How long does it take to earn a degree at a community college?
Most programs at community colleges are designed to be completed in two years or less, but many students take much longer to earn a degree. Learn about some of the factors that make it so difficult to finish on time.
How Long Should Community College Take?
Certain factors can extend the duration of your community college experience, unexpectedly or otherwise.
A degree or certificate from community college should not take more than two years to complete in a perfect world. The lengthiest degree available is typically the associate degree, which requires two years, or four semesters, to earn (a few community colleges offer 4-year bachelor’s degrees, but these programs are far less common.) Other common programs include certificate and workforce training programs, which take a year at most (and sometimes even less than that).
Of course, you never know when a major life event is going to happen. Family emergencies, work obligations, and financial problems can all serve as major disruptions to your academic goals. According to the Community College Research Center, community college dropout rates are startlingly high; 25 percent of community college students who enroll in the Fall semester do not return for the Spring term. Furthermore, about one-fifth of the students who do return in the spring drop out the following Fall semester.
So what is the problem? Why do so many students take so long to finish, or not even finish at all?
In some cases, the decision to stay longer than two years is an intentional one. Part-time study is an extremely popular decision among community college students, with 62% of all students choosing this option. Part-time study offers a number of benefits. Students with busy schedules can work at a slower pace that doesn’t overwhelm them, and the spread-out nature of courses lessens an otherwise hefty financial burden.
The downside to this course of study is the increased length. By studying at a slower pace, you will require more time to complete your program. A standard associate’s degree consists of 60-80 credits. Full-time students usually take around 15 credits per semester, which allows them to finish in two years. On the other hand, part-time students take 10 credits per semester (at most) and often take even fewer than that. This means that it could take as long as six or seven years to finally earn the required number of credits for an associate’s degree.
Life is unpredictable and even messy. You never know when a health scare or family emergency is going to pop up and derail your plans. If you or a loved one falls ill, you may need to take a break from your studies to focus on recovering.
Student-parents account for 4.8 million of all undergraduate students in the country. Raising a child while simultaneously working towards a degree can be stressful, tiring, and frustrating, and often leads to various academic challenges. Some schools offer childcare services for student-parents (such as the Community College of Baltimore County), but sometimes even these services are not enough to prevent parents from dropping out or slowing down their class schedule.
There’s also the issue of professional commitments. Attending community college does not mean you can put the world on hold as you take classes. 22 percent of full-time students work full time and 41 percent of part-time students work full time, and these busy work schedules can pose numerous scheduling conflicts as students try to juggle their academic affairs with job duties.
On top of the administrative, organizational, and financial hurdles you’ll need to clear, there’s also the matter of actually taking classes. Community college may have a reputation as being easier than a ‘real’ college, but make no mistake: you will be challenged academically. Community college courses are just as engaging and demanding as university courses, and you will be expected to complete quizzes, essays, and projects on tight deadlines.
Between work, family, and any other commitments, it can be easy to fall behind in your classes. If you fail a course, you will need to retake it, which can set you back on your academic path and force you to spend even more time completing your program.
Even though community colleges are generally much less expensive than their 4-year counterparts, attending these schools requires a serious financial commitment. Even with financial aid packages and scholarships, you can still expect to pay several thousand dollars, and such a hefty expense can often prove to be too burdensome.
Some community college students have taken out student loans to meet this monetary demand, but these are not a guaranteed solution by any means. Paying back these loans is often a challenging undertaking; 38 percent of two-year college students who started repayment in 2009 had defaulted on their loans after only five years.
Student loans sometimes create more problems than they solve. In attempting to pay back these loans, students cannot afford classes. Since they cannot afford classes, they temporarily drop out until they can once again afford to attend. Dropping out can hurt your financial aid package, which creates further financial issues. These issues can make it harder to re-enroll once a student leaves a community college, further delaying plans to obtain a degree.
As these problems begin to compound, finishing your degree is the last thing on your mind. If you run into money problems, your stay at community college will likely be extended.
Though community colleges offer shorter programs, many factors from professional commitments to personal obligations can make it difficult to complete these programs. If you are struggling to finish on time, it’s important to realize that you are not alone. Connect with an academic adviser to map out your options and earn that degree!