Don’t go straight into university. Start with community college! It’s cheaper… right?
It’s an unfortunate fact that these days college can leave you penniless. Any college. Even community college. But the good news is, by simply breaking down the 5 most expensive community college myths, you can easily avoid inspiring the U.S. Department of Education to break down your door and steal your firstborn as payment on defaulted student loans.*
So let’s talk about that.
MYTH #1: Community college is just a stepping stone to university.
The primary product community college delivers is an associate degree. While an associate may not be as handsome or as popular as its older brother, the bachelor’s, it is a heck of a lot cheaper. And believe it or not, there are many roles (especially in the world of healthcare) which allow this little degree to step out of its brother’s shadow and finally be the best at something.
Associates are very often practical, hands-on degrees which teach students specialized skills for specific trades (often skipping much of the dreamy liberal arts foundation that helps the bachelor’s get all the girls). Radiology techs, dental techs, nurses, physical therapy assistants—each of these roles are highly technical fields, requiring a specialized education for entry. The best way to get that education? Community college.
“But…” you say, “don’t bachelor’s degrees earn more money?”
Let’s put it this way: in 2017, radiation therapists made $80,570. Dental hygienists made $74,070. Nuclear technicians walked away with $80,370. Each of these fields requires no more than an associate for entry. Compare this with your average high school teacher’s salary and tell me if bachelor’s degrees inherently earn more than associates.
While a bachelor’s might get more dates than his less glamorous brother, employers don’t pay you for a degree. They pay you for a job. If income is what you’re concerned with, then whether you use community college as a stepping stone to your bachelor’s or as a stop all its own depends on nothing more than what type of work you want to do.
MYTH #2: My community college credits will transfer into my 4-year school.
On average, only 33% of all community college credits transfer to a student’s chosen college. And as of 2014, nearly 40% of transfer students lost all of their community college credits upon transfer. Two years of college wasted.
Why did this happen? Partly because many of those students never actually told their universities they’d taken transfer credit (that’s a dumb mistake, and entirely on them), and partly because you can’t transfer just any associate degree into any bachelor’s degree program. It doesn’t work that way. Yes, even if they share a name.
College degrees are like retainers. Each one is custom made to fit a particular college’s teeth—er—classes. You wouldn’t be able to steal your best friend’s retainer and expect it to perfectly fit your teeth. (That would just be gross anyway.) Likewise, you can’t just pick a random community college and expect all those classes to fit into a random bachelor’s degree at another college. No two colleges have the exact same requirements.
MYTH #3: Starting at community college is a good idea if I don’t know what to do yet.
Fact: it is always, ALWAYS better to start college with the end in mind. Period.
Did you read that last point about transfer credit? If you don’t know why you’re going or what you want, how do you expect those community college courses (which aren’t exactly cheap, by the way) to do you any good at all? Spoiler: they won’t.
There are very few exceptions to this rule. Say you find a community college which has a general education transfer agreement with the university you want to attend, or you’re just trying to decide between an English Lit and a Creative Writing degree. Maybe then, “not knowing what you want” is okay. But even in these cases, you still have an idea about where you’re headed and why. Ideally, you’ve already picked a university to transfer to and are taking community college courses you know will work toward your degree options there.
But if you don’t know what you want to do with your life at all? For heaven’s sake, don’t enroll in college! Do something else. Anything else! Work. Intern. Volunteer. Start a business. Join the Peace Corps. Try things. Do things. Figure out what you like. Figure out what you want. Figure out if you even need college to get to where you want to go. Then go to college.
If you do it the other way around, you’ll probably just end up wasting your time and money.
MYTH #4: Community college is the cheapest way to earn college credit.
Community college is cheaper than university, yes, but it’s not the cheapest. In fact, if you take into account the potential money wasted on lost transfer credit, you could even make an argument for it being darn expensive.
The cheapest forms of widely-accepted credit I know of are CLEP exams and DSSTs. These are competency-based exams, meaning you’re earning credit based on what you already know—usually learned through self-study. These bad boys cost about $100 a pop. If you include the study book and testing fee, it comes to a grand total of $150. Or $50 a credit.
That is cheap credit. But it still isn’t the only solution!
Another incredibly affordable option is self-paced online courses, like the ones Unbound has to offer. $5,400 will get you 8 online courses ($225 a credit) which are guaranteed to transfer into the school of your choice. This is comparable to what you would end up spending on the same courses from a community college once you add up tuition, books, and fees. Only through Unbound, you get perks like the ability to set your own schedule (meaning you can realistically work alongside school), top-tier college advising, and a personal success coach to help you reach your goals.
Community college is definitely one way to earn affordable credit. But not the only one.
MYTH #5: My community college will be able to advise me on the best college path.
I hate to break it to you, but community college “advisors” don’t advise; they give you what you ask for. That’s their job.
One of our Unbound students, Sarah, walked into Houston Community College (her local school) and told them she wanted a business degree. They very helpfully set her on track to earn an associate of science in business—the strongest credential they offered. However, when it came time to enroll in the University of Houston to continue for her bachelor’s, she was told she would lose nearly half of her community college credits.
Because the 2-year degree her community college offered didn’t line up with the 4-year degree she wanted. The HCC advisor didn’t know she wanted to earn the bachelor’s of business, and they didn’t ask. Their job was to hand her what she asked for, so that’s what they did.
If you’re hoping to use community college to earn your bachelor’s degree, don’t start the conversation at the community college. Start it at the university you want to transfer into. And be blunt: “I want to earn your B.S. in business, but can’t afford your school yet. Will the associate in business from HCC transfer into this program?” That’s what Sarah should have done.
(Fortunately, Sarah’s story does have a happy ending. After receiving her dreadful news, she met with an advisor at Unbound. Our advisors work very differently than your traditional college advisor, taking the time to fully understand what your end goals are beyond college and helping you find the best educational path to reach them. We were able to help Sarah find a slightly different degree at the University of Houston which would enable her to reach her career goals without losing any credit. Thank goodness for Unbound advisors!)
So, after ruthlessly crushing the 5 most expensive community college myths, the obvious question now remains: “should I go to community college?”
If you know what you want to do—and what you want to do is enter a technical field that requires an associate degree—the answer is almost certainly yes.
For everyone else, it’s a solid maybe. Take the time to figure out not only what degree you want, but also what university you want to earn it from and whether your chosen community college and university have a good transfer agreement. If they do, community college might be a great choice for you.
But let’s face it, doing that research yourself isn’t easy. And since you don’t speak college-ese, you’re likely going to miss something (or a lot of somethings) in the process, leaving you crying over dropped credits.
My honest advice: talk to an advisor at Unbound. Whichever path you choose, they can help you work through your options and understand (in detail) what each one will end up costing you, and whether it will help you get to your goals. Because that is what’s most important here.
*I’ll admit, I haven’t fact-checked this particular theory, so take it with a grain of salt.
A former student counselor and Unbound student, Abigail is passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not dreaming with her friends, you can find her reading or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.Read more by Abigail