Differences Between Community College vs University / Ivy League

Your high school days are nearing an end and you have decided to go on to further your education. But how do you choose which institution is best for you?

Difference between Community College vs University and Ivy League. There are several differences between them, but it is important that you choose the one that is best for you. Read on to find all the information you need to make that choice.

  1. Cost
  2. Choice
  3. Good Fit
  4. Getting In

Looking at all aspects of applying to college will give you a better understanding of where is best for you. Let me talk you through the main points to consider for each.


In an ideal world, we would all like our kids to pick a college and that’s that. They’re in and happy and you don’t have to worry about anything. But with everything in life, anything that’s important generally costs money. And going to college is definitely going to cost money. However there are lots of different options if money is your main concern, or money is going to prevent your child from attending further education.

You may also be interested to read; Accepted to college but can’t afford it

Let’s look at Community College first

There are many reasons for Community College is a good choice. The cost of a Community College is significantly less than Public University or an Ivy League.

Community College is less than half the cost of a Public University, coming in at about $10k per year, including tuition, room, and board per year. There is also federal financial aid available and up to 60% of students who attend will receive something. Most students that attend Community College will live within the local area and so room and board may not need to be an extra as the student could well be still living at home.

So why choose a University or Ivy League over a Community College if they are so much more expensive. The reason is that they also have financial aid and scholarship opportunities. Most applicants will disregard Ivy League schools immediately because of the perception that they are elitist schools and only for people who have lots of disposable income.

This perception is not true however. All universities want a broad range of students. Places are offered on your scores, but also on interviews and essays. If they believe that you would be a good match for them and the school, then financial aid will be put in place to make that happen.

Most families earning less than $60k – $100k per year will not be expected to make the parent contribution. Each Ivy League has a sliding scale of financial aid up to earnings of $250k/year. 

Although the Ivies don’t have merit scholarships they have a huge amount of endowment money that they are only too happy to offer as financial aid to those who can’t quite afford the fees.

In Public Universities financial aid is also available. Although many universities have supplemental aid forms, the starting point is the FAFSA (Free Application For Student Aid). There is a time line on this, that you need to be mindful of. It opens on the 1 October prior to the year you wish to apply to college.
There are two main types of financial aid available.

Need based and Merit based

Need-based is decided by a family’s ability to pay. This is calculated by the FAFSA.
Merit-based is awarded by a college, private business, or sponsor. It is generally awarded for talent, a sport or academic prowess. A merit award is not based on the financial assets of a student or family.

Federal Aid covers most students to some degree. These are broken down into three areas

  • Loans
  • Grants
  • Work-study

A federal aid loan is offered through the FAFSA. After you apply, you will be sent your financial aid offer and within this, you may be offered a loan.

These are fixed interest rate loans, that don’t require a guarantor, and generally don’t need to be repaid until you graduate. However, the cost of college has risen, and more often, the federal loan will not cover the costs of attending college.

Private loans are also available to students but like any private loan you will need a co-signer, credit checks will be done on everyone involved and there won’t be any leeway on repayments. Read all the fine print very carefully before getting involved in a private loan as a student. Financial aid officers are there to help in these discussions.

A grant on the other hand is considered to be gift aid and not required to be paid back. Pell Grant is offered to those with significant financial need, and also the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, FSEOG. These are filed through the FAFSA.

In this post, I have outlined the main costs involved in a college application; College application so expensive

Work-Study programs are also offered as a way to fund your college costs.  This is also done through the FAFSA. Students should note that they are interested in the Federal Work-study program when filling out their applications.

You must be willing to work on campus for the minimum hourly wage. This is dependent on a couple of things, your financial need and also how much funding the college of your choice has been allocated to work-study for that year.

When / If you receive a financial aid letter, read carefully what exactly you are being offered. Some colleges are not quite clear enough on whether they are offering grants or loans. Be aware of what you are agreeing to and that if it is a loan, it will have to be repaid at some stage in the future.
There’s always a way to get through college financially. No one should be put off furthering their education because a lack of funds.


This topic is also a good indicator as to which route might be best to pursue.

Community Colleges offer a wide range of courses that generally run over a two-year period, however, some are now introducing four-year programs. You can earn a certificate, a diploma, or an associate’s degree. An associate’s degree could be in nursing, accounting, or law enforcement.

Community College is a great way of finding out what you might want to do as a career. Lots of High School graduates have no idea what they want and so Community College is a way of introducing new career options, while also giving the opportunity to work around a part-time schedule.
This is an ideal way of earning some extra money doing a part-time job while also earning some extra credits in order to transfer to a four-year University program.

