How to Cut College Costs With Community College

September 12, 2013

community collegeThe cost of attending college has exploded in recent years, and so has the level of student loan debt being used to pay for it. On top of that, graduates are learning the hard way that not all college degrees are equal. While jobs are plentiful for certain majors, they’re close to nonexistent for others.

There is no question that you are likely to earn more money over a lifetime with a college degree than without one. But it is equally clear that the cost/benefit ratio is not nearly as lucrative as it once was. There is no way to predict the job market, but you can control how much money you invest in your education. One way of cutting college costs is by attending community college – at least for the first two years of your education.

Why should you consider attending a community college?

Keeping Costs Low During the First Two Years of College

Attending a four-year college typically costs $20,000 to $60,000 per year. Taking an average of $40,000, that will be $160,000 over four years.

Community colleges typically cost anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 per year. Taking an average of $10,000, that’ll be $20,000 for attending a community college for two years.

If you spend your freshman and sophomore years at a community college, at a cost of $20,000 – then complete your junior and senior years at a typical four-year school at $80,000 ($40,000 per year) – the total cost of your college education will come to $100,000.

That’s still a lot of money, but it’s $60,000 less than if you were to spend the entire four years at a four-year school! That would leave $60,000 less in potential student loan debt.

You would still earn a degree from a four-year school, but you would do so at far less expense and equally less debt.

Having a Degree to Trade After Just Two Years

For a moment, consider the fact that you may not be able to complete a four-year degree. It could be because your motivation crashes, you and your family run out of money, or any one of a number of other reasons. Should you drop out of a four-year school after just two years, you will have little to show for your effort. After all, four-year colleges don’t give out partial degrees.

But let’s say that you attend a two-year college and decide two years is all you can stand. You will likely graduate with an Associates degree. Your two-year education will be completed, and you’ll come out with a degree in whatever it was you studied. At that point, you may decide to take some time off to earn some money, gain some hands-on experience, or just to get your head together.

And there’s some good news on this front. There are certain careers that you can enter with just a two-year degree and make some decent money. Those careers include nursing, paralegal, and certain computer fields, including computer programming.

Your education does not have to stop upon completing community college, but you’ll have more options two years in than you will at a four-year school.

Experience is Increasingly Weighing More Heavily than Education

Up until a few years ago, a college degree was generally all that you needed in order to qualify for an entry-level career type position. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Employers are increasingly looking for specific hands-on experience, in addition to your education.

If you can get a job with a two-year degree, and then combine that work experience with completing your four-year degree afterward, your chances of landing a well-paying job upon graduation will be considerably better. That might involve some form of blending work with school, but it will give you far more options than you would have as a debt-laden graduate of a four-year school with no work experience whatsoever.

Not Everyone is Ready for University Life at 18

A lot of people start college but never finish. Some only complete a semester or two during their freshman year, and then drop out. For whatever reason, they are unable to handle college life, or perhaps being away from home. But with the cost of college today, a single year could cost $40,000. If that is the end of your education, that could leave you with high debts and no tradable degree.

By contrast, if you drop out of school after your freshman year – while attending community college – the total cost will be something around $10,000. Even if you paid for that with student loans, that kind of debt is far more manageable than $40,000.

Once again, community college gives you greater options – in this case, the ability to make a mistake without indenturing you for the rest of your life.

Staying Out of Debt

We’ve touched a good bit on student loan debt already, but since college and student loans are practically synonymous today, it’s worth a more specific discussion.

A recent survey of the college graduating class of 2013 revealed that while the average amount of student loan debt owed is $26,000, the total amount owed is actually $35,200. That includes credit card debt and other loans, over and above student loans.

Even if you land a job paying $50,000 per year upon graduation, $35,000+ in unsecured debt is a lot of money to pay back. And that debt level is an average number across millions of students. Many owe $50,000 or more, and more than a few owe in excess of $100,000.

No matter how optimistic you are about your career prospects upon graduation, that is a serious level of debt to have early in life. As a college student today, particularly if you and your family are middle-class, you should accept compromises in your education in order to keep the debt level to a minimum. Attending community college for the first two years of your education is one very big way to do that.

Have you or your children attended community college? Would you recommend it to others?


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Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of his own personal finance blog, He has backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two teenage kids and can be followed on Twitter at @OutOfYourRut.

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6 Responses to How to Cut College Costs With Community College

  • S. B.

    Another point to make about community colleges is that in some states, you are guaranteed admission into certain public 4-year universities if you complete your 2-year community college degree in the same state. For some people, that is a really good deal.

    • Kevin Mercadante

      Hi S.B. – I think that’s actually true in most states, as long as you attend a state four year school. That will make the entire college run less expensive accross the board.

  • Robert Jacobs

    I went to a community college for 3 years while working full time. I was able to transfer to the University of Illinois at Chicago with no problems. Working full time while going to school enabled me to pay for school. It can be done, with hard work and wisdom in how you spend your money for education.

    • Kevin Mercadante

      Hi Robert – I did the same and I completely agree. It’s an excellent way to a) keep school costs low, b) stay out of debt and c) get experience.

  • Martin

    I actually went to community college first. I finished high school at 17 and wasn’t ready for university. So I saved money when I transferred my credits and grew up a LITTLE bit.