Guide to Online Community Colleges

Online community colleges have become more popular due to the affordability and flexibility these schools offer. Learn what it means to study online at community college and how it can help you earn a terminal degree or transfer to a four-year school afterward.

Last Updated: 12/08/2020

Higher education is changing. Not only are more students considering two-year schools as their first stop after high school, but the explosion of online learning has made online community college a popular option. And the ubiquity of smartphones, built-in webcams, online learning software, and broadband internet has made the transition easier.

Online community colleges offer enormous benefits. Whether saving money or using self-paced study to balance non-academic obligations, it can help all types of students get the education they need. But how does it work? And what if you plan to transfer to a four-year college afterward? These are all great questions, and the following guide has answers, no matter your academic or career plans. See if an online community college has what you need to move your education forward.

Online Community Colleges by State

Hundreds of community colleges across the U.S. help students earn the certificate, diploma, or degree they need to begin or enhance their careers. If you’re looking for a community college near you, especially for one that offers online courses or programs, use the tool below to narrow down your choices.

or click on the map

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college name CITY zip Online courses Online programs in-state tuition enrollment
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Why Choose an Online Community College?

Higher education is a major investment. Given how affordable community colleges are, it’s no wonder that so many financially-conscious students choose this educational pathway. But the savings don’t end with a two-year degree. With the option to transfer credits to a bachelor’s degree program, students can save money on their four-year degree, too.

Cost

Several variables help determine how much the cost of attendance is for a particular school. Some of these include:  

  • Tuition
  • Fees
  • Cost of books or other academic supplies
  • Type of school (public versus private)
  • Residency status, whether in-state or in-district

In most cases, taking classes will be cheaper at a community college than at a four-year college or university, especially in regard to tuition. Tuition can be extremely affordable when attending as an in-district student, such as attending the local community college in the same county as your legal residence.

When you factor in the advantages of an online curriculum, there are even more cost savings. Sometimes the tuition rate is even cheaper for online classes. Then there’s the fact that you don’t need to commute to campus every day, which can save money on gas, wear and tear on a vehicle, and the value of your time.

As for cost of living, online students will be living off-campus; however, this cost will usually be the same if attending a community college as a traditional student. That’s due to the fact that most community colleges are commuter schools, with students rarely living on campus anyway.

Average Cost of Online Community College

Tuition (in-district/in-state/out-of-state)$3,600/$4,235/$8,136
Books and Supplies$1,447
Room and Board (on campus)$6,700
Transportation$0
Other Expenses (includes laundry, transportation, and entertainment)$3,288
Total (in-district/in-state/out-of-state)$15,035/$15,670/$19,571

The above data is for a full year as a full-time student at a public community college. Source: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018060REV.pdf

Flexibility

One of the biggest advantages of an online community college is the flexibility in coursework. Most or all of what happens in class will take place online as opposed to a physical classroom. There are varying degrees of flexibility, depending on the school, program, and professor. An online school can offer its distance learning opportunities using three separate models: asynchronous, synchronous, and hybrid.

Asynchronous Learning

This provides the maximum level of flexibility as it allows students to “attend” class whenever is convenient for them. Lectures, assignments, projects, quizzes, and tests can be taken whenever the student wants. Most of the time, there will be some scheduling restriction in place so students can finish a class by a certain deadline.

Synchronous Learning

With synchronous learning, students can complete their classwork from almost anywhere there is an internet connection. However, there will be set times when you must watch or listen to a lecture or participate with fellow students. Often, this synchronous requirement only applies to part of the course, such as the lectures, with other obligations allowing students to choose the time when they complete them.

Hybrid Learning

This is a combination of an online learning format and the traditional, on-campus class model. The distribution of online and in-person class requirements runs the spectrum, from mostly in-person classes with online class assignments all the way to a mostly online class with just one on-campus visit sometime during the semester. Some schools would have a hybrid format just so students could come onto campus to take a final exam. But with the development of online testing software, this is becoming less common.

Support

Community colleges have a reputation for providing a great deal of support for students. They often go above and beyond to ensure students reach their learning potential and accomplish their occupational goals. Let’s look at how they do this.

Supportive Environment

From providing advisors who can explain the best possible pathways to getting that dream job to offering tutoring services to help struggling students, community colleges step up to help. They work hard to facilitate what a student needs for success, such as transfers to a four-year degree program or hosting post-graduate job fairs and training events.