Be mindful that not all credits are transferable for every course.

If on the other hand you have decided that you know what you want to study then Public University or the Ivies may be the better choice.

Although you have a good idea about what you want to study, public universities are government funded and so offer more choice of classes and more diversity. This is important if you are choosing to study something quite a niche.

Public Universities offer sports scholarships which is another alternative to cutting costs.
Public Universities give students the chance to pick completely unrelated minors to their major. Again because of the vastness of the colleges there is a class for simply everything.

They are government funded which means there is a class for everyone, no matter what you wish to study.

Ivy League. So why then pick an Ivy? The prestige of attending an Ivy will carry with you throughout your whole career.
But the truth is that an Ivy is just not that easy to get into.
The course advantages of the Ivies are the class size.

Yale, for example, has a student-staff ratio of 5.4:1. Classes within the courses will be highly competitive. Most of the students who attend the Ivies are incredibly bright but they find they are no longer the smartest fish in the pond and struggle to cope with this. Ivy students are expected to study harder and for longer hours. Extra classes are the norm to increase motivation and heighten the pressure to succeed.

Good Fit

It’s very important that no matter which school you pick that you are comfy with the ‘fit’. What do I mean by that?

Your choice of school for the next 2-4 years has to suit your lifestyle. You need to have enough time in your schedule to attend class and study. 30% of students drop out of freshman year due to other commitments, usually a part-time job that is needed to keep them in school.

If you need to work part-time or more then Community College might be a good fit. It gives you enough time to work and attend class. You have the opportunity to catch up online as most classes are not attendance based. It gives lots of students the opportunity to save some money in order to further their education.

If we look at Public Universities and the Ivies we also need to look at how the fit will be. Many people have the perception as I said, that Ivies are only for elite students or legacy families. This is true to a certain extent, but all Ivy Leagues schools welcome students from all backgrounds.

If you are not from a very wealthy family, you certainly shouldn’t be put off a school for this reason, but we also need to embrace any students who are from a privileged background. We can’t judge their lifestyle because it’s not ours and vice versa. By attending an Ivy we are aspiring to be the best we can possibly be.

Attending a Public University is probably the norm for most college students. It offers the widest range of socio backgrounds and exposes students to the most diverse of lifestyles. There’s always going to be something to do or something to attend on a large Public University Campus. Your campus could have up to 100k people on it (University of Phoenix) or a more modest 50k at the University of Austin. That’s a lot of people!

Even the shyest of students will find an area where they feel at home or fit right in. Always research as many schools as you can. Go and visit as many campuses as you can. Try and imagine how you would feel if you were a student there.

You need to pick where is best for you.

That ‘fits’ with where you are in your education journey. Don’t be persuaded to go to a particular school because someone else ie a family member always dreamed of going there or because a girlfriend/ boyfriend has applied there. One / both or neither of you might get a place. Girlfriends/ boyfriends come and go and it’s definitely a really bad idea for choosing one school over another. Which leads nicely to my next topic.

Getting In!

It’s all very well deciding which college you would like to attend but in most cases, they also need to decide they would like to have you.

The good news is if you decide on a Community College then they would love to have you. There are no predetermined rules for you to apply. They have an open admissions policy, which means that everyone that applies will be accepted. You do not have to fulfill any admissions requirements. Certain courses such as nursing and associate degree programs fill up fast and may have a selective admissions program.

You may need to take a placement test, in Math or Reading. This is not to be seen as a negative in any way. The college is doing this in order to see if you need any support put in place so you can complete your chosen course.

They really want you to succeed and stick with it. Developmental courses are offered for institutional credit. Any student enrolled in these courses qualifies for federal aid but the credits are not transferable.

If you think that full-on college is not for you for any number of reasons be it financial or emotional, then Community College could well be for you. It will give you a taste of college courses whilst still giving you the opportunity to earn some money.

The average age of Community College students is 28. This is due to people returning to school part-time to further their education so they can increase their job prospects.

If on the other hand you are in your senior year of high school and are determined that university is for you, then getting into a public university or an Ivy involves a little more than Community College.

You will need to decide on in-state or out-of-state. Many schools have an admissions fee, which is sent either directly to their admissions office or you pay through The Common App. This fee can range from $25-$90 depending on the school. This fee is non-refundable, even if you don’t get in. Go to each school’s website that you have an interest in.

if you are interested, I wrote a post on; Should I go to college out of state?

Check out their admissions policy as each school is different.
Most schools are part of The Common App. This is a centralized application system where you can create your own list of colleges and apply to numerous colleges (up to 20) all at once. There are approximately 900 schools involved with The Common App.

