University vs. Community college: Where should your student start?


Planning for college is an exciting time for both students and their families, but it’s not always easy to know where to start. One of the first questions to arise may be: Is it better for my student to attend a community college or four-year university? 

Because everyone has distinct goals, interests and financial situations, deciding on the next academic step after graduation is often a personal, family decision. Let’s shed some light on how families can approach this decision to ensure they help guide their students to a lifetime of success. We’ve answered questions parents often ask about community colleges vs four-year colleges/universities. 

Is there a stigma?

Do you believe there is a negative stigma surrounding students going to a community college instead of a four-year university? 

Yes, unfortunately, for some people there may be a bit of a negative stigma associated with going to a community college. This is likely due to the fact that some measures of success, like lifetime salary earnings, are more likely for graduates of four-year institutions.

There are many different paths to success depending on your student. Universities ultimately want individuals to find a passion for learning and skills that are transferable to a career, and develop a healthy, growth-oriented mindset. If that means starting at a community college to find those things, that’s fine – your application won’t be judged any differently than someone who comes to university right after high school.

From a purely practical standpoint, community college may be a better option to begin with than a four-year university in cases where a student might feel academically unprepared for the rigor of a four-year university or if the family is not financially ready. 

Academic preparation

At what point during high school should my student and I decide whether they will start at a community college or a four-year university? And how do we prepare for each path?

The college planning process should start early, but I recommend focusing first on general pre high school conversations about your student’s interests. Ask them what they enjoy and what makes them curious. Starting with those questions allows you to talk about what a career might look like if they follow that interest and explore how to get there. Often times, students may have a broad interest but once they explore what it takes to get to that career, their goals may change. I was a biology major to become a doctor, but when I truly explored what that career would look like from a lifestyle and technical perspectives, I knew I had to take a different path.  Conversations around rigor and the demand of certain coursework, and the level of academic focus required in different settings can help encourage a student to think deeply about what they personally value.

It’s also a good idea to talk about the importance of developing study habits and the time management skills necessary to be successful. When students become aware of this, it will be easier for them to recognize that high school is a great time to practice these skills and prepare for the educational path that makes the most sense for them — whether it’s community college or a four-year university.

Finally, remember, most universities have courses that students are required to complete in high school to be admissible, and those requirements should be easy to find on the school’s website. Several of those courses are sequential courses, so if your student doesn’t enter the ninth grade on track, it can be very difficult for them to complete the entire sequence by the time they graduate from high school.


What if my student really wants to go to a university and has the grades for it, but it doesn’t seem financially feasible for our family?

Consider doing your homework before making a decision about what you can and cannot afford. Most times, the cost of tuition that is stated on a university’s website is the “sticker” price, which you may not wind up paying. First, consider whether or not financial aid and merit-based scholarships will help make tuition manageable. Rather than looking at the sticker price, explore tuition calculators and net price calculators, these tools help you get an idea of what the tuition will cost you after the school has factored in your student’s scholarships, need-based financial aid, etc. The cost of education does not have to be an overwhelming financial burden to the student or family. 

If, after you have a clear picture that the cost of a four-year university is going to cause your family financial stress, take comfort in the fact that students and families can still get the experiences they are looking forward to and deserve by starting at a community college and transferring to a university. This may provide a way to reach your end goal without hurting your wallet. That said, it’s important to do the math. The conventional wisdom that it is less costly to enroll in two years at a community college and then transfer to a university to finish your degree is not always true. Sometimes, it can be more cost and time effective to go directly to university if you student is academically prepared. 


My student has the grades and test scores to get into a four-year university, but they do not know what their career interests are or what they would major in. Would it be better to go the community college route to figure out their interests, or choose an exploratory major at a university?

Not knowing what their career interests are or what they would major in should not necessarily keep your student from attending a university. In fact, while it varies by program up to 50% of college students change their major. Consider it part of the four-year journey. 

Applying to college doesn’t mean your student has to choose a major right away or stick with their first choice, for that matter. Universities offer a variety of degrees and majors to choose from. During the first two years, students can explore interests. Most classes taken during this time are entry level, general education requirements. Meeting with an academic advisor to explore and discuss interests and programs is also important so that the classes your student takes count toward graduation (within four years) and match their passions and abilities. 


Contributor Matthew Lopez, Executive Director of Admission Services and Vice President of Enrollment Services at Arizona State University