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Why Are Community Colleges So Cheap?

Community college is an excellent option for those looking to pursue an education on a budget. Compared to four-year universities, they’re a lot more affordable. You might be wondering what makes them so cheap.

Community colleges are so cheap because they don’t put as much money toward faculty salaries, infrastructure, room and board, meal plans, and extracurricular activities. Their lower expenditure gives them the ability to lower tuition. 

In the rest of this article, we’ll go into further detail about why community college is the more affordable option, and how that affordability is made possible. But first, let me make one thing very clear. Community college can be an excellent option for many people. But when it comes down to why community colleges cost less, there are some very valid reasons. I’m going to lay them out as factually as I can.

Why community college costs less.

How Cheap Is Community College?

Community colleges are significantly more affordable than four-year universities. They need this level of affordability to promote a wider reach of accessibility for students in less financially fortunate situations.

The Education Data Initiative states that the average cost of a community college education in the U.S. is $7,460 in total. Compared to the average of $25,362 that students are paying at four-year institutions, community college is $17,902 cheaper on average.

This is a massive difference. Let’s discuss why community colleges are so cheap, and how they can afford to offer such low tuition.

Sources: Education Data study one and study two

Less-paid Faculty Members

One of the main reasons behind the affordability of U.S. community colleges is that their professors and other faculty members don’t receive fair salaries and benefits.

Community colleges tend to hire many part-time workers because they can pay less for more. They can save big on faculty salaries by hiring a higher number of people who work fewer hours at lower wages than a full-time employee. It would be a lot more expensive to hire full-time employees and supply them with a higher salary and pricey benefits.

Most faculty members that work at community colleges are paid a lower salary that barely puts them above the federal poverty level despite the extensive amount of schooling that is required for a person to become a teacher. It’s not uncommon for staff members to have to put in unreasonable amounts of work just to survive.

But working longer hours and taking on extra paid projects still isn’t enough to cover basic human needs, especially in areas where housing is more expensive. Some faculty members have no choice but to resort to extreme measures and sacrifices just to pay rent (source).

In addition to this shockingly low salary, 25% of California community college faculty members have no health insurance, and most don’t have access to retirement benefits through their employer. But those who do have retirement benefits claim that it won’t be enough to live off by the time retirement comes.

To put this on a national scale, California is the state with the second-highest teacher salaries. This means that instructors and other employees working at community colleges across the U.S. are getting paid even less.

This lack of fair teacher salaries and benefits plays a considerable role in how cheap tuition is possible for these institutions. Relatively low tuition is feasible because community college professors don’t get paid as much as professors do at four-year universities.

Community colleges also don’t have to worry about paying expensive salaries because they hire fewer full-time employees. Teacher salaries are already low, but part-time employees are paid even lower. This lack of fairness to the faculty plays a big role in why community colleges can afford to offer such low tuition rates (source).

Poor Infrastructure

Offering low tuition is an essential value to community colleges around the nation. However, it means that certain amenities must be cut in order to make this low-cost viable.

Community colleges have low tuition because they don’t put as much money into infrastructure as most four-year institutions do. While many four-year universities in the U.S. have massive libraries and highly-functional classrooms, most community college infrastructure is outdated and not always as functional as it should be.

There are two main reasons why the infrastructure at public community colleges is less adequate than what you might find at a private four-year university:

  • There’s a significant lack of state funding, resulting in poor infrastructure. Most community colleges can’t afford infrastructure upgrades without raising tuition.
  • In addition to this lack of funding, there’s no drive to fix this issue because low tuition is at a more significant value than building and equipment repairs. Community colleges see financial accessibility for students as a higher priority than costly construction projects. 

Though this can negatively impact a student’s ability to learn, most students would rather have fewer expenses. Community colleges have their fair shares of pros and cons, but poor infrastructure is a con that many students would choose to deal with in exchange for low tuition (source).

No Room and Board

Another reason why tuition is so cheap is that most community colleges don’t offer room and board. But usually, they don’t need to.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), only 28% of community colleges in the United States offered room and board in 2015. This means that 72% of community colleges didn’t provide dorms for their students.

Because community colleges don’t typically offer room and board, a lot of students tend to stay at home— either out of choice or family obligation— or live off-campus. However, this doesn’t usually keep students away. 90% of citizens in the United States have a community college within commuting distance from their homes, which keeps the option an accessible choice for those who would rather live at home while attending college.

Community colleges that don’t offer room and board for their students don’t have to worry about the construction, repairs, and everyday maintenance associated with having dorm buildings. These costs make on-campus housing at four-year institutions so pricey.

Students don’t have to pay for a dorm because they’re not typically offered in the first place (source).

No Meal Plans

While it’s common for the majority of four-year universities to offer meal plans to students, it’s not as common in the realm of community college.

Most community colleges don’t offer meal plans because they want to keep their institution’s education as cheap as possible.

Meal plans are an expensive part of the standard four-year college experience. University meal plans can cost thousands of dollars a year, and more often than not, meal plans are a mandatory expense.

At Wellesley College, for example, their mandatory meal plan totals to an annual cost of $7,442.

Affordability is one of the primary missions of the standard community college. Adding mandatory meal plans to the mix would add to upkeep costs, and it would also make a massive dent in the students’ budgets. But because most two-year colleges don’t offer meal plans, it helps keep things affordable on both ends (source).

Less Focus on Extracurriculars

Another reason why community colleges are affordable is because of the lack of funding for extracurriculars.

Community colleges can have cheaper tuition rates because they don’t put as much funding into extracurricular activities compared to four-year institutions.

Statistics show that in 2021, 5.39 million students were enrolled in public two-year institutions, 156,300 students studied in private for-profit two-year institutions, and 5 million students were enrolled in non-credit community college programs.

This means that almost 11 million students were enrolled in some form of community college.

However, out of those 11 million students, only about 50,000 participate in sports, which is only 0.45% of the United States’ community college population. It’s partially because only around half of the community colleges in the United States offer sports programs to begin with. Still, not many students enrolled in two-year institutions display much of an interest in sports at all.

That’s because the majority of four-year institutions offer athletic scholarships, which draws many sports-lovers away from community colleges. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) alone annually funds over $3.6 billion of scholarships that directly impact more than 180,000 athletes each year.

While many four-year universities direct a significant portion of their focus and funds to extracurricular programs like sports, community colleges are severely lacking in this field (source).

Basically, community colleges cannot adopt the athletic traditions of four-year universities because they don’t have the funding to do so, and if they did have the funding, it could raise overall tuition expenses and cut into their ability to make two-year institutions more accessible to the public (source).

Pros and Cons of Attending a Community College

Like most major life decisions, choosing to attend a community college has its pros and cons. Unfortunately, low tuition comes at the cost of the setbacks we’ve discussed in this article. 

Cons of Attending Community College

  • Community college professors don’t get fair salaries or benefits. Because of this, many community college teachers work part-time instead of full-time. Though every situation is different, it means that you might get teachers who aren’t as invested in your personal academic needs because they’re preoccupied with the excessive stress that comes with being paid unfairly for hard work.
  • Infrastructure. Due to a lack of funding and a drive to keep tuition accessible, most community colleges have poor infrastructure and less adequate technology.
  • No room and board. Many community colleges don’t offer room and board, meaning that students have to live at home or find off-campus housing, which can be pricey.
  • No meal plans. Though meal plans can be costly, they do offer a level of desirable convenience. Most college students don’t have the time to go grocery shopping or prepare their own food, but they don’t have to with a meal plan. Two-year colleges don’t typically offer meal plans for their students.
  • Inadequate extracurricular activities. The majority of community colleges have insufficient extracurricular activities due to a lack of funding and motivation to keep tuition cheap. Some community colleges don’t offer extracurriculars at all.

Pros of Attending Community College

Though low tuition can bring a few cons into the equation, it’s ultimately a pretty significant benefit. However, low tuition isn’t the only good thing about two-year institutions.

Here are the pros of attending a community college:

  • Accessibility. Most people in the United States live at a commutable distance from a community college. It means that community colleges are often a more accessible choice for many students, because not everyone lives close to a four-year university.
  • You can live at home. The idea of living at home is one of the top things that drives students to enroll in community colleges. Because there are so many community colleges across the country, most people live close to one and would rather avoid on- or off-campus housing expenses by staying at home.
  • No meal plans. Though it can be seen as a con to some, it’s actually a pretty big pro. Not having to worry about the costs of a mandatory food plan can give you the freedom to prepare your own meals on your own budget. It’s also a massive pro for students who have certain dietary restrictions or specific tastes that aren’t met by their university’s cafeteria.
  • Class sizes are smaller. A pretty significant portion of community colleges have smaller class sizes because their student-to-teacher ratio is lower than what you would see at four-year institutions. Smaller class sizes mean that you can connect with your peers and professors at a closer level. Because of this, chances are that you’ll receive a lot more support as you further your education. Some even have policies that keep the class sizes less crowded to ensure the best student-professor connections.

Conclusion

There’s nothing wrong with attending a community college instead of a four-year university. In fact, getting your degree at a community college is often the better option of the two for those who have a tighter budget.

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