There is also a section within the process to add a Fee Waiver. Schools have no desire to eliminate students on the basis of financial hardship, however, a school counselor will have to follow up on this.

The process of filling out your college application can take up to 6 weeks as lots of information needs to be gathered; parental employer information, recommendation letters, and your high school transcripts. You also need to consider your essays. Some schools require supplemental essays to give more insight into the student. Don’t leave everything until the last minute. You just won’t have enough time.

Not all schools use the Common App, so don’t panic if you go online and can’t find your dream school. Some prefer direct applications through their own websites, such as MIT or Georgetown. However schools such as Harvard or Amherst are to be found on the Common App, so it’s nothing to do with elite schools over public.

You need to consider whether financial aid is going to be a factor. Let’s face it, for most students it is. If it is, students should apply for Early Action and Early Decision. This gives families the most amount of time to compare financial aid packages from several colleges. The most important point to take from the getting-in process is to start early.

If applying for scholarships or grants, apply as soon as it opens for a particular college. A spreadsheet with dates marked is a good place to begin.

Campus visits, financial aid packages, and scholarship funds, all follow a process each year so be organized.

The previous paragraphs are all about Public Universities but what if you have your heart set on an Ivy. How do you get into an Ivy?

The first thing you have to do is get those grades up. All Ivies expect a GPA of at least 3.8 or higher, most of the 8 schools are over the 4.0.

The US average is 3.0.

I also wrote a dedicated post about What is a good GPA

GPA Average

But even with exceptional grades, this doesn’t guarantee an Ivy place. In 2020 the 8 schools had in excess of 280k applicants of which less than 10% got offered a place. Harvard has one of the highest GPA expectancies of 4.18 but the lowest acceptance rate of just 4.5%.

Grades are the most defining point in getting an offer. If you haven’t a high GPA and SAT, ACT scores you won’t even be considered. This is because all of the courses on offer are competitive and challenging. The school needs to know that you want to succeed.

And if only it was as easy as having a 4.1 GPA. Unfortunately, they are also looking for something special for each student. Be it sports or leadership, is an applicant excelling because THEY want to be the best, or is it because a parent is pushing them?

Do you have a life beyond studying and books? They want to see that you are a rounded person. What can you bring to the school that will make the school better because you are there?

Being a good person will also help your challenge for a place. But it needs to be genuine. It needs to be a caring personality that teachers and counselors have noticed, so much so that they have mentioned it in letters of recommendation.

There is a direct correlation between further education and higher income earned.

Choose which suits you best, but aim for the highest target you can. It will definitely be worth it.

Consider the Early Decision / Early Action for an Ivy. Think hard on this as you can only choose one. If you are accepted then you must withdraw from all other schools and commit to attending the EA school.

Rates for EA/ED acceptance is much higher compared to regular acceptance. Of the 8 schools with the exception of Columbia (N/A), most are 3 times higher chance of acceptance.

And then there’s the essay. This is your moment to shine, to stand apart from other applicants. You generally only get about 650-700 words. This is a harder task than you might imagine. With such a short piece, it needs to be punchy. Grab the reader’s attention. It needs to be an honest reflection of you. It can be funny, and soulful, but it has to capture the interest of the admissions officer. They are just normal people, but they are also reading a lot of essays. Spend some time writing it. Write about what’s important to you.

So you have great scores, an exceptional skill or talent but it may not actually get you in. Admissions officers are looking for students that stand out.  They are searching for students that don’t give up, who when they were barely passing a subject, persevered and got their grades to the top of the class. 

There is a direct correlation between further education and higher income earned.

Earnings vs education achieved per year

Choose which suits you best, but aim for the highest target you can. It will definitely be worth it.

They want all kinds of people in their schools but mostly they want students that are driven, self-motivated, and the desire to be the best. They want to know that when you eventually go out in the world that you will bring about change and with it, do it in the name of the Ivy.

So yes, getting into an Ivy is undoubtedly the hardest college route you can choose, but if it is for you then it is worth it.

Ultimately, whichever path of further education you choose, has to suit you and your economic lifestyle. But also your commitment to your course and your willingness to study.

Academia is not for everyone, but it certainly helps us stand out from the ordinary.

Every certificate, diploma, or degree you have will increase your lifetime future earnings.
The following stats are from the Bureau of Labour Statistics.

Tara Cunningham

Tara Cunningham is a Mum and Graphic Designer. My children's education has always been very important to me. I feel that if you are willing to put in the time they will appreciate the effort. I hope that you find our thoughts and ideas useful and interesting.

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