How to Slash Your Tuition Costs: Spend Some Time at Community College

Education is key part of the American dream, and with the tough job market making a college degree almost a necessity, the future looks bright for U.S. colleges and universities. Unfortunately, many of those stately centers of higher learning have failed to account for the recent recession, high unemployment and the fact that a bachelor's degree is no longer a guarantee of a good job. Over the past year, tuition at state universities has risen tuition at state universities has risen an average of 7.9%. During the same period, average wages rose by an anemic 1.3%.

With many state and local governments trying to balance their budgets by cutting back on education spending, it isn't hard to see why tuition has gone up at many universities. But even before the recession, college prices were rising far out of proportion to inflation as universities poured money into research programs and building funds. And while students might complain about the cost of school, chances are that they will suck it up and pay the piper. After all, there's no lack of applicants eager to take their places.

With tuition costs rising and paychecks stagnating, incoming college students face a tough question: Can they justify spending a fortune on tuition in the hopes of getting a job that may not pay enough to service their student loan debts?

Getting the Pricey Degree for Less

One way to cut the costs of a college degree is through transfer classes. Most major universities allow students to transfer up to 60 credits from other schools. In other words, just because a student wants to graduate from a high-priced university doesn't mean that he or she actually has to take four years worth of classes there. With 60 credits on the table, a savvy student can take care of most of his or her core curriculum at a fraction of the marquee school price.

And where can they get these bargain-priced credits? Enter community colleges. Partially funded by state and local governments, community colleges offer classes at far below the cost of other schools, and most public institutions will directly accept classes from community colleges located in their state.

Admittedly, community colleges tend to offer minimal campus facilities, and their students don't enjoy the full "college experience" of sports events, streaking and keggers. And, to be honest, many students at community college are lower-achieving high school graduates or returning students whose classroom skills may be a little rusty. On the bright side, however, returning students also tend to be a little more serious than traditional college freshmen, and community college classrooms can be places where education is taken quite seriously.

As for instructors, many community colleges draw from the same pool of educators as more prestigious institutions. Teachers trying to make a little extra money on the side often do so by moonlighting at community colleges. In other words, depending upon its location and staff, community college students may be getting exactly the same education as their traditional college brethren.

Unfortunately, the recession has also hit community colleges, and many are considering price hikes. However, even relatively steep increases in community college tuition would still leave them priced well below mainstream universities. For example, Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz., recently announced plans to increase tuition by as much as 30% ... which would raise the cost per credit to $69. By comparison, full-time tuition at the University of Arizona Tucson runs over $340 per credit.

Under current rates, a student at Pima could expect to pay $3,180 for sixty credits; if the full price bump goes into effect, that will rise to $4,140. By comparison, two years at the University of Arizona - Tucson runs a minimum of $16,476 -- almost four times as much. While not every community college is quite as good a deal, even the most expensive ones rarely charge more than a third of the prevailing market price. For students who are looking to get a good education at a good price, that's an impressive discount ... and a good lesson in applied economics.

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Im going to Elgin Community College, I had registration yesterday. I had to fill out 3 different registration forms because the classes I wanted only supply 20 spots. 20 spots in a cooking class and 45 to 50 students waiting to take class. I do not think sending students to a school like this would be a good idea. I would rather pay top dollar and get the classes I want than to be turned back like a piece of garbage.

April 14 2011 at 7:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What I'm saving by having my second child go to the local community college is peace of mind as well as $$. They go to classes, come home to study & maybe go to work. I sent my eldest away to a 4yr major university & it turned out to be one big party (as most schools are), a chance to get away from the control of mom & dad & be independent and you hope & pray they get their college education after investing 80k. With that law (I forget its name) the school doesn't deal with the parents at all. The student is considered legal age, they only have access to their $$ accounts, grades, etc. I know a lot of people whose kids never went to class, the parents never knew until too late & the school refunds the $$ to the kid not the parent who paid for it.

April 11 2011 at 12:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I couldn't agree more. For my lower-division science and mathematics courses (I majored in biology, chemistry and clinical laboratory science), the community college had better instructors, better facilities, and better laboratory courses than the local university. I don't have any complaints about the instructors or course offerings in the liberal arts or social sciences, either. The nursing program at the community college, which confers an RN (but only an associates' degree) has a significantly higher pass rate on the national board exams and the community college graduates have a much better reputation in local hospitals. For those who desire a BSRN, they can enroll in a one or two year course at the local university after obtaining their RN at the community college.

