Pay Less for College? Sure, if…

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Editor’s note: A version of post was first published on Counselors’ Corner.

Spring is a season of mixed emotions for school counselors. As students come in to share the exciting news of college acceptances and generous scholarships, an equal number of families come in with questions that are harder to answer:

“What more were they looking for?”

“Don’t they know this isn’t enough to cover my needs?”

“Why does college cost so much?”

It turns out this last question has a pretty clear answer—it’s complicated, but it’s clear.

“It doesn’t have to cost this much, if you start at a community college and transfer.”

Nearly every community college costs less than a four-year institution, especially since most community college students live at home. Students who do well at many community colleges can become members of Phi Theta Kappa, the community college honor society, which qualifies them for transfer scholarships reserved for PTK students at many four-year colleges. Finally, while it isn’t true for every four-year college, there are a good number of colleges where transfer students are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who have attended the college right out of high school.

You spend less money, you get more money, and you’re more likely to finish. What can go wrong?

Actually, quite a bit. While the path from community college to a four-year degree sounds simple, only about one in seven community college students complete that path in six years. It’s hard to say how many of these same students would finish if they had started at a four-year school, but you get the idea. If we’re going to encourage students to consider starting at a community college, we need to make sure they are armed with information, and a plan.

Talk to your advisers. Yes, that’s plural. The biggest challenge community college transfer students face is remembering that their goal is to graduate from a four-year college, not from community college. If you end up taking classes that don’t count toward your bachelor’s degree, you’re wasting the time and money you had hoped community college would save you.

That’s why it’s important to stay in touch with the transfer adviser of the four-year college you’re headed to. Even if you don’t know what your major will be, this adviser can give you the best advice about which courses you should take and when. Community colleges have transfer agreements with some four-year schools, but those aren’t always enforced; that’s why it’s best to hear what the four-year adviser says. You also meet with a community college adviser to make sure you’re taking a course load you can handle, and you’re meeting all other college requirements.

Don’t work too much. Several studies indicate students at all college levels are less likely to complete their studies the more they work—and once work time gets to more than 20 hours a week, the failure rate is alarming. Yes, they need money to live on, but if the goal is college completion, making more money can come at the expense of paying for classes they won’t complete.

Improve transfer transparency. Most community college credits will transfer, but too many transfer as elective credits—and students don’t need many of those at four-year colleges. What we need is a smartphone app where a student types in their community college’s name; the four-year college’s name they’re heading to, and the degree they want to earn. This app would then generate a list of every class this student should take that’s guaranteed to apply to that degree.

Imagine what that would do for all of us.

NACAC Past President Patrick O’Connor is associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools (MI). He has served as president of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling and is the author of two books — College Counseling for School Counselors: Delivering Quality, Personalized College Advice to Every Student on Your (Sometimes Huge) Caseload and College is Yours 2.0: Preparing, Applying, and Paying for Colleges Perfect for You. You can read more from O’Connor’s on The Huffington Post and Counselors’ Corner blog.

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