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One of the best methods to reduce the cost of college is attending a two-year community college and then transferring to a four-year university. This strategy can save students significant amounts of money while still empowering them to earn a degree from a well-known institution.

With the costs of tuition outpacing the national average income, many families are struggling to afford a quality college education. Forced to take out student loans to pay for their studies, graduates enter the workforce burdened with thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

In response, many families are looking for ways to cut their educational expenses. One of the best methods to reduce the cost of college is attending a two-year community college and then transferring to a four-year university. This strategy can save students significant amounts of money while still empowering them to earn a degree from a well-known institution.

The 2+2 plan

Attending a community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year school to complete a bachelor’s degree is sometimes referred to as a 2+2 plan. According to U.S. News and World Report, this plan can cut the cost of a bachelor’s degree in half.

To get your diploma while taking on minimal debt, follow these steps:

  • Enroll in a local community college: Work with your target university to identify the necessary courses and requirements for transferring credits later on. The school can recommend community colleges with the best transfer rates. You can typically apply as many as 72 units toward your degree, saving you thousands of dollars in tuition. Many community colleges have agreements with universities, ensuring the credits earned will transfer over. To make it easier to keep up with the different rules and conventions, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers has put together a database to help you see what credits will transfer to your chosen university.
  • Check in with an advisor: Most community colleges have advisors on staff specializing in student transfers. Upon enrolling in community college, make an appointment with the advisor to go over course requirements and credit transfers. Check in with the guidance team each semester to ensure you are still on track to transfer your course load to your selected university.
  • Work while going to school: Community colleges often offer night classes, so it’s possible to hold a part or full-time job while going to school. Earning some income while studying can help keep you from taking out student loans. Any extra income can be saved to pay for the final two years of your education at the more expensive institution.
  • Apply for scholarships and grants: As a transfer student, you are eligible for scholarships and grants that are merit-based or need-based. In fact, millions of dollars allotted for college transfer students goes unclaimed due to a lack of applications, as reported by MainStreet.
  • Make payments while in school: While you’re working, put any extra money towards your loan balance, if you have one. These early payments will help cut down on interest and save you money over time. After graduating from a four-year school, you could have as much as $50,000 in debt, but that’s still a large savings over the $100,000 or more a four-year degree typically costs.

Benefits of community college

Going to community college before transferring to another school has significant advantages:

  • Lower costs: One of the most substantial benefits of community college is the tremendous cost savings, compared to a traditional four-year school. According to the College Board, the average community college costs just over $3,000 in tuition and fees, compared to the average $47,000 for a private school.
  • Decreased cost of living: On top of savings on tuition, attending a community college allows you to save significantly in other areas, including room and board and transportation. Rather than moving into a pricey dorm and signing up for an expensive meal plan, you can stay at home or rent an inexpensive apartment and prepare your meals.
  • Less commitment: At a community college, students can get core curriculum and general credits out of the way at a lower cost. According to the New York Times, 80 percent of students enter college unsure of what their majors should be, and switching majors can be prohibitively expensive, adding years to your college career. By starting with a community college, you can try out courses in different majors without a significant investment until you find the right fit.
  • Excellent instructors: Community college instructors tend to be outstanding. Because of the flexibility in scheduling, many full-time professors at universities teach classes at community colleges at night for extra income. In other cases, established business professionals teach classes in their field as adjunct professors, giving students unique insights into the industry.
  • Smaller class size: One of the most difficult parts of college is getting used to large classes. Many students go from small classrooms of just twenty other classmates in high school to huge lecture halls with hundreds of people. This transition can be difficult, particularly for students used to one-on-one interaction from instructors. Community college provides an excellent middle ground, with smaller classes than traditional universities. Students will find their teachers are more accessible, both in the classroom and out, when help is needed.
  • More flexibility: Community colleges typically provide more flexibility. They offer more night classes and remote options than four-year schools, making it possible for students to work while going to school more easily.
  • Improved application: If your high school grades were not high enough, you may not qualify for merit-based aid or even get into your chosen four-year school. But if you go to community college first, you have another chance to improve your application. Performing well in your classes will help you qualify for scholarships you otherwise would have been ineligible to receive.
  • Better your odds: Because there is less competition to enter as a junior than as a freshman, you have a better chance of being accepted into your dream school with two years of excellent transcripts completed. Although transferring to an Ivy League school might be a long shot (see below), transfer acceptance rates at some other highly selective schools like Notre Dame, USC and UCLA are considerably higher than freshman admission rates.
  • Competitive degree: After graduating from your chosen four-year school, the fact that you attended community college for two years is irrelevant; your degree is just as valuable and respected as the degree of your classmates who spent double the money. Your resume will have the same prestige as any other student who graduated from your school.

Drawbacks to attending community college

While there are many advantages to attending community college before transferring to a traditional school, there are potential downsides as well. Keep these factors in mind when choosing how to proceed with your college career:

  • Ivy League bias: While many schools accept transfer students from community colleges, the 2+2 strategy does not work as well when it comes to Ivy League schools. At places like Harvard or Yale, the chances of getting accepted as a junior are much lower than getting accepted as a freshman — not many students drop out. According to Transfer Web, Harvard takes only a dozen or so students a year as transfers. Princeton does not accept transfer students at all, a policy it has held for many years (but plans to lift). If your goal is a degree from an Ivy League school, transferring from a community college is extremely tough. If a Harvard diploma is your eventual goal, you may have a better chance of making it by applying as a freshman.
  • Limited curriculum: Community colleges typically only offer certificate programs or associate degree curriculums. If you want to pursue a bachelor’s degree, you will need to transfer to another school at some point. If you’re looking for a long-term living situation, community college may not be a good fit for you.
  • Lighter workload: Most community college classes rely on major exams for testing, rather than regular assignments or papers. This focus produces a lighter workload than what you’d experience at a traditional school. To compensate, you need to have your own drive and work ethic to transition successfully to a four-year school.
  • Less serious classmates: Community college students are often uninvolved and unengaged. They are there to fulfill the minimum requirements for the associate’s degree and don’t apply themselves beyond the essentials. This disconnect can be distracting and disheartening for dedicated students.
  • Campus culture: Because community colleges usually are made up of part-time students who also work regular jobs, the culture on campus is less involved than the culture of four-year schools. While there may be some clubs and events, extracurricular activities are not a major focus for the school or its student body. And with so many students living with their families or in off-campus apartments, there are fewer opportunities to socialize than in the dorms of a traditional university. You may not have the full “college experience” if you go the community college route.
  • Stigma: Some students feel there is still a stigma associated with attending a community college before transferring to a traditional university. Professors may think of those students as less dedicated than their classmates, even when the individual is hardworking and studious.

The 2+2 plan of going to community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year school can be a valuable way to save money on tuition. This route can save you thousands of dollars in student loan debt while empowering you to achieve a bachelor’s degree from a well-respected school. But while the 2+2 plans can produce significant savings, community college is not for everyone. For students who thrive on a lively campus culture or have Ivy League ambitions, community college may not be the best option.

Kat Tretina is a freelance writer in Orlando, Florida. She double majored in English and Communications at Elizabethtown College, before going on to earn a Masters in Communications from West Chester University. 

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