Oh--and the community college tuition is lower than university tuition, the campus is smaller, and parking is far more convenient. The support services available to the students are also better, better publicized and easier to obtain than at the university. What's not to like?

April 11 2011 at 11:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Franco: I see your point to some extent (although professional teachers might not agree, given the current economic atmosphere). But I don't think the question of how or by whom (or what) one is taught really matters. If the student WANTS to learn, he/she WILL learn. I think DESIRE to learn is the key element. Gee! We still have "BOOKS" in our home, and LIBRARIES. Also, IMHO, there's no logical reason why we can't increase the availability of learning opportunities. It seems to me that accomodations could be made to enhance alternative education programs such as adult-learning centers, local community education programs using existing local facilities, et al. Many of these programs already exist, but I don't think they're used sufficiently. Also, educational achievement, albeit highly worthwhile, does NOT, in itself create a 'whole person'. How many instances have we all seen where individuals who are 'highly educated', e.g., public officials, those in 'professional positions', etc., have ended up being caught, prosecuted and punished for violating laws, ethics, and so on. Too often, it seems that 'educational status' translates into 'social status'. To me, where and how an individual acqured his/her degree/s, is less important than how that individual uses his/her knowledge and training. "I am what I do" is important, of course, but personal qualities such as 'morals' are far more crucial in achieving success.

April 11 2011 at 8:11 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Wow! I didn't know that! C'mon, what is this, News of the Obvious? If you can't figure this out on your own and need an article on the internet to tell you, maybe you're too stupid for college in the first place. Oh, I forgot: College is a "right," just like all those other made-up rights that the left wing makes up out of thin air.

April 11 2011 at 7:47 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Haves and have nots, the gap grows wider. The "regular" folks don't need any education,they might get wise to the master plan to decimate the middle class.

April 11 2011 at 7:37 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The best thing I ever did was start at a community college before transferring to a 4 year school....I saved a fortune in tuition costs, and the transition, academically was seamless. My B.A. makes no reference to where I started, only where I finished.

April 10 2011 at 11:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Then Big Oil---Greedy Banks, Greedy Doctors, Hospitals, Big Pharma and now Colleges are looting the tax payers----There is no need for 126 semester hours for BS. They just want to you spend your money and take care of the WELFARE DEPARTMENTS in school

April 10 2011 at 8:15 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to fakeconomics1's comment

like music appreciation... golf....

April 11 2011 at 2:35 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Here is an alternative to college. Uncle Sam wants you. Earn it.

April 10 2011 at 7:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to CnOWrms1's comment

Joining the military just to pay for college is foolhardy at best. If you aren't willing to risk your life, your health, your freedom, your sanity and your family for nothing more than college tuition, you shouldn't enlist. And just tuition isn't a good enough reason. You need to be committed to the idea of military service and protecting your country to survive what you will need to survive during military service.

Now, if you join the military for any number of good reasons, then the GI bill benefits are a nice bonus. VA health care benefits are a nice bonus. Just don't make them your reason for enlisting.

April 11 2011 at 11:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dr. Beasley

As a College Consultant, I often advise the "2+2" strategy: 2 years at a junior college and transfer to a 4-year for the final two years. Other than the obvious benefits of lower overall cost, many community colleges offer scholarships and many 4-year colleges offer transfer scholarships. I have had many students go this route, even starting junior college early, completing their bachelors at 19, and many heading to medical and law school. Indeed, my wife attended community college on scholarship, maintained a 4.0, was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa (junior college honor society) and transferred to Harvard (yes, THAT Harvard) on scholarship! It can happen!

April 10 2011 at 4:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Dr. Beasley's comment

Both my daughter and I went to the same college, -- she loves it and that's also what really matters. It's fully accredited. And you can easily transfer to a four year school. Where I live we have Lafayette, Lehigh University, Kutztown, Moravian, Cedar Crest, Muhlenburg, East Stroudsburg, deSales, and of couse Penn state Center valley, alot for a kid to pick from. The Professors at Northampton come to this school from the other colleges. For example, Candice's English teacher also teaches English at Lehigh. So, she is getting the same English course, same prof, for a fraction of the price.

April 10 2011 at 5:49 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply