A potential solution to the rising costs of higher education

The price tag of a four-year college education is dramatically increasing. By how much? CNBC reported that, as of May 2019, costs at public colleges have risen by an average of 55 percent in the last decade.

Increases for four-year private colleges weren’t that much better, coming in a 44 percent increase over a decade. The price hikes in either type of school don’t always factor in costs for other expenses like room and board, textbooks, and school fees.

Rising costs leave many students and their families struggling to find creative ways to pay for their education. One of these alternatives is to go to community college first. The approach makes sense.

When you spend the first two years of education attending a community college, you receive access to the same required core classes as larger institutions but at a more reasonable cost per credit.

While this approach may work for some students and families, there’s a lot to consider before you make the decision to take this route. We’ve got the details about the benefits and potential drawbacks that you should keep in mind.

Lower costs

The most obvious reason for starting at a community college is that it allows you the chance to avoid running up huge tuition bills while you’re getting your core classes out of the way. If classes are going to have the same content in either school, why pay more for them?

Freedom from debt can leave you more open to spending resources on buying a house, getting married, starting your retirement fund early, and starting your family. 

Having a lower tuition bill comes with some other, less expected benefits. For example, if you’re not sure of what you want your major to be, you might feel freer to try out a variety of focus areas in order to see what you enjoy when class credits don’t cost as much.

Another benefit is that, when you graduate, your school loans won’t be as high. That freedom from debt can leave you more open to spending resources on buying a house, getting married, starting your retirement fund early, and starting your family.

Smaller environment

Another huge reason that starting at a community college makes sense is that it allows you to experience the first years of your education in a smaller, more personal environment.

Having fewer students in your class means that you have more time to participate in discussions and your teachers get a better chance to know you.

You’ll also be more likely to be taught by a fully degreed professor with experience in their field, rather than a teacher’s assistant.

All of this can make your education more meaningful than what you’d find in a bigger school. You find that you recognize more faces, you’ll make friends more easily, and teachers can help you with problems (if you have any) frequently because they’ve had the chance to get to know you a little bit better.

A chance to show what you can do

If you improve your grades, your achievement is meaningful to larger schools that may consider you for entry in your junior year. 

High school can be a lot of fun. There are plenty of opportunities to cut loose, spend time with friends, and enjoy your weekends. For a lot of students, that means they didn’t get great grades and weren’t eligible to get into the four-year school of their choice.

When you go to community college for the first two years after high school, it is a chance to show what you can do academically. If you focus, stay disciplined, and take advantage of the smaller classes and individualized attention teachers can provide, your grades should improve.

That achievement is meaningful to larger schools that may consider you for entry in your junior year.

Interesting work/study opportunities

Many community colleges offer a strong focus on work/study opportunities, so students can get a sense of how their classwork will translate to the real world. This can be a tremendous advantage for you, especially if you’re still trying to figure out what career you want once you finish your degree.

In addition, if you need to work while you’re learning, classes at community college typically offer the chance to work during the day and go to school at night.

University lecture hall
nikolayhg / Pixabay

In addition to this, it is more than possible that once you finish your Associate’s degree at the college, you’ll be qualified enough to take on professional-level employment with a strong starting salary.

Working for a few years after community college can be a great way to pay tuition for the next stage of your education in advance, rather than going to school first and taking out loans you have to pay back (with interest) later.

Some high school credits transfer

Some K-12 school districts have special agreements with community colleges, so that student high school class credits will translate to an Associate’s degree. Students in these classes usually have to show a C-average or higher in order for these credits to transfer. They also may be required to achieve high test results.

If you think that you’ve taken a class that qualifies, talk to your high school advisor. If you’re early enough in your high school experience, you can also plan to take these classes when it fits into your schedule. This could save you both time and money for the next two years of education after school.

A degree from the school of your choice

Your degree will be the same as everyone else who attended UCLA for all four years. Employers won’t necessarily know, though some graduate school programs may. 

Although participating in a community college for the first two years after high school will earn you an Associate’s degree to that school, you can still earn your Bachelor’s degree during your last two years. This is another huge advantage of going to community college first.

How does this work? Let’s say you have your heart set on obtaining your Bachelor’s degree from UCLA. If you choose to attend community college first and get admitted to the school of your dreams for your junior year, your degree will be the same as everyone else who attended UCLA for all four years.

Employers won’t necessarily know, though some graduate school programs may. Regardless, this is a pretty cool perk, right? Lots of students think so.

Different social opportunities

It is worth noting that when you attend the same school for all four years of college, you’re going to have a different social experience than students who attend just half that time. There are more years to experience campus, bond with friends, and settle fully into life at the college.

You may miss dorm life entirely if you want to live with students in your age range and they’ve decided to live off-campus for their junior year.

Additionally, if you were looking to take part in a sorority or fraternity, chances to experience greek life may be fewer if you go to community college first. You may also miss dorm life entirely if you want to live with students in your age range and they’ve decided to live off-campus for their junior year.

While there may be other benefits to attending community college that outweigh this drawback, it is good to know what you may be missing out on.

Choose a community college with classes that will transfer

Not all community colleges are created equal. While all schools have something to offer, different schools focus on different areas. Some may focus on hospitality services, while others focus on agriculture. Others may have a technical focus or a media concentration but may not get into other academic subjects at all.

As you’re looking at schools, make sure that the community college you’re considering has enough classes in what you want to learn so you’re making great use of your time while you’re there.

As you’re deciding where to spend the first two years after high school, be sure to keep in mind that not all credits from institutions will transfer to every four-year institution.

Some students have spent time and money on school credits that didn’t count towards the degree they wanted. They wound up having to retake classes to be sure they had the right amount of credits.

Evaluating the pros and cons

Your high school academic advisor should be able to help you avoid problems.

Once you know the school that you want to ultimately graduate from, try to get an understanding of exactly what credits they accept — and what they don’t. Your high school academic advisor should be able to help you understand this and avoid problems.

As you consider the pros and cons of attending the first two years of your education at a community college, it is important to remember that one answer doesn’t fit all situations. Consider what you need and what options are available in your area. Consider your future goals and your finances. Talk with a trusted source.

In the end, you’ll make a decision that is perfect for you.

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