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The Hidden Cost of Community College

The Tuition is a Bargain, but Students Need to Watch for the Hidden Costs


When money gets tight, enrollment at community colleges goes up. The reason is simple -- on average, tuition at community colleges is less than half that of public universities, and less than 1/10 that of private colleges. Students at community colleges often live at home, so they also save on room and board. Studying at a community college for two years and then finishing at a reputable four-year college makes a lot of sense. After all, where you finish school matters much more than where you start.

However, when not done carefully, those two years at community college can run into the snags outlined below.

Community College Credits Don't Transfer

Some four-year colleges are very particular about what classes they will accept from a community college. College curricula are not standardized, so a Writing I class in community college may not place you out of Writing I at a four-year college. Transfer credits can be particularly tricky with more specialized classes.

Advice: Don't assume credits will transfer. If you know what four-year college you want to transfer to, find out if credits will transfer before you begin the classes in community college. This is particularly important if you are transferring to a private college that does not have any transfer agreements with your community college.

The Five or Six Year Bachelor's Degree

In truth, a many, many students won't finish a bachelor's degree after two years in a community college and two years at a four-year college. If you've taken nothing but introductory courses at community college, it may take more than two years to complete your major requirements after transferring. Also, if all of your community college credits don't transfer, you may find you have more than two years of class work to complete. It's not unusual for students to find that they need to pay for three years at the four-your college, not two. Bye-bye cost savings.

Advice: As with the previous example, communicate with the four-year college early and plan your community college courses carefully. Also, you can take summer courses to catch up.

Lost Job Income

This issue is connected to both of the above examples. If it takes you more than four years to complete your bachelor's degree, that's a year or two when you don't have a full-time job. It's a year or two of spending money, not making money. It's another year of tuition, another year of student loans, and another year of going into debt rather than paying off debts. Even if your first job earns only $25,000, if you graduate in four years that's $25,000 you're making, not spending.

Advice: Whether or not you go to community college, the best way to save money in college is to graduate in four years. In both community college and at the four-year college, work hard, plan your courses carefully, and take as many classes as you can manage.

The Cost of Books

Tuition is just one part of the cost of college. College books cost a lot of money. Students taking eight classes a year may end up spending over $1,000 on books. The cost of that Introduction to Psychology book is going to be the same whether you're at a community college or elite private college.

Advice: To save money, get the list of required books ahead of time and shop around for used books. You can also look for books from the college or local library. At the end of the semester, you can often sell unneeded books back to the bookstore and recoup some of your money.

GPA and Academic Preparation

Community colleges tend to have open admissions, and the classes are often larger than at four-year schools (this helps keep the price low). In many cases, the instructors at community colleges have more and bigger classes than the faculty at four-year colleges. The result: after transferring, students sometimes find that their work receives more scrutiny and is held to a different standard. It can be shocking to suddenly earn "C"s when you had straight "A"s in community college. And if your grades do plummet, that can cost you when applying for jobs and trying to fulfill major requirements.

Advice: After transferring, meet with professors early in the term to discuss your work; take advantage of academic support services if needed.

The Social Cost of Community College

Many transfer students feel isolated when they arrive at a four-year college. Unlike the other juniors at the college, the transfer student does not have a strong group of friends and has not connected with the college's faculty, clubs, student organizations and social scene. While these social costs are not financial, they can become financial if this isolation leads to depression, poor academic performance, or difficulty lining up internships and reference letters.

Advice: Most four-year colleges have academic and social support services for transfer students. Take advantage of these services. They will help you get acclimated to your new school, and they will help you meet peers.

A Final Word on Community Colleges

Community colleges and four-year colleges vary greatly. Some community colleges prepare students well for the work at a selective four-year institution, and some don't do quite as well. Some four-year colleges will accept most credits from a community college; some will not. In the end, you'll need to talk to the faculty and administrators at both schools to make your transfer and transition as smooth as possible.
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