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How to Smartly Use Community College as a Stepping Stone

May 25, 2017 at 5:00 AM

You know I am a big believer in the value of a college education. With one catch. The cost of obtaining a degree must be affordable for the student. Yes, the student. Parents are to focus on saving for retirement; I can’t endorse parents paying and borrowing for college if it means not saving enough for their retirement.

The worst thing a student can do is borrow too much. What’s too much? College financing expert Mark Kantrowitz advises students to limit their total borrowing to no more than what they think they will earn in their first year of work. Limiting your borrowing to that amount gives you an excellent shot at paying off your loans in the standard 10-year period. So if entry-level jobs for a given career pay $40,000, then you would want to limit your borrowing to no more than $40,000.

That can be the cost of just a year or two at some private universities. And it may not cover a full four years at an in-state school.

That’s where community college can be a smart option. You may in fact find that a 2-year associate’s degree at a community college is all the additional education you need for your desired career. Not everyone needs a 4-year degree.

But if you are pursuing a career where a 4-year degree is required, starting at a community college and then transferring to an in-state school can save you tens of thousands of dollars, as the cost of community college is about 1/3 the cost of an in-state four-year school.

To make this move pay off you need to be smart and strategic. Some tips:

  1. Focus on a Major ASAP. Okay, not everyone knows what career they want to pursue at 18. But the sooner you can make a decision, the better. That’s because you want to focus your community college courses on the required classes that will enable you to transfer to a 4-year public school as a junior. Sure, most community college credits are transferable, but that does not mean they will be accepted for a given major. So you may find yourself needing to spend time after you transfer to pick up classes before you can begin as a bona fide junior. That’s going to cost you time and money.
  2.  Talk to the 4-Year School Now, not in Two Years. Once you know your likely major, check in with that department at the 4-year state school you hope to eventually transfer to. Ask them what specific course work/skills you will need to obtain at your community college to have the most seamless transfer in two years. 
  3.  Work with Your CC’s Transfer Office. Once you know what your required courses are to have the smoothest transfer in two years, the transfer office at your community college can help you map out a plan for how to get those courses completed within two years. By leaning on this valuable resource sooner than later you will hopefully be able to avoid the costly frustration of needed an extra semester or two to complete the required coursework that will enable you to transfer.
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