How much do you really save by going to community college?

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Kathryn Flynn

By Kathryn Flynn

October 30, 2018

A popular strategy to reduce college costs is to start out at a community college and eventually transfer and graduate from a 4-year college. But, transferring colleges isn’t always a smooth process, and could end up costing you more than you expect.

Community college cost savings

Students who start out at a community college will save a significant amount money on tuition and room and board costs. Based on student budgets calculated by financial aid offices, students can save as much as $30,000 or more by attending a community college instead of a private 4-year college. Students can save about 8,000 by attending a community college instead of a public 4-year in-state college. These figures may be even higher if the student lives at home while attending community college.

Average estimated undergraduate budgets 2018-19 school year


Tuition and Fees

Room and Board

Books and Supplies


Other Expenses


Community college (in-district, commuter)







Public 4-year in-state college (on-campus)








Public 4-year out-of-state college (on-campus)







Private non-profit 4-year college (on-campus)







Source: The College Board Trends in College Pricing 2017

But, those initial cost savings could put your child’s future college degree at risk. If the goal is to obtain a Bachelor’s degree, taking a detour through a community college may cause them to miss their destination. According to a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 17% of students who started at a community college in 2003-04 who had a degree goal of a Bachelor’s degree succeeded within six years, and 20.5% of those with a degree plan of a Bachelor’s degree succeeded within six years. For students who started at 4-year colleges, the figures were 62.2% and 64.5%, respectively. 

Many students who start out at a community college never even transfer to a 4-year college. Data from the American Talent Initiative reveals that 47% of students enrolled in 2-year public colleges never transfer to a 4-year college, and 15,000 of these students have a 3.7 GPA or higher.

Unexpected obstacles

When it’s time to transfer to a 4-year college, many community college students are surprised to learn that some of their credits won’t count toward their degree program. In some cases, they end up having to retake classes at the 4-year college. If additional coursework is needed, it could delay graduation and drive up costs. For example, one additional year of attending a 4-year private college can cost more than $50,000.

Community college students will also have to apply and be accepted to the 4-year college they want to attend. The average acceptance rate for transfer students is slightly lower for transfer students than for new freshman (62% versus 66%). Ivy League schools admit even fewer transfer students.

Students who start out at community college and transfer to a 4-year college may also have trouble adjusting to the increased workload and lifestyle changes at their new college. Community colleges typically have a lighter workload, and many students attend part-time while working and/or living at home with parents. At 4-year colleges, classroom expectations are higher, and most students live on campus. It can be challenging for a transfer student to make friends and find their niche as a new kid on campus. 

Also, the financial challenges that lead the student to enroll at a community college may still persist at a 4-year college. For example, students who work full-time while enrolled in college are half as likely to graduate within six years as compared with a student who works 12 hours or less a week. 

Other ways to cut college costs

College is expensive, and not every family can afford to save and pay for a 4-year college. But before you commit to a community college, explore other ways to bring down costs.

  • Save a portion of what your child earns through part-time jobs and deposit it into a 529 plan. Earnings in a 529 plan grow tax-free, and you may be eligible for an additional state income tax deduction or state tax credit for your contributions.
  • Start looking and applying for scholarships. One in eight students (12.7%, average $4,202) in Bachelor’s degree programs are using private scholarships to pay their costs.
  • Ask friends and family for 529 plan contributions in lieu of gifts for birthdays, holidays and graduation.
  • Fill out the FAFSA on October 1 the year before your child will attend college. Each year, millions of students who would have qualified for financial aid fail to complete the FAFSA.
  • If needed, take out a reasonable amount of student loans. A good rule of thumb is for your child to borrow no more than their expected starting salary for their first year out of college.

A good place to start:

See the best 529 plans, personalized for you