To slash tuition, start at community college

Students seeking bachelor's degrees can save an estimated $25,000 to $58,000 over four years

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College costs, which became more expensive for many with federal budget cuts enacted this year, have forced more high school students and their parents to consider community college as an economical starting point for a four-year degree.

From a value standpoint, it could be a smart spending decision.

Thinking about college costs became more important in light of the $12.7 billion slashed from the student loan programs in recent federal budget legislation. Federal loans will carry higher interest rates, adding thousands of dollars to the cost of college for many students, according to estimates.

That's why students who intend to pursue a four-year bachelor's degree should consider completing their introductory coursework at a two-year school. And one of the best values for completing the first two years is a community college, said Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

"Community colleges are a hot issue right now," Bailey said.

Students can then transfer to a four-year school as a junior and graduate with a bachelor's degree.

Using total-expense statistics for the 2005-2006 school year from the College Board and multiplied by four years, here is a breakdown of the choices: private college, $128,000; two-year school, then private college, $70,000; public college, $62,000; two-year school, then finishing at a four-year public college, $37,000.

That two-year/two-year plan nets out to a $58,000 savings for private school and $25,000 savings for public school. Granted, the savings exclude the additional cost of food for a commuter living at home for the first two years and the costs of commuting. But those huge savings more than cover two years of food and gas money.

Here are nine financial reasons to consider attending a community college for the first two years of a four-year program:

You're already paying for it. On average, 70 percent of community college expenses are covered by taxes, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Two years at half price. Tuition and fees at public community colleges average less than half of those at public four-year colleges and about a tenth of those at independent four-year colleges.

Results are good. Studies show that students who spend their first two years at a community college and then go on to graduate from four-year colleges are as well prepared academically as those who go directly to four-year colleges, according to the College Board. Research also shows students who take the community college route don't make any less money after they graduate. "Students who start in community college, once they have transferred, do well," Bailey said. "They do as well as students who start in a four-year college."

Favorable teaching conditions. Community college students learn in relatively small classes from instructors whose primary responsibility is teaching, not research. "Community colleges don't have 400-person intro-to-economics courses," Bailey said. Many teachers have extensive "real-world" experience in their subject areas. And the average student-teacher contact time is higher at community colleges.

The stigma has faded. Negative stereotypes about community colleges from previous generations have changed in many ways. Some notable community-college attendees include U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, 35 members of Congress, actor Dustin Hoffman, journalist Jim Lehrer and a host of corporate chief executives. Still not convinced? Then consider that in using the two-year/two-year plan, a bachelor's degree is issued by the four-year college. The diploma doesn't mention being a "transfer student."

Live cheaply at home. The community-college route not only has lower tuition and fees, but it avoids the expensive cost of housing and food at a four-year school. The cost of room and board would be basically groceries and costs to commute, compared with about $6,600 per year for room and board at a state school in the current school year and $7,800 annually for a private university, according to the College Board.

Ability to work. Community college course schedules are flexible, which might help students work their way through school.

Exploration. Many 18-year-olds don't know exactly what career path they want to pursue or whether college is right for them at all. Exploring their career choices is a lot cheaper at community-college rates.

Lower student loan bills. Many graduates of four-year schools are saddled with enormous student loans - typically about $20,000 - that will burden them for years after graduation, affecting what houses and cars they can afford, for example. Lower college costs allow students to dig out of that hole more quickly.

Gregory Karp writes for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.

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