How Much You Can Save Long Term by Starting at a Community College?

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It’s no secret that tuition is cheaper at a community college than it is at a public or private four-year university. And in a perfect world, you’d be able to gain two years of credits at a community college while living at home and working part time and then finish out your bachelor’s degree at a four-year university within an additional two years.

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But that’s not always the way it works. Even though the tuition and fees are cheaper at a community college, you could end up paying more if you go this route depending on other factors that come into play. Here’s what you need to know.

Take a Look: Explore the Cost of Education in the United States

How Much Can You Save in the First Two Years by Going To Community College?

According to College Board’s report, “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020,” you can potentially save thousands of dollars by opting to start your higher-level education at a community college. In 2020-2021, the  average cost of tuition and fees for a full-time undergraduate student is as follows:

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  • Public two-year college (community college): $3,770
  • Public four-year college: $10,560 (in-state), $27,020 (out-of-state)
  • Private four-year college: $37,650

On tuition and fees alone, you can save an average of $6,790 per year by attending a community college versus a public four-year college that’s in your state, and $23,250 if you opt to attend a community college versus an out-of-state, four-year public university. And if you choose to go the community college route over a private four-year college, the savings can really rack up at an average of $33,880 per year.

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Two-Year Savings

Now that you know what the average savings are per year when you attend a community college versus a four-year public or private university, how much can you save over two years? Although college tuition and fees generally increase each year, here’s a rough idea of how much you could save.

 Two-Year Savings Potential By Attending a Community College (Based on 2020-2021 Average Tuition and Fees)
Type of College Average Tuition and Fees for Two Years Average Tuition and Fees for Two Years at a Community College Two-year Savings Potential
Four-year public university (in-state) $21,120 $7,540 $13,580
Four-year public university (out-of-state) $54,040 $7,540 $46,500
Four-year private university $75,300 $7,540 $67,760

Prepare Now: What You Need To Make To Attend College in Your State

What About Long-Term Savings?

Ideally, you would be able to pay out of pocket each semester for your college tuition, but that’s not always the case. And if you do finance your education via student loans, you’ll be paying for your college expenses long term. So how do the long-term savings add up if you choose to go the community college route for the first couple of years?

If you are able to complete your bachelor’s degree within four years (two years of courses at a community college, plus two more years at a university) your long-term savings will be significant because you’ll have much less student loan debt to pay off. Using 2020-2021 figures, you’ll save anywhere from $13,580-$67,760 in the long run.

Unfortunately, the savings may not be as good as you think. Not everyone who attends community college for the first two years will be able to graduate with a degree in two additional years at a four-year college. It may take even longer, which means your student loan debt will be more expensive to pay off due to additional years of tuition and fees and loan interest. A report by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University; the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program; and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that only 14% of students who attended community college for the first two years and then transferred to a four-year university graduated within six years.

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What Are the Pitfalls of Attending Community College for the First Two Years?

Saving thousands of dollars is a huge incentive to attend community college for a couple of years. However, as with any important decision, it can be helpful to know the potential pitfalls. Here are some things to consider before signing up for community college.

First, it’s important to note that you may miss out on scholarship opportunities if you don’t attend a four-year college all four years. “This isn’t a big deal for high school students with an average GPA that would not have received entering freshmen scholarships,” said Denise Thomas, CEO of Get Ahead of the Class. “For those students, they might prove themselves worthy of scholarships by performing well academically in community college and might receive a transfer student scholarship. Transfer student scholarships are substantially lower than entering freshmen scholarships and are very limited.”

Eric N. Klein, senior attorney of the Klein Law Group, shared the disadvantages he experienced by attending community college first.

“For me, the pitfalls of attending the community college and then transferring to the four-year university is that I started as a junior without forming relationships with my classmates,” Klein said. “I was two years behind the curve in a sense and really never got to take advantage of university life. For example, pledging for a fraternity, sports, student government and generally forging those strong relationships that help you with future success throughout your life.”

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Denise Thomas shared further potential disadvantages you may encounter by attending community college first.

“The problem with attending community college …  is that for most students, the community college courses will not transfer to their four-year college,” Thomas said. “However when asked, almost always, the four-year college will say, “Yes! Everything transfers.”

However, Thomas warned that your definition of transfer and your chosen college’s definition may be entirely different.

“Yes, the community college courses will show up in the student’s four-year college transcript,” she said. “But most of those courses will transfer as electives and not apply toward their four-year degree. The dedicated high school student with 40 (or 60) hours of community college credit and an AA degree will shed a lot of tears when she realizes her four-year college only accepts six or nine hours toward her bachelor’s degree.”

Spending money on college courses that won’t apply toward the four-year degree is a waste of time and money and requires more time and money to get the course credits that are needed to graduate. However, Thomas said there’s a way to make sure this pitfall doesn’t happen to your teen.

“Do the research,” she said. “There are a few states where colleges or universities in the same system have an agreement on which exact courses from one school will transfer as specific courses to another school. There is usually a chart on their state college system website. So if you plan to stay within a state system of schools, you may be able to save some time and money by attending community college first.”

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Last updated: Aug. 9, 2021

About the Author

Cynthia Measom is a personal finance writer and editor with over 12 years of collective experience. Her articles have been featured in MSN, Aol, Yahoo Finance, INSIDER, Houston Chronicle, The Seattle Times and The Network Journal. She attended the University of Texas at Austin and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.

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