If you want to pay less for college, starting at a community college seems like a no-brainer. Tuition and fees are always lower than those of a four-year institution, sometimes even a third of that the area’s public universities. And with rolling admissions that are often right up to the first day of class, community college is the ultimate safety school. But if you’re serious about saving on the cost of a 4-year degree, you need to understand how starting at a community college can actually increase your costs and reduce your chances of graduating.


How much will you save?

Let’s start with the potential savings. According to the College Board, the average sticker price for public community colleges is less than $3,600. That’s only 36% of the average tuition and fees of $10,230 for state public schools.

Based on the averages, students save at least $13,140 compared to starting at an in-state public university.  The savings can approach $35,000 once you figure out how much you actually save on room and board (you’re still eating whether at home or in a dorm).

Even without including Room and Board savings, starting at a community college could potentially save students enough to pay for a year’s worth of tuition at an in-state public 4-year college. And the flexibility of community colleges allows for students to have a part-time job that may have actually covered their tuition, meaning they might have actually saved the cost of two years at a 4-year public college.


Community College Advantages

Furthermore, spending the first two years at a community college means that students will have much smaller classes with professors who care about teaching. This could also be the perfect opportunity for students to improve their grades and be eligible for more academically competitive colleges than when they graduated from high school.

Community colleges have student newspapers, honor programs, student athletics, and an increasing number, even dorms. They provide all the necessary elements for students to have an academically challenging and socially fulfilling first two years of college and transfer to a quality 4-year institution.

But here’s the problem.


Most Students Don’t Graduate

Most students who start at a community college with the intention to transfer to complete a 4-year degree don’t. It’s important to understand that if they do transfer, they have just about as good of a chance at graduating as a student who started at a 4-year college. The problem is that most students don’t transfer.

Ultimately, we’re talking about less than 20% of students making the transfer. Even for students with higher family incomes, parents with advanced degrees, attended full-time, or intended to transfer, the graduation rate is still less than 20%.

This means that for over 80% of students who start off at community college, it can become the most expensive college of all-the one you never graduate from. Now you need to include the lifetime loss of income of a 4-year degree when making any sort of cost-benefit calculation.

Yes, college is expensive, but all the current Return on Investment calculations show that it is still “worth it.”

Yet, the reality is that students aren’t necessarily better off if they had started at any of the 74 4-year colleges that have a 5-year graduation rate of less than 20%.


Be Prepared

So how do the 20% of the students who start at a community college and do graduate with a 4-year degree do it? They start with the end in mind.

They have a plan for transferring, usually to a specific 4-year college. They make sure their credits will transfer by talking to the admission’s office of the 4-year college. Some colleges will already have articulation agreements in place with 4-year colleges to make the transfer process go more smoothly. Students with the required credits and grades will automatically be able to transfer to both public and private colleges with articulation agreements.

An increasing number of states are working on making sure students can transfer to 4-year public universities without having to spend time and money on repeating classes. Often, they have created a common course identification system so there is no question about classes transferring. And there may also be systems in place so that students will automatically transfer based on GPA and required classes.

But keep in mind, even now, these successful students are the exception, not the rule.

Most students won’t transfer and those that do are likely to receive less merit aid than those that started at the 4-year college. And when they do show up on the 4-year campus, they’ll be starting over in developing the relationships with faculty, other students, and organizations that are an intrinsic part of the college experience.

If you plan on starting at a community college, do so with the understanding of the transfer challenges.