TL;DR There is no perfect financial choice for everyone – no “one size fits all” regarding higher education, but going to community college might be costing you more than going to a four-year university.

To Go or Not To Go to Community College

I’m sure you’ve heard it before, “Why don’t you just go to community college? It’s way cheaper.” Some students combat this query with their desire to grow, become independent, or experience new things. Others embrace this logic as an excuse to remain within their comfort zone, or simply because they believe it’s infallibly true. I’m here to tell you it may be true, but it’s certainly not the truism most people take it to be.

In 2006, when I was getting ready to go to college, 90+% of my friends were going to community college and planning to continue taking classes there into their freshman year. My mom and I sat down and gamed out a four-year plan, taking into account my major and future plans, housing and food costs, what scholarships I would likely qualify for, and other pertinent factors. We determined that while the first year of school at a four-year school (considering all those factors) might cost just slightly more than going to community college – and for my situation,  it actually was going to be slightly cheaper to go to the four-year school – the overall cost of completing my program was far less if I went straight to university rather than stopping off at the community college for a year or two to do my general education courses.

“WHAT? YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS!” – I know that’s what some of you are thinking. But it’s ok, grab a paper bag to help with the hyperventilation and hear me out. Living at home and incurring little to no food or housing costs sounds really appealing for sure. And the tuition at the local community college is certainly less than the four-year university I was looking at, even though it was a state school and very affordable. But the thing is, I knew I wanted to be a pre-Medicine major and I knew that not all the classes I could take at the community college to “fulfill my gen eds” would be accepted by the four-year university. I figured  potentially taking courses I didn’t need and not being able to take courses I did need would, at the very least, set me back in terms of time. And being in school for five or six years (instead of four) would be costing me money in more ways than housing and tuition.

Don’t get me wrong, going to community college can be a great solution for students for a variety of reasons, whether there is a need to stay close to home, a desire to play sports at that level, an opportunity to gain college credit while still in high school, a degree that will launch you straight into a career, or a host of other particularities. The thing is, many people who say that community college is cheaper are leading into an argument that the student should start at the local community college before transferring to a four-year university to save money and the fact is, starting at community college does not automatically guarantee any saving.

How to Get a Bachelor’s Degree

The key to ferreting out whether or not community college is the right choice for you from a financial standpoint is understanding your big-picture plan. If your goal is to take a few classes for fun or to get a specific degree or certificate that will open doors to a specific career you have in mind, then yes, community college is likely a top contender for wise financial choices. However, if you are planning to transfer to a four-year institution, there are a lot of other factors to consider, for example:

  • What degree are you hoping to pursue?
  • Will the credits you are looking to take at the community college definitely transfer AND apply to that degree?
  • Are there class sequences you’ll need to take at the four-year school that have to be completed before you can take other necessary classes for your degree?
  • Are the classes you need for your bachelor’s degree only offered during certain terms?
  • What are the scholarship and grant opportunities available to you at the school where you are hoping to get your degree?
  • Are you more likely to be eligible for scholarships with or without college credit?
  • What is the threshold for the scholarships you are looking at – are they for first time freshmen? Are they open to upperclassmen?)?
  • What are the housing options?


It’s About More Than One Year

Getting your bachelor’s degree is about the whole experience, not just the first year. It’s important to really understand what going to community college might cost you in terms of time just as much as money. If you’re taking classes that won’t transfer (especially if it’s just to complete an associate’s degree that won’t get you where you want to go), then  you probably aren’t really saving that much by going to community college. Additionally (and this was how my story worked out), there are many many scholarships available to seniors in high school and entering college freshman for which you are not eligible if you have over 30 semester credit hours (that is, if you are an upperclassman, credit-wise). I ended up getting an honors-type scholarship that I was only eligible for as a freshman and that, plus the other scholarships I won as a first-time freshman student, made it much more affordable in the four years I took to earn my bachelor’s than if I had started at community college.