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Attending Community College Saves Thousands

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November is the month that many high school seniors are thinking about what they’ll do after graduation, applying for college, and collecting information to complete the Financial Application for Federal Student Aid that’s due January 1. This month, my column will be devoted to answering personal finance questions related to families with high school seniors.

There are several options available to students looking to attend college: trade schools, community colleges, and public or private 4-year universities. Like all things in life, there are wonderful aspects and challenging aspects to each option. When thinking about the return on investment (ROI) of college education, few options compare to attending a community college and then transferring to complete a bachelor’s degree.

13th Grade
In many ways, attending a community college is more challenging than attending a 4-year college. When a student chooses to attend a community college they usually choose one that is close to home. I have heard students refer to community college as “13th grade” because so many of their high school friends have chosen to attend the same community college. Talk about distractions. So many students have been told that they have to attend college if they want to “be somebody” that they automatically enroll in college with no thought to why they are attending. Those students can distract other students from focusing on the goal of community college: graduating.

This is not an issue limited to community college students, but we have all heard people say that community college isn’t “real” college so students don’t have to study. I have attended community colleges and two 4-year universities, for undergrad and grad school, and the social distractions I faced at community college were more emphasized at the community colleges. My hat is off to anyone that has graduated from a community college, especially with all those distractions.

There is also a perception that community colleges are less rigorous than 4-year colleges. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most college professors are not tenured, so they are constantly searching for colleges at which to teach. Most of my professors at community college also taught at local universities. The classes I took at my community colleges helped me become a well-rounded person. My professors were dedicated, professional, and well-educated. Some of the classes were tougher than ones that I had at 4-year colleges.

If you have a moment, check out the professors at your local community college. You’ll find that many are published authors, have extensive experience in their respective fields, and are dedicated to helping students move on in their academic careers.

Can you believe that you get all those good things with such a low sticker-price? In 2008, MSN Money put the yearly cost at a community college at $2360 per year and rates haven’t risen dramatically since then. Regardless which college you attend, every student will take foundation classes like English, math, arts, etc. Students don’t take upper-division courses until Junior and Senior year. Saving a few dollars on tuition now can help parents squirrel away more money for tuition at that private university your student wants to attend, sock away some cash for an international trip after the student earns their bachelor’s degree, or help the student purchase a home to start creating a foundation for wealth. The bachelor’s degree that will hang on the wall will not have an asterisk that denotes that the student started a community college.

Taking out a bunch of student loans is not the best way to pay for college. As we’re seeing, college costs may not be as good of an “investment” as they have been in the past. Of course scholarships and grants can help, but choosing a less costly option can help you save all your scholarship-seeking strength for those upper division years at that college with the great name.

Earning an associate’s degree before transferring to earn a bachelor’s degree takes having a strategy and working to make that plan come to fruition. Look at the bigger picture: you want your student to earn a degree that will potentially bring them a lifetime earnings that is double a high school graduate. You want them to have a well-rounded education that will place them in the right circles allowing them to network with people that can help them get where they want to be. You want them to build wealth by leveraging their education. All those things can be achieved by creating an educational plan (does the student want a B.A.?, B.S.? M.A.? M.B.A.? M.F.A.? Ph.D.? M.D.?), choosing a community college that will create a strong foundation, using available funds efficiently (maybe you can encourage your student to do an internship or volunteer instead of working), and supporting your student emotionally, physically, and financially.

Choosing a college is a huge decision and many times money does play a part. Make sure that you’re choosing a college that provides what you need at a cost that won’t leave you mad enough to go down to the Occupy Wall Street encampments.

Shay Olivarria is the most dynamic financial education speaker working today. She has written three books on personal finance, including “10 Things College Students Need to Know About Money”. She's been quoted on Bankrate.com, FoxBusiness.com, and The Credit Union Times, among others. To schedule Shay to speak at your event or to find out more about her work, visit her at www.BiggerThanYourBlock.com.

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