Pursuing higher education is an expensive endeavor. In an increasingly competitive world it is perceived that a four-year college degree is vital to succeed. These perceptions in part fueled the acquisition of now sky-high student loan debt.
Yet the pragmatic among us see that neither attending college nor refusing to seems to result in a winning hand. Refuse to attend and you’ll struggle to find work; Get your degree and you’ll slog through a mountain of debt. It’s the classic conundrum: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
I propose that there are alternatives to this terrifying situation. What if you could get a four-year degree from a reputable and regionally accredited university for half the total cost of what you might ordinarily pay? Attending Community College first is the key.
You’re Getting Set Up
It’s understandable that many people see college education as unattainable. Shortly after High School I went to college and later left because I couldn’t afford to stay.
The dreaded Expected Family Contribution (EFC) was my downfall. Despite what the EFC claimed my parents were ‘expected’ to pay, they could not afford to contribute thousands upon thousands to my education. These estimates go off of raw numbers and don’t take into account living expenses, medical debt, or any other financial obligations. My parents absolutely could not help pay for my education.
I lived away from home and had a job making little more than minimum wage. I didn’t get anywhere close to the maximum payout from the Pell Grant because of that Expected Family Contribution. When my dad was young, working a summer job could generate the money necessary to put him through a semester or two of school. Definitely not the case when I attended in 2009. College is expensive, more so now than ever before. Just take a peek at the tuition inflation rate and you’ll see what I mean. The only option I saw at the time was getting a loan and I wasn’t enthusiastic about taking on massive debt.
Millions of bright, would-be students and degree earners are stuck between a rock and a hard place. When the maximum Pell Grant payout is only $5,775 per YEAR and most universities charge between $400 – $600 per credit, the Pell Grant just isn’t going to cover it for a typical 30 credit full-time year. This is a common dilemma for students across North America. Canada recently eliminated their own education and textbook tax credit system, making it more difficult for students looking to off-set the cost of education. That change became effective on January 1, 2017.
At 24-years-old you’re finally free from Expected Family Contributions (EFC) and viewed as an independent student. It’s worth noting that it’s possible to become an independent student before this, but requires extensive documentation (letters, financial documents, statements) to prove that your parents have no part in supporting you. When you’re finally considered independent it’s completely possible (depending on your income) to get the maximum payout from the Pell Grant.
Game the System and Play Smart
Fun fact for you: whichever college you complete your coursework at is the one who will give you that coveted Bachelor’s degree to hang on your wall. The reputation Community College gets is undeserved, and can offer great local learning opportunities for your first two years of college. It doesn’t matter if half the credits originally came from a two-year community college, as long as you finish your studies at a four-year university.
One of my own local colleges offers credits to state residents at $136 apiece. That sounds a lot more reasonable than $400 – $600, and surprisingly…you can attend college for an entire year (30 credits) with just that $5,775 Pell Grant AND have enough leftover to pay for books. This cost-cutting tactic combined with personal financial planning can make paying for college much easier.
At this point I’m sure you’re wondering…well what if the college I transfer to doesn’t accept all of my credits?
Well, the short answer is that most community colleges have articulation agreements with other regional schools to accept the entirety of your Associate’s degree (or X amount of credits). You just knocked two years off your Bachelor’s at a quarter of the price it would cost you at that big shiny University. Finish up your last two years there, and guess where your Bachelor’s degree will be from?
This is called achieving the 2+2. Two years spent on your Associate’s, two years on your Bachelor’s.
If you really want to get sneaky, look at the graduation requirements for your intended four-year school. Perhaps you can take more community college courses post-Associate’s completion and then transfer those to the four-year Bachelor’s program. Depending on the University, you can always get credit-by-examination via CLEP or DSST. Many of these exams run about $110 apiece and net you between 1 to 6 credits, depending on the subject. Each of these unconventional methods will ultimately save you money and prevent acquiring crippling debt along the way.
If the overinflated education bubble isn’t going to make things easy on you, then why not give yourself an advantage by doing things unconventionally? The less of your tuition that comes out of pocket, the better. There’s no single path toward degree completion. Using Community College to complete your first two years of school will significantly lower your total cost and potential loan burden, no matter if you’re 18 or 28.