Personalized Learning

Community colleges have several ways of providing a personalized education. First, they often have small class sizes. Public universities have a reputation for very large classes, especially for entry-level courses. This is far less prevalent in community colleges. Second, community colleges may have special policies that encourage professors to really get to know their students, so those professors may serve as unofficial mentors. Finally, community colleges make it easier for students to have individualized contact with those professors.

Flexible Scheduling

Even before the widespread use and acceptance of online learning, community colleges were known for being as flexible as possible by offering special part-time course schedules and night classes. With an online curriculum, they can take this scheduling a step further. Community college professors and administrators understand that many people choose to attend a community college for its flexibility, especially because many students work part-time or have family obligations.

Diversity of Programs

In addition to the flexibility offered by the online learning format, there’s also flexibility in the diversity of programs. Students can typically choose between certificate and diploma programs that take two years or less to complete, as well as an associate’s degree that will usually require two years of full-time study.

Certificates

Certificates usually take the least amount of time to finish, often just a few months. They are made up of a series of classes that focus on a specific academic area. Examples of popular online certificate programs include:

  • Accounting
  • Human services
  • Emergency management
  • Language studies
  • Marketing

Diplomas

Diplomas are similar to certificates in that they are an academic credential that can be completed in a short period of time, often less than two years. They usually have more requirements than certificate programs. Below are some of the common online diploma programs:

  • Electronics
  • Bookkeeping
  • Administrative assistant
  • Pharmacy technician
  • Dental assistant

Degrees

Associate degrees usually take two years to finish, although accelerated programs are available that can cut that time down to 18 months or so. Depending on your career goals, this may be a terminal degree or a first step before earning a bachelor’s or graduate degree later on. Community colleges often offer the following associate degrees in an online format:

  • Business
  • Psychology
  • Information technology
  • Computer science
  • Liberal arts

FAQ: Choosing the Right School

There are plenty of schools to choose from, so it can be intimidating to find the right one to attend. Besides that, this decision might go a long way toward determining how your future professional career turns out. No pressure!

To help you with making this very important decision, there are a number of questions to ask yourself about a particular school. Your answers will help decide which school to attend.

Does the school have my program of interest?

This might be the single most important question to ask. There’s no point in attending a school that will not bring you any closer to reaching your academic or career goals. One exception is if you’re attending community college with the intent to transfer your general education credits to a four-year university, where you will take coursework relating to your area of interest.

Does my program of interest have campus requirements?

Most students attend online schools for the convenience and flexibility. For some, these advantages are nice to have and attending a few classes in-person is no big deal. For others, having an on-campus requirement is a deal-breaker, given their work or family obligations. If going to campus is impossible, make sure you know if that’s required before applying to a school.

Am I thinking about getting my 4-year degree and transferring to a university?

Most four-year universities will accept transfer students from two-year community colleges. The question is how many transfer credits will you receive after transferring to the new school. Many community colleges have transfer agreements with nearby colleges and universities that make the transfer process seamless. In this case, once the transfer is complete, you can start the new school as a junior and graduate in just two more years of schooling. If your four-year school of choice does not have a transfer agreement with the community college you plan on applying to, make sure you understand the transfer process and plan out your courses carefully, so you get credit for them when you transfer.

Transfer checklist

Depending on your community college and four-year school of choice, the following is a basic list of what you’ll need to do to transfer to your new school in two years.

  • 1.Meet with your community college advisor and confirm with them how the transfer process works. This will include confirming the requirements of the transfer agreement between the community college and university.
  • 2.Find out what the transfer credit requirements are for the school you hope to transfer to. This includes how many credits from the community college you can expect to be accepted into the four-year college. Also confirm if they’ll be accepted as general education or major-specific credits.
  • 3.After choosing a transfer school, complete its application. You will likely need to write a personal statement and obtain multiple recommendation letters. You’ll also need to make arrangements to get your transcript sent to the school you’re applying to and meet any other admissions requirements.

FAQ 1: What’s the price difference in attending the four-year school versus the community college?

All else being equal, the cost of attendance at a four year school will be higher than that of a community college. Before transferring, you’ll want to make sure you can afford the higher education costs of your new school.

FAQ 2: Will I have the academic credentials to transfer to the four-year school of choice?

Even the best laid plans can fail. Unexpected life events can derail or distract from academic studies. Or perhaps getting the best grades possible just aren’t enough to transfer for your school of choice. Whatever happens, you’ll want a backup plan to deal with this potential hurdle in your academic career.

