Community college

Community Colleges and Online Schools: Alternate Pathways

When talking about college, do you know what the giant elephant in the room is? The price. You can’t get around it. Families need to give thought to all options available to their students today—not only from a price consideration but also from a best fit perspective. Community colleges are two-year schools that can provide a lower-cost pathway to a four-year degree. Online colleges provide students with more flexibility because they aren’t tied to a location or specific time frame. (Trade schools and apprenticeships are also important options, but we’ll focus on community colleges and online schools in this piece.)

Community College

Community colleges carry an unfortunate stigma. Why? In great part, it’s because humans equate quality with price. Is that Louis Vuitton purse really that much better quality simply because you that much more for it? We literally buy into that perception about many of the products we purchase. We want to believe that paying more means it has more value. Most experts say that college degrees are more of a commodity – why pay more than you need to? So, let’s look at some facts about community colleges.


Small class sizes

Most students thrive in a small classroom setting–especially in those first two years. Colleges, especially private ones, like to promote their small class size. Community colleges have the same personalized, small-class approach.


Because of their smaller size, students know their professors, and those professors know their students. “Research shows that student-faculty relationships are the most crucial connection within a collegiate community.” Students excel (and are more content) when they have those connections. At large four-year colleges, students often don’t get to know professors until their junior or senior year.


In 20 years, the cost of tuition at the average community college has risen 46%, compared with a 76% rise among public universities. The average annual cost for attending a public community college in the US is $4,864 for in-state students, and $8,622 for out-of-state students. Students without large student loan debt are set up to be more successful in life after graduation. Students with large debt are putting off things we take for granted—marriage, children, home ownership, and even retirement.


If a student starts at a community college and transfers to a four-year college to finish the degree, the diploma will not say “spent two years at Ohio State,” for example. It will only show the college name from which the student graduated. The student just saved 40-60% off the sticker price by going to community college first. Students need to understand they are deciding based on smart, informed choices.

Cutting edge

Today’s community colleges have the ability to be on the cutting edge. They have tight business partnerships and federal grants to meet the needs of today’s workforce. They can incorporate new technologies and programs quickly. For example, Columbus State Community College has partnerships with Amazon AWS, Intel, and Huntington and offer specialized certifications that industry (especially IT) employers seek.

Social elements

Community colleges have adopted more of the social elements you would find in a traditional college. About 28 percent of two-year colleges in the U.S. offer on-campus housing. That figure has been growing in the past several years. Many are also adopting extracurricular activities and even athletics.

Be Aware:

Community colleges enrolled 8.9 million students in the 2020-21 academic year, representing 41% of undergraduates. However, only 15% of those students earn a bachelor’s degree in six years. Student failure occurs when students are not academically prepared for college, run into financial obstacles, do not have the proper academic guidance, and do not have a plan in place for continuing.

Students need to be ready for college coursework. Achieving certain minimum ACT or SAT exam scores can be an indicator of readiness. Taking a dual enrollment (aka, College Credit Plus in Ohio) course at a local community college while in high school is a great way to see if a student is ready.

Despite its less expensive price tag, community college is still a large expenditure. Families need to look at all four years when planning out how they will cover the costs. Don’t postpone that thinking until after the first two years are done. Look at the big picture. Where will every dollar for all four years come from?

Proper academic advising and having a course plan for transfer go hand-in-hand. Look for schools with defined partnerships in place like the Preferred Pathways program at Columbus State Community College. Students need to understand what courses they will need to transfer seamlessly without any wasted credits.

Could your family use some help thinking through college “fit”? Consider a one-on-one Private Consultation.

Online Colleges

Online colleges are much more prevalent today. They pose an attractive way for colleges to boost admissions (and revenue) with relatively low overhead. Students can work at their own pace for a lower cost.

What are the courses like?

When deciding if getting a college degree online is right for your student, thing about these specific questions (from US News & World Report) and how the choices fit your student as a learner:

  1. How is the material taught? Does everyone work at their own pace or do all students participate in a live online lecture at the same time? Or a combination of both?
  2. Do you prefer to listen to lecture or read content? Courses may be more heavily focused on video, readings, or a combination of both.
  3. What kind of assignments does the professor require?
  4. Are the professors experts in their field?
  5. What will the experience look like? Are there discussion boards, collaboration, student interaction with professors?
  6. Can you receive credit for completed courses, job training, or military/life experiences?

Ensuring the teaching methods align with the student’s learning style is the key. Good online learners are self-motivated, can communicate in various ways, have the technical ability/access, and ask questions.

What to look for?

Make sure the university is accredited. You can search for a school’s name on this site. Both the institution and the program should be accredited. For example, Purdue’s Global online school is accredited, and you can see the list of programs within Purdue Global that are accredited here. You can find this page by first searching for the school’s name (Purdue) and then clicking on Purdue Global. (Purdue Global put out this FAQ page with some tidbits about what their online learning looks like.)

While college rankings aren’t always the best resource, you can use them to get started with a search—keeping in mind that the factors for rankings might not match up with your criteria. Here is one from US News & World Report. Their list is clickable so you can dig deeper into each school. Always go beyond the US News site to explore a college’s own web page for the best info.

Try before you buy

One thing we discovered while reading about Purdue Global was that they offer a free 3-week introductory period – try it out and only pay the application fee. Other schools may offer this, too—an interesting option.

But these are not the “college experiences” I wanted for my child.

Yes, we understand. We remember with fondness our four years in college. However, times truly do change. Our price tag was substantially lower. We could work in the summers and actually pay a chunk of the fees. Our families did not need to save as much. It’s pretty close to impossible for a high school graduate to work and pay for a traditional four-year college as they go. The prospect of starting out life in a financial hole is a real consideration.

With the availability of quality alternatives like community college and online colleges, we need to at least discuss the options with our children and evaluate their fit for our family…and set aside those stigmas left over from outdated beliefs.


Updated 8/2023

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