What is a Community College? Are They Free? We Explain Here

There is no one-size-fits approach to higher education. Not every high school graduate wants to pursue a four-year degree right after high school. The prospect of being saddled with six-figure student loan debt might be a significant turn-off as well. 

Because life is complex and unpredictable, some people simply cannot go down the conventional route to a bachelor’s degree in one shot. 

For these reasons and many more, we believe that community college is a compelling option for anyone who wants to continue or expand their education beyond high school without going broke, giving up gainful employment, or diving headfirst into higher education.

We are here to shine the spotlight on community colleges, for once. Community colleges seldom get the attention they deserve, even though they help millions of Americans achieve their educational and career goals. 

According to the Department of Education, there are more than 1,400 community colleges across the country. More than 1,000 are public institutions offering two-year degrees in the liberal arts, sciences, general studies, health professions, and many more. In 2019 alone, well over 800,000 associate degrees were awarded by community colleges. According to Community College Review, more and more high school graduates are choosing community colleges over four-year institutions. This trend will likely continue because of the state of the economy.

With all of that said, opting for community college is a sensible choice, and you will not be the odd-one-out among your peers for doing so. Here, we give you an overview of community college and what it has to offer.

Definition of a Community College

Roxbury Community College
DotsDaughterProject, Roxbury Community College, CC BY-SA 4.0

Let us clarify what makes a community college a community college.

Community colleges, also known as junior colleges in the United States, are two-year institutions of postsecondary education. They are primarily public degree-granting institutions that serve as a bridge between high school and traditional, four-year colleges. Many people, specifically those in the 18-24 age cohort, enroll in a junior college with the intention of transferring to a four-year college or university upon completing a two-year program.

However, let us disabuse you of the notion that community colleges are solely “pipelines” to four-year institutions. Many junior colleges offer GED programs and other forms of remedial education for those who have been out of school and in the workforce for some time. Some community colleges offer high school diplomas, technical degrees, and various other certifications that help polish your resume and boost your employment profile. For this reason, community colleges tend to draw a high percentage of nontraditional students, which include retirees, working adults, and older adults.

Community colleges pride themselves in their greater flexibility and ability to accommodate the needs of the average student. Most community college students are 18 to 24 years of age, who make up roughly 40% of the student body. According to one source, retirees and working adults make up a sizable percentage of students enrolled at community colleges. There is no pressure to follow the conventional and seemingly clear-cut path to education beyond high school. And it is never too late to start or expand your education!

The associate’s degree is the most common diploma offered by community colleges, although a small handful do offer four-year degrees. Many community colleges have open enrollment policies, meaning that, in most cases, you will be admitted as long you have a high school diploma or a GED and fulfill other basic requirements. A community college will not likely turn you away if you have less than stellar grades in high school!  

In sum, community colleges can serve as pathways to a four-year educational program. They are also a means for buffing up one’s resume and credentials without having to leave the workforce. Community colleges are an affordable and flexible choice for anyone who wants to expand their opportunities and horizons, without breaking the bank or throwing off your work-life balance.

Are Community Colleges Free?

Most community colleges are not free.

However, tuition and fees at a junior college are less likely to induce sticker-shock than say your typical four-year institution of higher education. But community colleges are not free, for the most part, just more affordable. 

However, there has been some ongoing discussion about making community college free nationwide. So far, this has not come to full fruition. That said, there are a handful of states that have made community college free in various ways.

These “tuition-free” programs that are available vary widely and many come with stipulations and specific eligibility requirements. For example, New York offers a tuition-free program, the Excelsior Scholarship, which is available to students from families making less than $125k a year. It is applicable to both two-year and four-year programs, provided that the school of choice is part of the CUNY or SUNY system. 

Another example is the Arkansas Future Grant, which is available to students enrolled in a STEM program and available on a first come, first serve basis to students who graduated from a public high school in Arkansas. You would not be eligible for this grant if your heart is set on a humanities degree.

Another program, the Hawaii Promise Scholarship, is only applicable to eligible Hawaii Community College students who have demonstrated financial need and have exhausted all other forms of financial aid. This is an example of a “last dollar” program. As we said, community colleges are generous in the financial aid they offer to prospective students, but the formula varies greatly.

