleges are mainly two-year public institutions offering remedial education, GED’s, high school degrees, technical degrees and certificates, and a limited number of 4-year degrees. In 2017, approximately 7 million people attended U.S. community colleges, whereas 13.4 million enrolled in 4-year American colleges and universities the same year.


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual undergraduate cost inclusive of tuition, fees, and room and board was $16,757 for public colleges and more than twice that for private schools. Charges for tuition and required fees alone average $6,613 at public institutions, $31,411 at private nonprofit institutions, and $14,195 at private for-profit institutions. The average in-state tuition at community colleges for 2014–2015 according to the College Board was just $3,347—two-year schools represent an outstanding way to save money. This total cost is only a fraction of the cost of a private college, and still thousands of dollars less than a four-year program at a state college. In addition, there is a community college within commuting distance of 90 percent of the U.S. population. This results in greater savings due to accessibility.


Some people have the misconception that community colleges are not accredited. The same six regional accrediting agencies are responsible for community colleges and four-year schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the purpose of accreditation is to certify that the education given by institutions meet national standards of quality. Accreditation is not mandatory and the school must pay a fee for the accreditation process. Attending an accredited community college may bode well when you sit for an interview to explain your academic background. In addition, accreditation is important to students for smooth transfer of courses and programs among colleges and universities. If an undergraduate degree is in your plans, then you should verify that you are earning a transfer-oriented associate degree.

Student-Faculty Ratio

Typically, a lower ratio is indicative of more student-teacher interaction and support. Among the 222 ranked National Liberal Arts Colleges that provided student-faculty ratios to U.S. News in an annual survey, the average was just 11 students per faculty member. There are many community colleges that rival this ratio. According to several recent studies, students attending community colleges often participate in classroom discussion and experience one-on-one interaction with professors at a much higher rate than university students.

Return on Investment

Careers in fields such as health care, manufacturing and information technology offer median earnings of up to $55,000 or more for graduates with an associate degree. Graduates with a bachelor’s in aerospace or electrical engineering typically earn around $65,000, on average, during their first few years on the job, according to PayScale, an online salary database. A two-year degree in aerospace or electrical engineering technology can net graduates nearly the same. Radiation and MRI technologists earned a median salary of $58,960 with an Associate’s degree, according to the 2016 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Another example is the profession of dental hygienist that requires a two-year associate’s degree. The BLS reports the median salary of this occupation at $72,910 and an expected growth rate of 20% through 2026.

Regarding job prospects, you may be interested in reading our report on the Top Paying Jobs with an Associate’s Degree.

Editor’s Note: Since we featured cost as one of the considerations, we invite you to read our research on the 25 Cheapest Online Associate’s Degree Programs.  Our report on the Easiest Online Associate’s Degrees offers further information, which may interest you. Finally, if speed is what you need, then please review our article on the 25 Fastest Online Associate’s Degrees.