If you have a dream school in mind, enrolling at a local community college might not be part of the plan for your future. But when it comes to paying for college, a two-year school can be a savvy start to your college education.
Community colleges (also known as junior colleges) offer a two–year degree called the associate's degree. If you have a high school diploma or earned a GED, you can attend a community college. These schools rarely consider standardized test scores, though certain classes or programs may have more stringent admissions requirements. A student with a strong academic record at a community college can then transfer to a more expensive state or private college for two more years to earn a bachelor’s degree. Going this route offers several benefits:
Community college tuition is usually thousands of dollars cheaper than tuition for private and public four–year universities. The average in-state tuition at community colleges for 2014–2015 according to the College Board was just $3,347—two-year schools represent an outstanding way to save money. This total cost is only a fraction of the cost of a private college, and still thousands of dollars less than a four-year program at a state college. Plus, even with the relatively low rates, nearly a third of community college students receive financial aid.
There is a community college within commuting distance of 90 percent of the U.S. population, so convenience is a big selling point. If you have family obligations or just don't feel financially ready to strike out on your own, a community college can enable you to continue your education without breaking the bank.
Four–year schools generally require you to be a full–time student. Most community college students, on the other hand, take classes part-time as they work or pursue other interests. Spending two years in a community college can give you time to work and save up for the four-year college of your choice. A number of two–year colleges have multiple locations and offer courses online for added flexibility.
For some, community college is a chance to make up for a poor high school record. For others, it is an opportunity to get extra academic guidance and support. Community colleges often have small class sizes. The priority of the faculty is teaching, not research. Plus there are generally lots of support services, such as mentoring programs and organized study groups. This support can give students the credentials they need to get admitted to, and succeed at, a four-year school. You might even find that you qualify for a scholarship from the school you're transferring to or from an outside organization like Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for two-year colleges.
If you hope to transfer, meet with an adviser both at your community college and, if possible, the school you eventually want to attend. Be sure to find out from the school how many transfer students are accepted per year, what kind of financial aid is available to them, and how many of the credits earned at the old college will be accepted by the new college. Our book Paying for College Without Going Broke will help you plan strategically.
Perhaps most importantly, take your community college education seriously. College is college, whether it's a two-year or four-year school, and getting off to a good start can be your ticket to a great future.