A Frugal Resource: The Community College

One of my favorite frugal resources is the community college. Even though I’ve taken several classes at my local college, I’ve barely tapped into the depth of resources available not only to enrolled students but also to community members. Here are ideas on getting value from your tuition and tax money.  

Select a course of study, degree program, or individual classes based on your goals. Occasionally, I talk to people who seem disappointed that a class or two didn’t jumpstart a stalled career. A computer class, for example, may help someone learn how to build a spreadsheet but, while such a skill is useful in the workplace, it may equip a job seeker with minimum qualifications rather than transforming capabilities. A career launch or change in direction generally requires a couple of years of study in an in-demand field such as nursing.
Consider how to use community college courses: 
  • Start (and/or complete) a college career. A couple of my family members have taken advantage of combo high school/college courses (such as an Early College program), getting college credits while in high school at no cost. Many Associate degree programs (such as nursing, graphic design, or architectural technology) may give a student all that is needed to land a great job and enjoy a fulfilling career.
  • Augment a college career. Many community college classes are transferable to four-year universities. My husband took a hard-to-get course at his hometown college during the summer break from UNC so that he could meet graduation requirements.
  • Broaden or update skills or certifications beneficial for the workplace. To keep up-to-date with my computer skills, I have taken a few classes over several years. Keeping up with technology can be especially difficult for the self-employed as software, training, and technical support are self-funded; the community college is a particularly valuable resource for businesses with minimal training budgets.
  • Get skills that could be useful for a side business. Though I haven't started a business based on skills and knowledge gained from community college classes, I can envision providing services or creating products after taking courses such as medical interpreting or cake decorating.
  • Acquire new skills that could be useful in saving money. I have taken cooking classes and learned some basics that cookbooks often neglect (such as how to select and cook certain cuts of meat).
  • Launch a new career. Recent high school grads and those with years of experience and degrees may find a career through a program at the community college. A 30ish neighbor with three kids in school recently finished a dental hygiene program and is now working at a local dentist's office.
I am most familiar with expanding skills by taking classes in personal taxation, CPR, breadmaking, cooking, and desktop publishing. Most were offered through the continuing education area but one was part of a curriculum program, which required meeting with an admissions counselor and attending an orientation session to get a parking pass.
Here are a few things I have learned about getting the most out of the community college experience (also relevant to the university experience):
  • Instructors are generally very knowledgeable in their respective fields. Some are great instructors but a few are not very experienced or particularly proficient in teaching. To get the best value, be motivated to learn not just by paying attention in class but by tapping into the instructor’s expertise during class sessions, when time allows. For example, one of my classes had a few (seemingly unnecessary) sessions dedicated to project work; though the instructor didn’t have much to teach on those days, she showed a deep knowledge of the subject matter and didn’t mind answering non-project-related questions.  
  • Scholarships are available, either through the college itself (see a scholarship listing of one community college) or through private, non-college-specific scholarships that can be applied to community college tuition, fees, and expenses.
  • Discounts for books, software, and more may be available to students who are taking just one class. When I took a desktop publishing class in pre-Internet years, I was able to buy a student version of the software at a significant discount to an off-the-shelf purchase.
  • Affordable, quality childcare may be available. One obstacle to getting an education and a job is lack of appropriate childcare so some colleges offer onsite childcare staffed in part by students who are earning early childhood education credentials.
In addition to classes, I have also attended dinner theatres (catered by the culinary school) and walked trails created by the horticulture school. Philip tells me that there are a wealth of resources at his local college, such as live theatre, a library, and a planetarium (you can even host a birthday party at the planetarium).
Other resources available for free or discounted prices may include
for students:
  • Computer lab access with live, in-person assistance
  • Tutoring
  • Foreign language lab
  • Counseling and mentoring
  • Job placement services
for community members:

Have you gotten a fresh start at the community college or found its resources valuable? Share your experiences and tips for getting the most out of the community college.

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Guest's picture

Community colleges are great resources that can easily be forgotten. When I changed jobs about four years ago, I took several accounting courses at our community college to help with my new work. The teaching was great, and the cost was very reasonable.

Guest's picture

i have yet to have a positive experience with a community college. the teachers i've encountered don't treat students with respect, and half the time don't even bother coming to class. how are students to learn if the teacher isn't there to instruct them?

then there's the snafu of teachers who teach online classes but cannot figure out how to use their email or the classroom software...or their own computers.

maybe it's just a Baltimore thing, but i'm certainly burned on the whole community college "thing."

Guest's picture

This is a great post- all too often, there is a stigma attached to community colleges that is undeserved. As an adjunct professor at a community college, I can tell you that the hiring standards were fairly rigorous and that I had to really demonstrate my qualifications to get the position. And, most of my colleagues are there because they really want to teach- there is very little reason to look for an adjunct position otherwise.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for sharing experiences, good and not so good. My experiences (and those of people I know) have been at multiple colleges but all in North Carolina, which apparently has a top-ranked program. The online course I took was offered through the college but was really a packaged class with an instructor available by email but not anywhere nearby. 