Our advice is that you should research financial aid and scholarship options available to you in your state and at your local community colleges. You may want to ask your high school guidance counselor, your community college advisor, go to your local library, or community college bursar office to help steer you in the right direction. It is essential to read the fine print since many “free-tuition” programs have eligibility requirements and stipulations, as shown in the examples above.

Ranking of Community Colleges

Another question that may be swirling around in your mind is what makes a great community college and what are some of the best community colleges out there?

Some of the selection criteria for great community colleges are not entirely different from those for four-year colleges. Factors such as post-graduation outcomes, degree completion, and return on investment are just as important. One respect in which junior college is unique is its ability to allow students a path to a four-year degree. The quality of a community college can be evaluated in terms of how many of their graduates successfully transfer to a four-year degree granting institution. Flexibility in scheduling options may be a factor that is more relevant for gauging the quality of a community college versus that of a typical college.

Let’s take a look at some quality community colleges and what makes them stand out.

According to WalletHub, the State Technical College of Missouri, also known as State Tech for short, is the highest-ranking community college in the US based on a blend of career outcomes, educational outcomes, and cost-financing options. State Tech boasts a 99% job placement rate and a 73% graduation rate, and some of their graduates even out-earn their bachelor’s degree-holding counterparts. In 2018, it was recognized by Forbes as the nation’s “3rd-best 2 year college.” 

Likewise, Santa Barbara City College was also listed among top 10 community colleges with stellar transfer and graduation rates. The junior college was praised for expanding its already broad number of options to include another 25 programs online. These fully online degrees and certificate programs include everything from medical coding to marketing. Additionally, the college is recognized for making social mobility possible for students from disadvantaged background.

Benefits of Community College

Two of the benefits of attending community college have already been mentioned: low cost and flexibility in terms of the enrollment-to-degree-completion timeline. Some of the additional benefits of junior colleges include smaller class sizes and individualized attention. If you are concerned cost and affordability, financial aid is as accessible for community college students as it is for students at more traditional, four-year institutions.

Part of the academic flexibility offered by community colleges is the work-life balance that is desired and needed by many working adults. If you are juggling work, family life, and studies, earning a degree at your pace is a viable option. You can take classes part-time or during the evening. According to the US News & World Report, more than 50% of community college students attend school part-time.

We have emphasized that most students enroll at community college intending to transfer to a four-year institution. Another advantage offered by many community colleges is transfer agreements with local and regional, four-year universities and colleges. For example, SUNY Broome Community College in upstate New York offers the Binghamton Advantage Program (BAP), which is a two-year, joint program between the community college and Binghamton University that allows students to live on the BU campus while completing coursework at the community college. After a year or two, students can transfer to Binghamton University full time.

Another benefit of attending community college is that these schools have a finger on the pulse of the latest economic and technological trends in the labor market, providing professional degree programs and certificates in STEM fields and other rapidly growing industries. An increasing number of community colleges partner with businesses and organizations to train and keep the workforce apace with the latest economic and technological trends.

Requirements for Community College

We have also mentioned at the beginning that many, if not all, community colleges have open admissions policies. We will explain what this means and how it ties into the general admissions requirements for community colleges.

Open admissions means that the minimum requirement for admission is a high school diploma or a GED. Besides this requirement, the admission into the school is non-competitive. Prospective students need to complete and submit and apply and prove a GED or high school diploma.

While community colleges generally have open admissions policies, there are programs within a school that may require extra steps or additional criteria for admission. The Nursing program at Tompkins Cortland Community College, for example, has a selective admissions process since there are more applicants than spots available. To be considered for admission, applicants need to submit personal statements and references, along with their GPA and grades in Science and Math courses. The process may also require an interview or entrance exam. The average GPA for enrolled students is 3.4, making admissions into the nursing program way more competitive than admission into the general community college.

Other requirements may apply. Contrary to popular belief, some community colleges may require SAT or ACT scores. Additional admission requirements include evidence of a VISA or green card for international students. 

In some cases, students transferring from a four-year college with a GPA of less than 2.0 may not find the admissions process as smooth since the 2.0 is below the minimum transfer GPA needed for being admitted into many community colleges. For a variety of reasons, a certain college may experience a surge in the number of applicants for a given year. In this case, the junior college may decide to tighten the admissions process because the finite number of spots means that not every applicant can be admitted.


For many students, attending community college is the logical next step in attaining an ideal education. With generally friendlier requirements than traditional universities, lower tuitions, and excellent job outcomes, community colleges may very well be the future of education.