Last Updated: Apr 3, 2019
Everybody knows college is expensive. In fact, the cost of higher education has frequently been in the spotlight in recent years. You can find tons of news stories about grads faced with student debt that takes decades to pay off.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. An approach followed by cost-conscious students across the country is to start at a highly affordable school then transfer to a more expensive one. And that option seems to be growing more popular as tuition rises.
“The cost of a higher education continues to increase,” says Monica Castaneda, VP of Student Affairs at Glendale Community College in Arizona. “If you decide to attend a community college for two years and then transfer to a university, you can save quite a bit of money.”
But just how much? For students attending college in their home state, the average tuition and fees at public two-year institutions are just over $3,000 a year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At four-year public schools, by comparison, the average is more than $8,700—almost three times as much. And this doesn’t include room and board, which can add more than $10,000 to the total cost of a year’s attendance. Compared to the costs of private colleges, the difference is even more compelling. Tuition and fees alone average around $40,000 annually, not including food and housing.
Keep in mind that these are averages. Many colleges assess tuition by the credit hour, with overall costs depending on how many courses are taken during a given term. Some community colleges are also substantially less expensive than the average. For example, Glendale Community College’s tuition is $87 per credit hour or just over $2,000 annually.
Of course, students at community colleges may face other expenses, such as the cost of commuting to and from campus. But even with that expense, starting out at a two-year school can save you thousands of dollars.
Such a dramatic difference in costs can be a lifesaver for families with financial challenges. Or, in situations where your budget is less of an issue, the savings can be applied to other expenses, such as traveling or buying a car.
That’s not all. Even after enjoying tremendous savings, you can still get a “name brand” education. If you earn a bachelor’s degree at a prestigious university after completing the first two years at a lesser-known community college, your diploma will be the same as those earned by students who started out there as freshmen.
Make it happen
If the transfer option is something you’d like to explore, you can make it happen. For things to go smoothly, though, careful planning is a must.
“The important part is in your finding the right partner schools with strong partnerships and agreements,” says David M. Kaiser, Director of Enrollment Management for the Fox School of Business at Temple University. He points out that articulation agreements come in different forms. Some are just for the general education or core curriculum classes, while others consist of specific program-to-program agreements in areas such as business, liberal arts, or the sciences. Others even cover an entire two-year course of study.
For example, students in California can take advantage of a program called Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG ). Through this initiative, six campuses in the state’s university system offer guaranteed admission to community college students. A similar arrangement is available to students in Minnesota. The University of Minnesota Twin Cities and seven of the state’s two-year campuses offer the Minnesota Cooperative Admissions Program (MnCAP). Students who earn an associate degree and meet the program’s requirements are guaranteed transfer admission.
While partnerships between colleges vary, a common denominator is that all schools provide counseling or advising services to help students make academic and career plans. If you choose the transfer path, be sure to take advantage of them. Don’t make the mistake of trying to go it alone by simply reviewing catalogs or websites. Instead, take time to consult the professionals who want you to succeed. This might mean dealing with counselors at a two-year school, a four-year college you hope to attend later, or both.
At the University of Houston–Clear Lake, the Office of Academic Transfer Advising offers a variety of services to incoming students who have transferred from other schools. Committed to creating what they call “a seamless experience for our transfer students,” advisors provide help in choosing courses, comparing majors, and making career plans.
Transfer centers at two-year schools offer similar help for students who plan to transfer or are simply considering this path. Along with providing advice through group meetings or one-on-one sessions, they offer a variety of planning materials. Students of the City Colleges of Chicago benefit from a transfer planning workbook that provides tips on researching four-year institutions, working with advisors, completing admission applications, and more.
Similarly, the transfer center at Walla Walla Community College in Washington shares helpful resources ranging from individualized advising to printed materials and web-based info. Transfer planning tools include timelines, worksheets, checklists, and tips on researching universities.
Some two-year colleges host visits from four-year schools that make transferring convenient. Through joint arrangements, four-year college reps will visit your campus at pre-arranged times to meet with prospective transfer students. Some will even process applications on site. They may grant acceptance the same day upon reviewing a transcript and conducting an interview.
This level of service isn’t available at every school, and not all colleges offer a full-fledged transfer center or office. But every college and university employs counselors or advisors to help students make educational plans. Be sure to seek their advice before proceeding with your transfer plans.
Reduce the bottom line
Along with reducing costs through cheaper tuition, don’t overlook the possibility of shrinking your financial commitment even further by pursuing scholarships or other aid. Some colleges offer scholarship programs targeted specifically to students who plan to transfer. At a minimum, they may allow transfer students to apply for awards available to other students.
Transfer scholarships at the University of Kentucky range from $1,500 to $4,000 yearly. In addition, 500 housing scholarships are offered to qualifying transfer students who plan to live in residence halls. Kent State, Ohio State, Marymount University, and many others also reserve scholarships just for transfer students.
Along with institutional scholarships, don’t overlook those sponsored by local, state, or national organizations. For example, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) offers $5,000 scholarships to transfer students who plan to complete a degree in Accounting or a related area of study. Other sponsors don’t restrict students to a specific field. A great example is the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides up to $40,000 per year to approximately 45 outstanding community college students pursuing a bachelor’s degree. And Phi Theta Kappa, an honor society for students attending two-year colleges, offers 10 scholarships of $7,500 and 15 scholarships of $5,000 to members who are transferring to four-year schools.
Federal financial aid programs, such as Pell Grants and work-study awards, also offer ways to reduce the bottom line. As part of your transfer planning, take the time to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If you need assistance, consult your college’s transfer counselors or financial aid staff.
Consider other options
While the two-year to four-year route is the most typical transfer option, it’s not the only one. Another approach is to start out at a four-year college that’s less expensive than the school you eventually hope to attend. This might mean staying home for a couple of years and attending a local college as a commuter student. After saving on housing costs, you could then transfer to a residential college or university to earn your bachelor’s degree.
Since most private colleges are more expensive than public, another strategy is to begin your studies at a state university or public four-year college then finish at a private institution. The difference in overall costs might bring a desired degree that would otherwise be completely out of reach. At the same time, such an approach should be followed with caution.
“It’s rare that you find agreements between four-year institutions because of the competitive nature of higher education,” Kaiser says. “Because of this, it’s riskier to transfer from one to another, due to the lack of transfer agreements.” Even after saving money at a public college, you could then lose those savings when you move to a pricier private school and find it won’t accept all your credits.
That possibility also exists with the more traditional two-year to four-year pathway. If you don’t take care in choosing the right courses, you could waste time and money. While four-year colleges and universities routinely accept credits from community colleges and other schools, that’s only part of the story. For any credits to transfer, they must meet the exact expectations of the incoming school and, in some cases, specific degree programs.
The challenge is that colleges and universities have different requirements for completing programs and earning degrees. And some courses offered by community colleges may be accepted at one four-year school but not another. Even if accepted in general terms, some courses don’t meet the specific requirements of a given academic program. For example, you could complete a course in US History at a community college only to learn that the four-year program you transfer into requires World History.
Fortunately, these kinds of problems can be avoided. By learning just what four-year schools demand then taking care in selecting first- and second-year courses, you can make sure all your credits transfer. And that’s how you bring cost savings that really make a difference.
The transfer approach may not be for everyone. But for practical-minded students, transferring can be the ideal way to pursue—and meet—your college dreams.
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