And, glad for the mention Coupon Artist. The one thing that I have liked about my college instructors is that not only did they have professional credentials, they also had hands-on experience -- my tax instructor was a CPA with a local accounting firm, my CPR instructor was a highway patrolmen, etc. -- so they could help with the practical application of course content and not just the theory.  



Guest's picture

I went to a community college, and it was the best option for me at the time. I didn't really know what I wanted to study, and I was apprehensive about going to college. The hardest step is the first one, and community college was a good first step. It was inexpensive, close to home, and helped me narrow my focus on my future career.

Guest's picture
Community College Graduate

I graduated near the top of my high school class in '02, and I was on the fast-track to heading to one of the most popular state schools, but in the end I decided to stay home and go to my community college -- for free. I probably saved $40-$50k for those two years of college by staying home.

On top of that, one of the universities that accepted me out of high school ended up offering me MORE scholarship money as a transfer student. In the end, four years of college cost me about $15k (well, tuition only), and I ended up with a bachelor's from a well-respected private school.

I had both positive and negative experiences at my community college. Sometimes it did feel like I was in "extended high school," but I stayed focused and stayed away from the "wandering" students who were still working on their associate's...five years and counting.

Funny thing is...I ended up getting my master's from Northwestern, and the quality of some of the graduate courses I took there were as bad or worse than what I experienced at the community college!

(That's another important note -- students shouldn't feel like they're limiting their academic prospects by starting out at a community college. There were several nights in which I thought I had committed self-sabotage by starting out with an associate's.)

Thanks for the post!

Guest's picture

The classes at my county's community college are very good, but they are (almost) all in-class classes. Another county's community college is great and offers online classes (taught by their professors). It only costs me a little bit more to take the other county's classes, but it's great because I can do it from home. So, be sure to check out not just your own local, but also neighboring, community colleges.

Guest's picture

I got my AA from a Community College, and for my MA degree I was accepted by Columbia University. Community Colleges are great -- most of the college experience depends on the student. I was so grateful and proud of the community college where I started, that I taught for 2 years there. I don't teach at the moment, but I am in the process of getting hired by a community college that recently became a state college. Nice post!

Guest's picture

My experience at North Seattle Community College was outstanding. The teachers were very enthusiastic about their work and the smaller class size meant they engaged with their students personally.
A mailing I got from NSCC recently included an interesting fact: Over the past two years, every student who applied to the college's education foundation scholarship program was given money. Obviously this can't hold true everywhere, but you might be surprised at (a) how affordable these schools are and (b) the availability of funding.
I urge you to check out this option. Your life might be changed, too.

Guest's picture

If you are interested in a 4 year degree- forget the myth that your classes will transfer from the community college to the 4 year university. I have seen many many friends and family spend 6+ years at comm college, only to repeat those classes once they got to a "real" university. Save your time and money over the long run by going straight to a 4 year university. That is what I did! I completed college and medical school in the same amount of time my best friend finished a degree from a community college to become a preschool teacher!

Guest's picture
J Hyatt

I imagine this really depends on where you are located. I teach at a community college in Missouri, and we have partnerships with a number of schools in our state to guarantee that all of the core classes (English, Math, Science, etc.) will transfer to their four-year institution. We also take great pains to make our core classes comparable in requirements and difficulty to the state university's core classes. Prior to teaching community college, I taught at a couple of private four-year colleges, and the standards where I teach now are more rigorous.

The best thing to do before attending any trade school or two-year college, if you are thinking you may want to go on to a four-year school after you continue, is to contact the local four-year school's registrar to find out what credits from the two-year school will transfer.

Julie Rains's picture

Great advice J. Hyatt -- admissions counselors at the community college can help but I would check with my desired school first (if you know where you'll be attending), which is one reason I mentioned figuring out your goals first and making sure your classes are in sync with that  goal. North Carolina (my home state) has also taken effort to align community college curriculum with 4-year universities; for example, years ago, classes were offered by quarter, now they are offered by semester.

Still, there can be value not just in transfer classes but continuing ed. classes and other resources.

Guest's picture

Some of the community colleges with better resources give you access to their athletic facilities. At my local community college, students could register for a 1-unit P.E. course that was essentially going to the gym. This meant that in addition to my computer design course, I could spend an extra $20 and have a gym at my disposal for the entire semester. Worth checking out if you're signing up for a class anyway!

Re: discounts - this also applies to anywhere you can get a student discount (restaurants, stores, etc.)! My community college offers students a free bus pass.

And for you parents of high schoolers, check to see if there's a dual enrollment program. If your student is especially gifted, they may be able to complete some required courses while in HS or over the summer for free! Because it's college-level, there might be automatic credit transfer (usually true if your kid's state school-bound), saving you $$ later on!

Guest's picture

Just try getting into the classes you need at a community college in California. It would take me 4+ years to get a 2 year certification for a job that pays $15 an hour, only hires through contractors (no benefits) and is usually limited to part time.

Julie Rains's picture

Some of the programs are competitive and crowded; for example, the nursing and dental hygiene programs are popular in my area. Some universities now offer accelerated programs for non-traditional students who are retraining.