Save Money: Attend Community College First

The cost of college is skyrocketing.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average price for public tuition, room and board during the 2009-2010 school year at a four year institution was $12,804.  For private institutions, it averaged a staggering $32,184.  As government funding has changed to loan-based aid, rather than grant-based aid, many students are easily left with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt when they graduate.  If they find a job, which can be difficult in the current economy, they may only make $30,000 a year right out of college.

However, some students have made the choice to put off attending a four year institution and instead begin their college careers at a community college.

Potential Advantages to Attending a Two-Year College

While community colleges often get a bad rap, there are several distinct advantages to getting general credits out of the way at a community college:

– Learn study skills and improve grades.  If you graduated from high school with a less than stellar GPA, you can improve your study skills and hopefully earn higher grades so you will be able to enter a four year college that you may not have qualified to get into right out of high school.  This happened to me; my high school GPA, while not terrible, was not strong enough to be accepted to the University of Michigan.  I attended a community college for two years and earned a nearly perfect GPA and was accepted to the U of M as a transfer student.  The place to improve your study skills is at a community college where you have rich resources available to you for tutoring and other needs.  In my experience, a four year college is more of a sink or swim opportunity.  You either know how to study and earn good grades at that point or you don’t.

– Attend an honors program.  If your GPA was strong coming out of high school, check to see if the community college has an honors program.  Many community colleges have them, and the perks are generous, often including free tuition.  I was in the honors program at the community college I attended, and I didn’t have to pay for a single class.  Plus, I was able to take smaller classes designated specifically for honors’ students.

– Get more personalized attention.  Community college classes are often small.  My classes had about 28 students.  Even my physics class, which was in a lecture hall, had less than 100 students.  When I transferred to the university, I routinely found myself in lecture halls filled with 300 to 500 students, and that was for literature classes!   The smallest classes I attended had at least 50 students.

attending community college

Attending community college for the first two years can help a student save thousands.

– Live at home and save thousands of dollars.  Of course, not all students that attend a community college live at home, but the ones that do save thousands of dollars in college living expenses.  True, life with mom and dad is not as exciting as living on your own, but there will be plenty of time to live on your own when you transfer to a four year college, and you will be glad when you graduate that you kept your expenses low during the college years.

– Explore different classes to see what your major should be.  Few students enter college knowing what they want their major to be, and of those who do know, they often switch majors during college and have to take additional classes.  It is much cheaper to experiment with classes to see which ones you enjoy at the community college level where classes can be hundreds of dollars less per credit hour than at a large institution.

– Earn the same benefits of graduating from a prestigious college.  Future employers and graduate schools usually do not care how long you attended a particular college.  Ultimately, they just care where your degree is from.  You can save two years of expensive four year college tuition by attending a community college first, yet you will reap the same benefits as those who attended the university or college all four years.

Potential Drawbacks to Attending a Two-Year College

While there are many benefits to attending a community college for the early part of your college education, there are also potentially some significant drawbacks:

– Make sure the credits will transfer.  Some four year colleges will accept all of the credits from your community college career, while others will not accept as many, resulting in unnecessary college expenses and wasted time if you have to take the classes over.  From the beginning, work carefully with your academic advisor to avoid this problem.

– Some colleges will not accept community college students.  A few schools that I wanted to transfer to did not accept community college transfers.  Make sure this is not the case for the schools you may potentially transfer to.

It has been years since I attended college, but currently my community college is charging $79.50 per credit hour, which equates to $954 for a 12 credit hour semester, excluding fees.  The University of Michigan is charging $846 for the first credit hour and $489 for each additional credit hour, which equates to $6,220 for one semester, excluding fees.  The first credit hour at the university costs nearly as much as 12 credit hours at the community college.  Yes, you will miss out on some college experiences by attending a community college first, but chances are you will also avoid being weighed down by thousands of additional dollars in student loan debt.

What do you think about attending a two-year college first?

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Published or updated September 24, 2011.


  1. Saving money on college is a popular topic today, as well it should be. I have clients who want to buy houses but have already racked up over $100,000 in student loan debt.

    I did attend a private, four year college. But every summer I took evening classes in required subjects at the local community college. It saved me lots of money and was part of a strategy that allowed me to graduate early. Four years is not a requirement if you can do it faster! 🙂

    • That’s an awesome point Pamela. In a lot of universities, you can get credit for courses taken at other schools such as the local community college. Awesome way to save money on the classes and possible room, board, and transportation as well.

  2. This is such a great way to save money. Like you said, make sure to check that all the credits will transfer, but if you go to a community college for two years and finish at a major university, you get the degree from the credible school and save money in the process.

  3. Not as convinced. It depends on the person’s long-haul life plan. As I get older, I am more aware of the importance of networking and getting connected and the name of the Alma Mater in long-term career success. If someone has aspirations to really make a mark in this world (and not all of us do, which is totally fair) I think it’s worth investing in the pricier (but likely more connected / prestigious) universities — but being politically astute (networking like hell) while attending as well.

    • Certainly a school name can carry a lot of weight but you better make sure you recoup the cost of the name.

      And honestly, what’s stopping someone from transferring out to a better school? Community college first two years, state school next two, then Ivy/big name for graduate degree.

  4. I agree if someone is attending an Ivy League school or knows what they want to major in (and it is a major not found at every college but only a few specific ones). However, my four your university opened doors for me even though I only went there 2.5 years. Sometimes it really just matters what name is on the diploma, not how long you went there.

  5. I recommend to my students to go to community college to save money. Most will transfer to state college or university. I preach this because people only ask where you graduated form not if you attended the college for 4 years.

  6. Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager says:

    Adaptu just posted a similar blog post. Would love to hear your thoughts on it: Two Year School to Four Year School – Spend Less on College:–spend-less-on-college

  7. I used a community college for two years, before transferring to a university. I have nothing but good things to say about the experience, especially the fact I graduated with no debt!

  8. I attended community college first before transferring to the University of Texas. It was a great decision for me especially because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I got out of college.

    The funny thing is that as I was attending CC, I would see some of my old high school friends trickle in because they mismanaged themselves at college.

    It made my experience at UT even greater because I was still able to experience the “college” life for those 2 years.

  9. Christian says:

    I agree with the principal of this article, but I think in practice it may not work. As a recent college graduate I have had friends who started at community colleges with the intention on attending a more prestigious University at a later time, but never left.

    Once you make friends, get settled in, and establish yourself at a place it is very difficult to leave – so I would never recommend that someone start at a community college. The risk is too high that they loose the opportunity and experiences that come with life at a prestigious University. The future earning potential and life experience will certainly cancel out the saving earned from a community college.

    Attending a nationally nationally known school was the best decision I ever made. However, there is certainly NOTHING wrong with attending a community college.

  10. Christian says:

    Judging from the comments above it does work out for a lot of people though!

    Either way, I just wrote an article about saving money when buying textbooks in college.

    I hope you don’t mind the link. 🙂

  11. This is a good idea, thanks

  12. Forex Analyst says:

    Transferring won’t be easy, but it may be a smart way to save money and achieve your academic goals. The transition through the community college to a four-year institution can make the students educational pathways smoother, more enriching, productive and ultimately it can lead to more successes.

What Do You Think?