What’s the difference between a 4-year university and community college?

Whether you are graduating with your associate’s degree and are ready to transition from community college to a 4-year university, or you are a soon-to-be undergraduate student trying to figure out which type of school to apply to… it is important to know the differences. Community colleges are unlike 4-years in a lot of ways, from class dynamic and curriculum availability, to housing and the social atmosphere.

Here are 5 major differences between a community college and a 4-year university… we hope they help you make a decision!


There are quite a few differences between a 4-year school and a community college, but one of the most significant is the living situation. Most 4-year universities offer on-campus housing, allowing students to experience higher education to its fullest extent. While many students choose to rent houses and apartments during their junior and senior years, allowing for a bit more freedom, the majority do tend to opt into the dormitory offerings when they first enroll. For many, this is the first time being away from home for an extended period of time, living either solo or with a roommate, and being responsible for more than just a piece of homework.

On-campus living does have its pros and cons, depending on one’s lifestyle prior to the transition. The greatest con is that it can be pretty expensive to pay for room and board; it’s a far cry from shacking up with mom and dad, and often costs more than renting with some buddies. The roommate factor can be a pro or a con, depending on your personality and who you get paired up with. Fortunately, many universities offer a handful of options for rooms, including doubles, triples, apartments, and sometimes even singles, if you’re lucky enough to snag one. Larger schools also tend to designate certain buildings and floors as “quiet areas” for students that don’t care to live among the more rowdy individuals.


To put it simply, community colleges typically offer associate’s degrees or certifications, whereas 4-year schools offer bachelor’s degrees and sometimes master’s and doctorate degrees. Students often use an associate’s degree from a community college as a vehicle toward their bachelor’s if they are not ready or able to take on a 4-year right away. This is a big factor to take into consideration as you decide what type of school to attend.

Class size

With the exception of very small, sometimes private, and very niche-y universities, 4-years tend to have much larger classes than community schools. This is particularly so when you are in your first and second years, as you make your way through the required general education courses as well as the introductory level classes within your major. As you get further into your studies and choose courses tailored to your concentration, you will find fewer and fewer seats in the classroom. Large university classes can be anywhere from 100 to 500 students. The professor will often have a handful of teacher’s assistants (TAs) who are there to help tutor and answer questions, however, the teacher-student ratio is still quite high.

Community colleges, on the other hand, usually have classes of just 20-30 students; quite similar to high school. This allows for more time and attention from the professor, possibly improving a student’s chance of receiving a better grade. Teacher-student ratio is something to think about if you are the type of learner that tends to seek extra help with coursework.


One of the biggest and perhaps most obvious factors that students take into consideration when choosing a school is subject availability, particularly when they know what they want to major in. A student who is looking to major in business with a concentration in marketing is more likely to apply to a larger university with a renowned business school than a smaller arts-focused college. This is to help keep options open when filling course schedules each semester. 4-years have far more areas of study (and more classes to go with said areas of study) than community colleges do. This is also due to degree options.

Many community college students will take the two years as an opportunity to get their feet wet, taking many of the required general education courses to get them out of the way as they figure out what they’re meant to study.

Extracurriculars & Social Atmosphere

Like housing, 4-year universities have far more in the way of extracurricular activities and clubs than community colleges do. A great percentage of students live on-campus, right? So, there’s got to be things to do when exams are over and homework is complete. Attending a 4-year is very much like living in your own little town within a town. There is more to the experience than simply making the motions necessary for your schooling.

The social climate of a university can truly be what draws a potential student in. People often talk about doing a campus tour and getting “that feeling” that they are where they are supposed to be for the next few years of their life. Four-year colleges have a bevy of clubs, activities and organizations to participate in. The bigger the school, the more there is to choose from. Big on sports? You don’t need to get recruited by an athletic director to play on a once-a-week club team. Love getting on stage? Join a theater group! Got a knack for public speaking? Debate club may be right up your alley. Interested in logging some volunteer hours? Universities have access to all sorts of organizations in need!

Now, this is not to say that community colleges don’t have clubs and activities to participate in… the options are just a bit limited as compared to a big university.

We hope this helps you choose between the community route and the 4-year school!