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.

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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.