Starting Out at Community College: A Smart Choice?

General Education

Your Education Plan: Save Money with Community College

When you begin the college application process, it's important to consider one crucial question: Would starting out at a community college be a smart choice for you? While the possibility of attending a community college may not even be on your radar, don't dismiss it without considering all the facts. Students can use community college as a way to start their college education and as a path for obtaining needed skills.

A financial advantage

Starting off at a community college can be considered a financial advantage simply because the cost per credit hour is usually less than at a four-year school.

"The reason why I chose community college was due to financial issues," said Christine Tran, 20, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, Calif. "I figured, why spend thousands of dollars when you can spend hundreds for the same education>"

In California, according to, annual tuition fees for attending community college will run you about $864 compared with the $13,200 in tuition for attending a University of California school or $30,144 in tuition for attending a private university. In addition to saving on tuition and fees, most students who attend a community college live at home and commute to school, saving thousands of dollars on housing every year.

Explore new opportunities

Whether it is through traditional or online schooling, community college also gives you the opportunity to try out different majors and consider what career might be best for your future without paying top dollar.

"My major is business management," said Tran in an e-mail, "but it wasn't always. I came with intentions of pursuing botany or marine biology, but as I grew up and had more time to really analyze who I really am, and what would fit best, I realized that business management is the way to go."

Tran was also attracted to the smaller class sizes and flexible scheduling of classes that can often be found in community colleges. Students at community colleges sometimes even find options for taking evening classes, which help them to hold onto full- or part-time jobs while attending school.

Don't get stuck

Trying new courses and discovering new interests is important, but also be aware of how this can impact your education timeline.

"It is easy to get stuck in a community college and end up there for three-plus years," said Sophie Hoover, 21, who attended Santa Rosa Junior College for two years before transferring to a private college in San Francisco. "I know students who are starting their fourth year in the fall and they are still making up for the empty classes they took or because they took advice from the wrong person."

If you're planning on transferring to a four-year university, but don't have enough credits to transfer, it could extend your education (and your budget) in ways you didn't anticipate. You might also just want to use your education at a two-year school to immediately launch a career.

Plan accordingly

Due to the cuts that many states are making to their education budgets, getting into the courses you need to transfer and/or graduate can be even more difficult than before. That doesn't mean, however, that you can't make community college work for you. Hoover focused on her goal of transferring to a four-year school and planned accordingly.

"I was organized and was lucky to graduate in two years," she said. "I would suggest mapping out a list of classes you need to take semester-by-semester instead of just flying by the seat of your plants and registering for random classes."

To help you stay on top of what courses you'll need to transfer or receive an associate degree, be sure to seek out a guidance counselor who can walk you through the process. The College Board's website includes a full list of what you should be aware of if you're planning on transferring from community college to a four-year school.

What's right for you?

Community college could provide you with savings compared with starting out at a traditional four-year school, but it also requires you to be extremely motivated and organized about your education, especially if you want to transfer to a four-year school in a certain amount of time. In the end, of course, it boils down to what is right for you.

"Everyone is different and so I believe that there is no right or wrong choice; it really just depends on the person." Tran said.