Community College vs. Online Courses

Community College vs. Online Courses

8 minute read

Community colleges and online courses are both affordable ways to earn your degree. From high school students looking to fulfill prerequisites before their freshman year of college to adults looking to advance their skills or switch careers, both of these options present opportunities for quality learning without high tuition fees. 

We’ll examine the similarities and differences between community colleges and online courses, what to consider as you decide between the two, and how you can design an educational path using both resources. 

What Are Community Colleges?

Community colleges typically offer two-year programs, granting associate degrees and certificates in various fields. They’re often perceived as the most accessible point of entry into a college system and commonly have an open admissions policy, accepting students with diverse academic backgrounds.

Community colleges can serve as a bridge to higher education or the workforce, allowing students to acquire the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to continue succeeding in their education or their new careers.

What Are Online Courses?

Online courses are offered on virtual educational platforms and allow students to access and complete coursework remotely. Offered courses typically cover a wide range of subjects and academic levels, from professional development to formal degrees. 

Online courses are popular for their accessibility and flexibility, enabling learners to balance education with other commitments. They cater to diverse audiences, including working professionals, students in remote areas, and those seeking self-paced learning opportunities.

Community Colleges vs. Online Courses

While community colleges and online courses share some similarities in terms of affordability and convenience, they also have a few key differences. When taken together in the context of your overall learning path, the following factors can make a big difference in the time and money you spend on your education.


When deciding between community colleges and online courses, cost is one of the first factors to consider. The financial burden of higher education is a significant concern for many students, making it essential to compare the costs associated with these two options.

Community colleges often offer more affordable tuition rates compared to traditional four-year institutions. However, let’s delve into the specifics. Additional costs such as textbooks, lab fees, and commuting expenses may raise the cost of attending a community college.

Online courses, on the other hand, present an alternative cost structure. Usually, you pay by the course or a subscription fee that’s much lower than traditional college tuition. The savings can be substantial, with the potential to cut expenses by more than half compared to a local community college. 

The cost of a StraighterLine course, for example, already includes your textbooks and 24/7 student support. You also save on commuting costs like gas, parking, or public transportation passes.

Transferring Credits

Community colleges generally allow for credit transfer, but you’ll need to consult with your school’s administrators — at both your community college and where you’re planning to transfer — for specific details. There are no guarantees when it comes to transferring credits between schools, so it’s up to you to find the information you need.

Some community colleges (as well as other institutions) have relationships or partnerships with online platforms. The advantage of this is that it usually makes transferring your credits between institutions easier.

StraightLine, for example, has partnerships with over 150 colleges and universities. Even outside the partner network, StraighterLine courses have been accepted for transfer at nearly 2,000 other colleges and universities through the American Council on Education credit recommendation system. This transferability ensures that the credits you earn through StraighterLine contribute meaningfully to your educational journey.

Schedule & Availability of Courses

Community colleges may face capacity constraints, especially in popular degree programs like nursing and healthcare, where courses can quickly reach full capacity. Waiting for the next semester to start may, therefore, push back your timeline to catch up on prerequisites or complete degree requirements. According to research from Complete College America:

  • 20% of community college students say they were unable to get into a class needed for their degree.
  • 33% of community college students say they had not gotten into a class they wanted to take.
  • Only 5% of two-year associate degree seekers graduate on time.

Online course providers like StraighterLine provide the advantage of immediate enrollment and the ability to start studying as soon as you sign up. All courses are available 24/7, allowing you to tailor your education to your schedule. 

They also don’t fill up, allowing as many students who need the classes to take them whenever they want. This flexibility not only accelerates your progress but also eliminates the frustration of course unavailability. 


Whether or not community college is convenient for you involves various factors, including whether the campus is accessible or you face any potential commuting challenges. 

Community colleges are typically designed to be accessible to local communities, aiming to reduce the commuting burden on students. However, the actual convenience depends on your location and your proximity to the community college. Depending on how far you live from the campus, traffic congestion can lead to delays, potentially affecting your punctuality — and possibly your grade. Being penalized for arriving late due to commuting issues may vary by instructor and institution. 

The commute time, too, can cut into the time you could be spending studying or doing something else besides getting to and from school.

Online courses introduce greater convenience for all students, regardless of ability or location. Without the need for commuting, you eliminate concerns about traffic delays or penalties for tardiness. 

Additionally, the asynchronous nature of many online courses allows for greater flexibility in managing your schedule. If you need to miss a synchronous class, you can often access recorded lectures or alternative materials, ensuring that you can keep up with the coursework on your own time.

Student Support

Community colleges often have dedicated staff to assist with admissions, tech problems, and academic concerns. However, the availability of these services is usually limited to standard business hours. If you encounter issues or have questions outside of these hours, you’ll need to wait until the next business day for assistance.

StraighterLine distinguishes itself by offering robust wraparound support services tailored to the needs of online learners. Our 24/7 tutoring ensures that students have access to academic assistance whenever they need it. Student support is available through various channels, including chat, call, or in-course requests. This is particularly beneficial for addressing admissions issues, technical problems, or any other challenges that may arise during your academic journey.

Can I Take Both Community College and Online Courses?

It may be possible to mix and match the courses you need through community college and online learning platforms to optimize your learning path. Here’s what to keep in mind as you map out your educational journey.

Course Availability

When a required course is unavailable at your community college, online learning becomes a valuable resource, offering comparable alternatives. They can often serve as a complementary resource to your degree path at a community college, widening the availability of courses you can take.

If you do take online courses to supplement your community college schedule, make sure that the credits you earn online will be eligible for your degree. Speak with your community college's administration and understand their transfer credit policies before you enroll in any additional or supplemental online classes. 


Community college courses typically adhere to a fixed schedule. This can pose challenges for students who are juggling other commitments, such as work or family responsibilities. In cases where a required community college course conflicts with your schedule, you’ll need alternative options.

The asynchronous nature of many online courses means that you can access lectures, assignments, and course materials at your convenience. You can tailor your study times to the parts of your schedule that best suit your individual needs. 

This is how the flexibility of online courses complements the structured nature of community college offerings. Students can strategically incorporate online courses into their academic plan, filling gaps where scheduling conflicts may arise at the community college. This integrated approach enables a more personalized and adaptable learning experience, ensuring that education aligns seamlessly with the demands of daily life.

Earn Your Degree Faster

By taking the classes you need, when you need them, you can earn your degree sooner. With online classes available, you don’t need to postpone fulfilling your degree requirements. 

Earn Credits Today With StraighterLine

StraighterLine’s courses are affordable, flexible, and asynchronous, with the 24/7 support you need to succeed. Our learning platform is an excellent addition to your community college schedule to help you accelerate your path or fill in gaps. We offer over 70 courses that you can start at any time and can be taken at your own pace to avoid conflicting with other commitments. Find out more about earning credits while saving time and money with StraighterLine today!

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