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The community college is a fundamental part of American higher education. Nearly half of all college students in America are enrolled in a community college – 45%, according to the AACC Fact Sheet – and community college is a key educator for non-traditional aged students (more than half of those between 22 and 39) and working students (well over 60% of full-time community college students are working full- or part-time jobs).

Nearly half of all college students in America are enrolled in a community college

The idea of the community college goes back to the Joliet Junior College in Illinois, which was founded in 1901. According to the AACC, the earliest junior colleges worked as a sort of continuation of high school, giving students some more instruction in the liberal arts, but with the depression in the 1930s, emphasis started to shift to job training. The influx of veterans into the system after WWII, thanks to the G.I. Bill, which paid for veterans to go back to school and prepare for civilian life, these junior colleges began to expand to meet the unprecedented demand, until the Truman Commission in 1948 paved the way for a national community college network.

Over the last few decades, community colleges have trended toward college-transfer programs, often at the expense of technical and professional career programs, but in recent years that bias has begun to change. President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address focused on the important role technical education would play in America’s economic future, and the Department of Education has articulated big plans for improving and increasing technical education in the US.

This return to technical and professional career education has come about largely because of the economic crisis that began in 2008. As working adults found themselves out of work, sometimes after decades of experience, community colleges began picking up the educational slack, helping non-traditional students return to school and develop their skills and credentials to re-enter the workforce.

To find the most valuable school of 2016, check out our  Top 50 Best Value Community Colleges. Need to study online? Then you will want to acquaint yourself with the Top 50 Best Value Online Community Colleges.

Why Community College?

Students choose community college for all sorts of reasons. The first, of course, is money; community college tuition, on average, is half the cost of a comparable public college or university, and in many areas may be dramatically less.

community college tuition, on average, is half the cost of a comparable public college or university, and in many areas may be dramatically less

Other students are simply going back to school to enhance the career they already have; they’re not interested in a bachelor’s degree, just the associate’s or certificate that will help them get a job in their field, or get a promotion at the job they have. Working adults in construction, for instance, can go a lot farther with a community college degree in construction management; a secretary at a law firm can make more with a paralegal certification.

Other students want to get credentialed so they can work sooner, even as they are earning a higher degree. Many nurses, for instance, go straight into the field from their RN degree and licensure or LPN certificate, while continuing to work toward bachelor and master degrees on their off-time. Being able to go into a professional career and pay for a degree program ultimately helps avoid a lot of student loan debt.

On-Campus or Online? It Depends

Choosing between on-campus and online courses really requires a student to ask what they need out of a course. Many working adults, who already have job schedules to maintain, as well as families or other responsibilities, often choose online courses and degree programs. Online programs are more flexible for scheduling; often online classes are non-synchronous, meaning students do not have to meet at the same time online and can complete class work around their own schedule. That flexibility and convenience is the main selling point for online community college classes.

Online courses can also be more convenient for students who only need a few credits to complete their degree programs, or who have to get some simple remedial courses out of the way. A course that isn’t essential to your specific degree program, but is still a requirement, may not be worth the extra effort of finding time in your schedule to visit campus.

However, for some programs, the hands-on experience and networking that an on-campus program provides can be essential. Students in technical programs, for instance, may benefit much more from an on-the-ground course, even if an online version is available; no video or simulation can take the place of having your hands on a real engine if you’re studying automative maintainance, for instance.

On-campus courses can also provide valuable networking opportunities. Many community colleges are heavily involved in community service, partnerships with local businesses, and apprenticeship opportunities, and all of these can help students make connections that can turn into employment after graduation.

The question of online vs on-campus isn’t just one of personal preference, or even of study habits or learning styles; the choice can have real implications for job preparation and market readiness. It’s not a decision to make lightly.

Associate’s Degree vs. Certificate

Community colleges offer both associate’s degrees and certificate programs. Associate degrees make up the majority of awards – over 770,000 in 2011 – with certificates representing a little more than half that number. Students may wonder which is more useful, and just like choosing between online and on-campus, it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Certificates are popular simply because they can be obtained faster. Most certificate programs are only a year, or even less (as little as a few weeks, in some cases). Certifications may be connected to specific industry standards (such as a Microsoft certification in computer science) or merely prepare students for state certifications (such as massage therapist or cosmetology certifications) which differ from state to state.

A certification, of course, does not carry as much as weight on the job market as an associate’s degree, though for some careers a certification is enough to get your foot in the door. An associate’s degree usually takes two years of full-time work, though many community colleges offer accelerated programs that can take a year or 18 months. An associate’s degree usually consists of the same courses that would constitute the first two years of a bachelor’s degree, so an AA or AS (Associate of Arts or Associate of Science) can transfer more easily to a 4-year university and get community college students closer to a bachelor’s.

In many cases, certificate programs can be added to associate degrees as well, to add a credential to your resume and distinguish yourself on the job market. An RN with a specialized certificate in geriatric care, for instance, may have more of a chance getting a position in an elder facility than one without the certification.

The best Community College Majors

Best Fields for Community College

For at least two generations now, bachelor’s degree have been touted as the standard for professional careers, but that cultural assumption ignores the reality that many essential career paths, professions that can provide a solid middle-class income and job security, don’t need a bachelor’s degree at all.

For working adults looking to change their careers, or recent high school graduates who want to go into a good-paying, reliable profession, community college offers many associate’s degrees and certificates that can get the ball rolling. Some of the most popular include:

  • Medical – these are professions like nursing, radiology technician, or dental hygienist. Medical technicians can begin working with a certificate, or increase their job marketability with an associate’s degree.
  • Technical – Many community colleges include programs in areas such as automotive repair, engineering technology, plumbing, HVAC, and construction management. HVAC and plumbing, while not always glamorous, generally pay well and offer the opportunity to start your own business.
  • Professional – Some associate’s degree programs offer an entry into office life, with programs such as paralegal, project management, or business management. These can be a start to higher degrees, or may offer the level of career preparation you need to begin working.

The Upshot

Going to college is one of the most important financial decisions you will ever make – not only any debt that you may incur, but also the career path it sets you on and what kind of living your choice prepares you to make.

It’s important to know yourself: whether you like working for a company, for another person, or for yourself; whether you like school or just want to get through it, like taking a disgusting medicine; whether your work better with your hands or your head, by yourself or in a group; whether work for you means a big paycheck, a feeling of accomplishment, or a means to an end. Sometimes knowing these things can be difficult for a young person just out of high school, but most adults who have worked and struggled for a while have learned the hard way. If you’re in that boat, it’s time to take stock of where you are and where you want to be, and look to your local community college to help get you there.

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