Community College vs. University: What's the Difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published September 29, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

After graduating high school or earning a diploma equivalent, students may choose to pursue higher education opportunities at a variety of institutions. Some students go on to earn two-year degrees at community colleges, while others choose to pursue four-year degrees at universities. If you're a candidate for higher education deciding between attending a community college or university, it may be helpful to gain a better understanding of the distinctions that set these types of institutions apart. In this article, we outline what community colleges and universities are, including the various factors that differentiate them.

What is a community college?

Community colleges, often called junior colleges, are higher education institutions that offer undergraduate academic services to local communities. The purpose of these institutions is to offer affordable and accessible two-year degree programs—which often result in students graduating with associate degrees—to students with a certain range of interests, abilities and scheduling flexibility needs.

Therefore, community colleges often serve both traditional and non-traditional students with various professional aspirations. The programs offered at community colleges provide students with the opportunity to specialize their technical skills or build an educational foundation with the core coursework needed to transfer to four-year degree programs.

Read more: 12 Benefits of Community College

What is a university?

A university is a higher education institution that offers academic services to both undergraduate and graduate students. These institutions typically offer a wide range of academic programs, including those through which students can earn traditional post-secondary baccalaureate degrees, master's degrees, Ph.D.s and professional degrees in medicine or law. Additionally, universities typically produce research in a variety of disciplines.

With this, universities serve students from diverse backgrounds who have an array of academic interests and travel from various locations to complete their studies. The programs offered at universities often prepare students for careers by deepening their knowledge in a specific field and providing them with experiential learning opportunities through which they can hone their competencies.

Related: Should You Go to College? 5 Reasons You Should (or Shouldn't)

Community college vs. university

While community colleges and universities both offer higher education programming to post-secondary students, these institutions possess various key differences that set them apart. Here's an outline to help you gain a better understanding of these differences so you can decide which opportunity best suits your needs as a prospective student:

Types of degree programs

Community colleges and universities typically offer different types of degree programs to students. Community colleges often offer two-year undergraduate degrees, including certificate degrees or associate degrees, that students can complete within two years or less depending on whether they're enrolled on a part-time or full-time basis. Through these programs, students can earn professional, technical or trade certifications to pursue specific career paths, or earn enough core education credits to transfer their studies to a university.

Comparatively, universities offer degree programs through which students can earn bachelor's, master's or doctoral degrees. At universities, undergraduate students can typically complete their bachelor's degrees within four years and matriculate to pursue advanced studies depending on their specific interests. Universities often host academic programs in a wider range of disciplines than community colleges and allow students to participate in research opportunities.

Related: Trade School vs. College: Differences, Similarities and Benefits

Cost of tuition

Cost is a major factor in the differentiation between community colleges and universities. Tuition typically costs less at community colleges than at universities. According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average yearly cost for all two-year institutions in the 2018 to 2019 academic year, including both public and private community colleges, was approximately $11,389 per year.

In comparison, universities often require students to pay higher tuition costs. According to the NCES, the average tuition costs at all four-year institutions, including public, private and private for-profit institutions, during the same academic year was $28,123 per year. This figure is more than double the average cost of tuition at two-year institutions. It's also important to note that the NCES reports that private four-year universities typically charge significantly higher tuition costs than public institutions, with an average cost of $47,419 per year.

Admission requirements

Due to the type of students community colleges and universities serve, these institutions have different admission requirements. Community colleges traditionally have more generous admission requirements, and many have policies that allow any candidate with a high school diploma or equivalent degree to enroll. Some community colleges have more specific admission requirements for certain programs, though, including those that allow students to study disciplines like nursing, allied health and law enforcement.

Comparatively, universities often have strict admission requirements for prospective students. Those candidates applying to universities usually have to submit lengthy applications that prove they've taken completed certain secondary coursework and earned high marks in those courses. Additionally, university admission candidates often have to take standardized tests like the SAT or ACT and earn a score within a particular threshold to be eligible for enrollment.

Residential services and campus life

Community colleges and universities typically offer different residential services and campus life experiences to their students. Since community colleges often serve students in local areas who may live off-campus or at home with their families, these institutions rarely offer residential services, meal plans or on-campus experiences. When community colleges do offer such services, they may be more limited in nature than those offered at universities.

Universities traditionally offer on-campus housing options to students, and some even require that students live in university residences, such as dormitories or apartments, during their initial years of enrollment. Those students who attend universities also have the option to enroll in meal plans and participate in various on-campus experiences through sports, living communities and extracurricular activities.

Related: College Degree vs. No College Degree: Advantages and Disadvantages of Each

Coursework flexibility

It's common for community colleges and universities to offer different levels of flexibility regarding coursework and enrollment. Community colleges often offer students various options for completing their education, including part-time, full-time and hybrid enrollment. Some community colleges also provide options for students to earn their education through online modalities. These flexible options are especially important for non-traditional students who may work in professional roles while simultaneously earning their degrees.

Comparatively, universities may offer less flexibility than community colleges. Most students at universities enroll on a full-time basis, which is sometimes a requirement for such students to be eligible for institutional or federal financial aid. While many universities do offer part-time enrollment options, hybrid coursework at these institutions is often reserved for specific programs in continuing education.

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