If you’re thinking about going to college after high school, the cost of earning a degree might be on your mind. A college degree can open doors to you when it comes to your career and future, but it also often comes with a high price tag. Unless you’re one of the lucky few to land a full-ride, four-year scholarship, you can end up with years of student loan payments after graduation.
One way to trim the overall cost of college is to choose to go to a school that costs less than other options. Public colleges and universities tend to have lower tuition rates than private schools, and schools that have two-year degree programs tend to cost less than schools that offer four-year degree programs.
Earning a degree from a two-year college, or a community college, doesn’t have to be the end of your post-secondary education, either. Many students find that they can save a considerable amount of money by starting at a community college, then transferring to a four-year university to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Going to community college, then transferring to a university or four-year school might not be the right choice for everyone. But if it works for you, it can help you get the college degree you want and need while taking on less debt.
Community College vs. Four-Year College/University
In the U.S., there is a difference between community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. A significant difference is the type of degree each institution awards. If you attend a community college, you can earn an associate’s degree, or two-year degree, at the end of your program. Some community colleges also offer shorter programs that lead to a career certificate.
Although many students who attend community colleges start their careers or find jobs after earning their associate’s degree, a good number of students decide to go on to a four-year school to earn a bachelor’s degree. In some cases, a student might transfer to a university or four-year college and enroll in a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program.
If you’re interested in continuing your studies and earning a four-year degree, or bachelor’s degree, you can either enroll at a university or a four-year college. Four-year colleges and universities give out the same type of degree, but they might differ in terms of size and the types of programs they offer. Universities tend to be bigger than four-year colleges and might provide more opportunities for students in research-heavy fields. Meanwhile, students who are considering a degree in the liberal arts might find that a four-year college gives them more options.
Community colleges are a popular choice for many students, though. About half of all undergraduate students in the U.S. are enrolled at one of 1,167 community colleges. Nearly 12.5 million students attend a community college.
Costs of Community Colleges vs. Four-Year Colleges/Universities
The difference in price between a two-year college and a four-year school can often be considerable. During the 2015-2016 school year, the average cost of attending a two-year public college full-time was $10,091. The average cost of a four-year public college or university was $19,488.
Private schools were a bit more expensive. During the 2015-2016 school year, a private two-year college had an average cost of $24,824. A private four-year school had an average cost of $40,261. The total costs include tuition, fees, and room and board.
Using the average costs as a guide, a student who decides to attend a public, four-year school for all four years would spend nearly $78,000. Meanwhile, a student who decides to start their post-secondary education at a public community college, then transfer to a four-year school would spend around $59,000, nearly $20,000 less.
Why Go to a Community College?
For the right student, starting at a community college offers multiple benefits. Your reasons for enrolling in a two-year degree program might vary from another student’s. Take a look at a few common reasons for starting your college career at a community college:
1. You’re Looking for a Lower Cost Option
Community colleges often cost much less than public and private four-year schools. While the exact cost can vary from institution to institution, students can typically expect to pay about half as much to attend a community college compared to a four-year school. If you continue to live with your parents while enrolled at a community college, your costs can be even lower.
2. You Need Flexibility
If you need flexibility or a work/life/school balance, a community college can be better able to deliver it compared to a four-year school. Many community college students enroll part-time so that they can work while going to school or balance schoolwork with other commitments. Although community colleges are often called “two-year” schools, the truth is that you can take as long as you need to complete your degree and earn your credits.
3. You Want to Stay Close to Home
Plenty of high school students long for the day when they get to move into their freshman dorm. But not everyone feels ready to move out on their own when they’re 18. You might prefer to stay at home with your parents or have family obligations that make it impossible to live in a dorm. Attending a community college lets you earn credits and a degree while remaining close to your family.
4. Your Desired Career Doesn’t Require a Bachelor’s Degree
Not every career out there requires a four-year bachelor’s degree. If you’re considering a career path that doesn’t need a bachelor’s degree, it may make more sense to go to a community college where you can get relevant and up-to-date training and education for that field.