Accreditation and Online Community Colleges

What is Accreditation?

Accreditation refers to the use of an independent third party to review a school’s curriculum to ensure it meets a minimum level of quality.

There are two main types of accreditation: institutional and programmatic. The former refers to accreditation of an entire school while the latter refers to accrediting a specific academic program.

How Does it Work?

An accrediting agency will conduct a visit and review of the school and determine if it meets certain standards. For example, graduates must have taken certain classes or gained a certain level of experience to earn their diploma, degree, or certificate.

Why is it Important?

Accreditation proves to the outside world that the academic credential you earned means something. Employers and schools will know they can rely on the program you completed to have taught you certain things.

Another important aspect of accreditation is that it’s usually required for financial aid. Most scholarships, grants, and student loans will require the recipient of the funds attend an accredited institution.

Getting Started: Application Process & Materials

You’ll need to complete several steps to get to your first day of class. None of these steps are particularly difficult. However, they will require you to plan ahead!

1

Submit an Application

Once you choose which school or group of schools you would like to apply to, it’s time to start the application. While each school will have its own requirements for elements to include in an application, most require the following:

The application itself

This is often available online. It will ask for contact and background information about you.

Admission test scores

This usually means standardized tests, such as the ACT and SAT. However, some community colleges may not require you to take these tests for admission.

High school transcript

This will show your prior academic performance and prove you have a high school diploma. This requirement may be replaced by proof of earning a GED.

Application fee

These costs vary, but are usually less than $50.

2

Pay Application Fee

The application varies. For some schools, there is no fee. In other schools, it’s a modest $20 to $30 or so. Most schools will provide an opportunity for applicants to avoid paying the application fee if they fill out a special fee waiver request form and demonstrate financial hardship.

3

Set Up Placement Testing

Placement tests are assessment tools that community colleges sometimes use to determine the academic level of an incoming student. Their purpose is to provide an opportunity for incoming students to get additional academic instruction if they need it.  Students can often be exempt from placement testing if they meet a certain threshold of high school GPA or standardized test score.

4

Understand Requirements for Your Program

Many community colleges have an open admissions policy. This means they will accept most applicants as long as they meet very basic academic requirements. Only after enrolling in the school will certain departments determine if a student meets further eligibility requirements. For example, students interested in a healthcare-related academic credential may need to complete certain science and math prerequisites before starting their major. However, the student will still be allowed to enroll as a student without having taken these courses. It’s important to understand the requirements of your desired program to make sure you can meet them before you officially apply.

5

Meet with an Advisor

Figuring out the academic process can be confusing. Deciding on a major, how to increase your chances of getting your first choice of classes, and how to pay for the education can all be a daunting undertaking. It’s extremely helpful to have an advisor to assist in figuring out these challenges. Many schools will provide a dedicated advisor to help new students, but if they don’t, ask! They will find one for you.

6

Select and Enroll in Classes

The class selection process will usually take place after admission, but at least a few days before the first day of class. In an online community college program, there will be fewer limitations on the number of people in a class as compared to a traditional, on-campus program. However, students should expect class size limits to remain in certain courses.

Depending on your major and the school policies, the initial class selection may be fairly basic, consisting of general education requirements. But you may need to take certain prerequisites to be eligible to apply for the chosen major. At some schools, students may begin taking major-related coursework on their first day of class.

Community College Resources

BlackboardBlackboard was a pioneer for online learning and is now a popular learning management system for online colleges and universities.

Cold TurkeyThis tool makes it easier to avoid online distractions by blocking websites and social media temptations.

College Confidential ForumsA popular location for future and current college students to ask questions and exchange advice with one another.

CollegeBoard – Community College Resources and PublicationsThis is a great resource for anyone considering whether to go to college and why they should consider attending community college.

Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs (DAPIP)This search tool allows users to find community colleges that have accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

Federal Student AidThis is the preeminent resource for all things student aid, especially sources of financial aid that come from the federal government.

Montgomery County Community College (MCCC)MCC has been offering online coursework for the past two decades. Students can choose between synchronous and asynchronous online learning, as well as hybrid curriculums that allow for an on-campus experience.

Quizlet Well-known for its flashcards, Quizlet offers a host of study tools and games to help students with their academic studies.

U.S. News & World Report – Community CollegesA good resource for getting overview information about potential community colleges to attend.

ZoomZoom is a leading online tool to facilitate collaborative learning and productivity. Mostly known for workplaces, it’s also used by some schools for remote learning.