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The basics
Study abroad : Applying to University

What is a community college?

You’ve likely heard of community colleges and may be wondering exactly what they are and how they differ from universities. We’ve got the answers.

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We know that you take your study abroad research seriously. This is why we also know you would have found institutions in several countries, particularly the USA, that are called community colleges. Sometimes it’s a bit confusing working out what the differences between institutions are and what this could mean for your academic ambitions. We’re here to answer your questions and explore exactly what a community is, what qualifications you can get there and what sets a community college apart from a university.


What defines a community college?


The short answer to this question is that it depends on the country you’re studying in. For the most part community colleges are associated with studying in the USA. In this context, a community college is generally a public institution that has a distinct focus on providing tertiary education opportunities to students. In most cases, this is in the form of certificates, diplomas and associate degrees rather than full undergraduate or postgraduate academic degrees. 


It is also the case that community colleges may have a vocational or skills-based approach to teaching and learning. The intention is to prepare students for particular work and professions. Additionally, community colleges also provide foundation and transfer programmes for students aiming to study at a university. 


Explore some community colleges in the USA to find out more about what they offer:



Are community colleges exclusive to the USA?


You will find community colleges in other countries apart from the USA, however, the definition and function of these institutions do differ. For example, the equivalent of an American community college in Australia is known as a Tertiary and Further Education College (TAFE). The term ‘community college’ in Australia refers to a private business that runs short non-academic courses. If you study in Canada the equivalent of a ‘community college’ is called a polytechnic or institute. 


Remember that if you’re looking to study in the UK, you won’t generally find institutions that are defined as community colleges. In the UK the term ‘college’ generally refers to a secondary school educational institution or a technical tertiary school. 


Find out more about TAFE and college institutions in Australia:



What qualifications can you get from a community college?


One of the big differences between a community college and a university relates to the length of time it takes to complete a qualification. While an academic undergraduate degree at a university will usually take you between three and four years to complete, at a community college, you will generally spend no more than two years gaining your qualification. 


Community colleges are unlikely to offer you the option of a bachelor’s degree, but rather an associate degree that will allow you to continue to a university degree should you want to. Community colleges focus on the general education areas of a subject curriculum, which is ideal preparation for degree study. 


Other qualifications on offer at community colleges include certificates, diplomas, short courses and foundation courses. In many cases, community colleges have partnerships and collaborations with universities that mean if you complete a course to the required standard you will be able to transfer to an academic university degree


Thinking of studying abroad but need some motivation, read our top 10 reasons to study abroad.


Can community college qualifications be used as credit for university degrees?


Yes, they can. Community college qualifications are widely recognised by universities as valid for entry onto various degree courses. Remember that you should check with your prospective college to verify if the course you wish to study qualifies you for a degree in the subject area you wish to pursue and how you will be credited. It’s also important to check that the community college you choose is accredited. This is essential when transferring to a four-year degree university.  


One of the things that a community college can offer you is an academic course that you can learn more at your own pace and with more individualised attention from faculty members. Studying at a community college is often considered a great introduction to academia. 


Find out more about the differences between a college and a university.


Is community college free?


Unfortunately, not. But the good news is that community colleges are more budget-friendly than four-year universities. In some cases, the tuition fees at a community college can be up to a third cheaper. Do not however mistake this for a lack of quality or academic rigour as what you learn at a community college is subject to the same scrutiny as any university. Sometimes the curriculum is almost identical. 


One of the possible downsides of a community college is that accommodation is not usually provided by the institution, as they are smaller than universities. This is something that you should figure into your budgeting and planning if you’re thinking about attending a community college. There is also the option of exploring financial aid and scholarships as these are also offered by community colleges.


What to do after community college


Once you have completed a qualification or degree at a community college, you have several options available to you. You could look to transfer to a university to study towards a bachelor’s degree or you could head out into the world of work with a vocational qualification. Much will depend on your goals and ambitions. 


What you choose to do after community college will be heavily dependent on your career plans. If, for example, you wish to pursue a career that requires academic qualifications via professional degrees, like engineering or psychology, then the university route is a great idea. 


Armed with your new knowledge it’s time to start exploring more of your options. Why not read our guide to the different types of bachelor’s degrees? You could also take a look at five creative fields you may be interested in pursuing and find a degree to suit your personality


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