5. You Want to Boost Your Grades
You might not have been the best student in high school. Maybe you goofed around too much, participated in too many extracurricular activities, or didn’t feel like studying. Your high school grades might reflect that and might have made it challenging to get into a four-year school.
Going to community college gives you a chance to get a clean slate when it comes to grades and academic performance. When it’s time to transfer to a four-year school, the admissions officers are going to look at how you did during your associate’s degree program more than they’ll look at your high school grades.
6. You Hope to Receive Financial Aid
Although the cost of community college is usually much less than the cost of a four-year school, you might still have concerns about how to pay for your degree. Fortunately, many community colleges offer financial aid to students. Depending on your family’s income, size, and other financial considerations, you might qualify for grants, scholarships, loans, or work-study programs to help make your education even more accessible.
7. You Want Options
If you are interested in transferring the credits you earn at a community college to a four-year program, it’s a good idea to confirm that the school you’re attending has a transfer agreement with the four-year school you’d like to attend. A transfer agreement helps to smooth the process of moving from one school to the other. It also helps you prepare by taking courses that will be accepted by your new school as transfer credits.
8. You Crave Smaller Classes and More Personal Attention
Community colleges tend to have smaller class sizes than four-year schools. You’re not likely to stumble into a 150-person lecture course when you attend a community college. Instead, you’re likely to find courses with small class sizes and the opportunity to get to know your professors and classmates.
9. You Want to Graduate With Less Debt
You do have the option of using student loans to pay for your education at a community college. Thanks to the lower cost, you’re likely to take out fewer loans or borrow a smaller amount. That means you’ll have less debt once you leave school. You might graduate with a firmer financial footing compared to if you had borrowed more to go to a four-year college or university.
10. You’re Not Sure If College Is a Good Fit for You
College isn’t the right choice for everyone. Some students who didn’t enjoy high school find that they enjoy the college experience, while others decide that being in a classroom just isn’t for them. If you start at a community college, you can decide to continue to a four-year degree or pursue a different path, such as earning a career certificate, without having spent too much time or money.
Are There Drawbacks to Attending a Community College?
While starting at a community college and then transferring to a university or four-year college can be worth it for many students, it’s not the right choice for everyone. Depending on your personal needs and wants, here are some things to be aware of.
1. Less “College Life”
Football games and extracurricular activities aren’t the reasons why you should be going to college. But those things and others that make up the traditional college social experience are a big part of being in school.
While some community colleges do have sports teams and extracurriculars, the social scene on campus is usually less busy when everyone commutes to and from school. Of course, if you end up transferring to a four-year school, you’ll get to enjoy all the social trappings and fun of college, so this might not be that big of an issue for you.
2. Living at Home
Depending on your point of view, living at home while going to community college can be positive or negative. On the one hand, you don’t have to pay to live in the dorm. On the other hand, you’re stuck living with your parents, and you might feel that your freedom is limited.
Missing out on the dorm experience is something plenty of people don’t want to do. If living in the dorm and getting that taste of college life is important to you, it can be something worth considering carefully.
While not as common, some community colleges do offer housing, which can remove this concern altogether.
3. Your Field of Study Might Not Be Available
Although many community colleges have a lot of programs of study, just like many four-year colleges, they don’t have every field. If the subject you’re interested in studying is a bit more esoteric or unusual, you might not be able to begin at a community college. Be sure to meet with an advisor on campus before enrolling to make sure there’s a program that’s right for you or one that can easily transfer to a four-year degree in your desired program of study.
4. You Need to Be Aware of Transfer Agreements
Transferring your community college credits to a four-year school can be challenging in some cases. Schools don’t always accept every course for transfer, meaning you might have to repeat some courses or take additional courses at your new school. Students who transferred from one public school to another between 2004 and 2009 lost an average of 37% of their credits.
