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What is a Community College?

Historically, community colleges were known as junior colleges, but the term junior college has fallen from popularity. Community colleges have, and still to this day, play an important role in preparing students for the workforce. There are over a thousand community colleges in the United States and most offer a variety of degrees or certificates that prepare both domestic and international students immediately for their first entry-level job. Community colleges also serve as an access point into a traditional university for students who plan on continuing their education.

So, what’s the difference between a community college and a four-year university? A community college is exactly as the name implies: It is a higher education institution that primarily serves its surrounding community. Community colleges offer traditional academic classes like math and history that will transfer to a four-year college or university but also offers community programs like resume help to job seekers, or swim classes to children. As community colleges grow in popularity they are serving more individuals both locally and from around the world.

Degree Program Length

The main difference between a community college and a university is that most degrees at a community college only take two years to complete, while degrees at a four year university take four years to complete. Why does it take four years to complete a degree at a university but only two years at community college?

At four year universities students spend their first two years taking general education requirements, also known as “gen-eds,” such as math or history, regardless of what their area of concentration will be. This means that during the first two years of university, whether your major course of study is architecture or biology, for example, you’ll be required to take the same general education requirements. It will not be until your third and fourth year that you focus on your upper-level requirements which will be specific to your chosen degree program.

Instead of doing the first two years at a university, some students will elect to do those two years of general education requirements at a community college first and then transfer to a traditional university to complete the last two years of their degree.

Students who begin their studies at a community college are ready to enter university at the junior level, meaning they only need an additional two-years before earning a bachelor’s degree. Most community colleges do not offer a bachelor’s degree. Instead, community colleges award certificates and associate degrees. An associate’s degree is designed to be finished in two years (after about 60 credits) and is made up of core classes like English, history, math, government, arts, and science.

Campus Size

Besides the time-frame needed to complete a degree, another big difference between a community college and a university is campus size. Universities are much larger than community colleges; some universities in the United States have over a hundred thousand students. Since community colleges do not have as many students on campus this means there are less students to meet and fewer organized campus groups and activities.

Although the amount of groups and clubs at community colleges are limited, students can typically participate in any organization they would like that is offered; students at a large university might have to be “approved” or voted into a club. Additionally, students at community colleges are often encouraged to create clubs or groups if there is a need for one that does not already exist.

A smaller campus also means that getting around is easier. If you plan to own a car in the U.S., you might be happy to know that access to parking is not a problem on a community college campus. However, if you plan to study at a four year university, especially in a city, you will find that on-campus parking is limited. For many students, especially those commuting, finding a place to park can be a huge headache and it’s the last thing you want to worry about when you’re on your way to class to give a presentation or take a test. At community colleges parking is almost always readily available and since the campuses are smaller than traditional universities, there’s less distance to walk between classes and parking lots.

One other important thing to consider regarding campus size is that most community colleges have smaller recreational facilities that may not be as substantial as those at a four-year university. At a four year university, you might have access to a state-of-the-art gym, several tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a host of other perks. Many community colleges have recreational facilities, but they are smaller in comparison to the facilities you’ll find at larger institutions.


At universities, students live in residence halls, also known as dormitories, or dorms. Dorms can be an epicenter of activity and provide students with a chance to learn and interact with each other daily. In comparison, dorms are not always available at community colleges. Most students that attend a community college are commuters meaning they live elsewhere and only commute to campus to take classes or participate in various activities. Most community college students must find off-campus housing in the area. You’ll find that at community colleges most international students live with a host family or in an apartment close to campus.

Financing Your Education

When financing your education, most international students will pay for college using a mix of savings, loans, scholarships, and grants. Inquire with the school’s financial aid office or with your international student advisor to ask whether or not scholarships are available to international students. You can also visit our financial aid section to find information on scholarships and loans for international students.

You can start your search for a community college from our US School Search.

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