Transfer agreements can help to streamline the process of moving from a community college to a four-year school. If you know going into a community college that you plan on transferring, it’s a good idea to find out exactly what courses you can or should take and how to make the transfer as painless as possible.
5. It Might Take You Longer to Finish Your Degree
Although bachelor’s degrees are commonly called four-year degrees, the reality is that some students need more than four years to graduate. About 60% of students who started a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution in 2011 had completed their degree by 2017.
In comparison, just 12.7% of students who started at a public two-year institution in 2011 had completed a bachelor’s degree by 2017. Although there’s nothing wrong with taking your time to get through school, it can increase the cost of college.
Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a School
While the cost of school is a critical consideration when deciding between going to a community college or enrolling at a university or four-year school right away, it’s not the only thing to think about. When choosing between schools, there are a few questions you can ask to help yourself determine which one is the best one for you.
1. Does the School Offer the Subject I Want to Study?
Although the first two years of college are usually heavy on general education or “core course” requirements, you can expect to take at least a few classes in your subject major or field of study. If the community college you’re considering doesn’t offer any courses in your intended major, you might be better off starting at a four-year school. The same is true if you’re considering majoring in something unusual or that requires intensive, specialized training, such as the fine arts or performance.
2. What Is the School’s Reputation When It Comes to the Subject I’m Interested In?
Is the community college you’re considering known for having one of the best programs of its kind in the state or country? If so, it might be a good idea to start there and move on to a university or four-year school later. It might also be the case that the instruction and training you receive from the community college will be enough to help you get your career in a particular industry off the ground.
3. How Big Are the Classes?
Class size is another important consideration when you’re choosing a school. At universities, first-year and sophomore courses tend to be large, lecture-style classes. It’s easy to get lost in the mix in that type of course. A community college might offer courses with less than 20 students, giving you the chance to learn your classmates’ names and to work with your instructor one-on-one.
4. Is Living Away From Home Important to Me?
How excited are you about the idea of moving away from home and being on your own for the first time? Is dorm life something you can postpone for a couple of years, or do you want to move out now? On the other side of the coin, you might feel that you should stay at home a little longer.
5. Does the Community College Have a Transfer Agreement With the University I’m Interested In?
To avoid the headache and hassle of not having your courses transfer over, it’s a good idea to confirm that your community college has transfer agreements with the university you hope to attend later. If there’s no agreement between the two schools, find out what you’ll need to do to transfer your credits and what courses are the most likely to be accepted as transfer credits at the four-year school.
6. What Financial Aid Options Are Available to Me?
The type of aid package you get offered by a school can influence your final choice. A community college might look less expensive on paper, but you might get a better aid package from a four-year school. For example, if a four-year university program offers you a scholarship, plus a grant and work-study opportunity, and a community college only gives you a grant, the university might be the more economical choice.
7. How Much Can I Afford?
Another thing to ask yourself is how much you can afford to spend on college. Think about whether you want to take out loans or not. The amount you have saved up for school might influence the size of the aid package you receive, which can further influence your decision.
8. What Are My Overall Educational Goals?
What do you hope to get out of your college experience? If your goal is to train for a career, going to a community college and getting the credentials and instruction you need might be the right move to make. You can then decide to transfer to a four-year program right away or take some time off and work in your industry before pursuing additional education.
If you know that your chosen career will require an advanced degree, such as a master’s, professional, or doctoral degree, it might be worthwhile to jump right into a four-year program rather than beginning at a community college and having to transfer.
9. What Extracurricular Programs or Social Activities Does the School Offer?
If there’s an activity you love, it’s essential to make sure it’s available at your school or that you have the option of starting up the activity yourself once you get there. The social life of the school might not be as vital as its academics, but it is still an essential part of the college experience.
Whether you decide to start your college career at a community college or jump in feet-first at a four-year university, PSECU can help you manage your money, make a budget, and save for college. We’re here for our members at every stage of life, from planning for school to graduation and beyond. Check out our WalletWorks page today for advice and tips designed specifically for students.