We found a way to shave more than $12,000 off your college bill.
And it’s as easy as 2+2.
That’s the name of the strategy in which a student spends their first two years earning an associate’s degree from a community college and then transferring to a university to complete their final two years and earning a bachelor’s degree.
Before you groan and launch into stereotypes about community college, let’s look at the numbers.
Including tuition and applicable fees, the cost per credit hour at a four-year institution is $301.23, whereas a two-year community college costs $108.10, according to a Penny Hoarder analysis of National Center for Education statistics.
So if an average bachelor’s degree requires 120 credit hours, the four-year education comes with a $36,148 price tag.
But if you complete the first 64 hours at a community college, you’ll pay $6,918 to earn an associate’s degree, then $16,869 to complete your bachelor’s degree at the four-year college for a total of $23,787.
That’s a savings of $12,361.
Considering the current American student loan debt burden tops $1.5 trillion, you might want to reconsider shelling out the cash to enjoy two extra years of cafeteria food and ultimate Frisbee tournaments.
We used our average credit hour cost analysis to calculate your savings to help you decide whether two years at community could be worth your time and money.
4 Ways to Know if a Community College Transfer Will Help You Save Money
If you recognize these four traits about yourself before you start applying to schools, you could save thousands by starting your college career closer to home.
1. You (Generally) Know What You Want to Do
You don’t need to have your 10-year career trajectory outlined, but if you have a general field of interest — fine arts vs. physics, for instance — community college can offer a good start and allow you to save money on changing majors… again.
Finding your focus at the community college level can also help you avoid excess credit hour fees, which some states charge for credit hours taken beyond the total number required to complete a degree.
To ensure your credits transfer, pick a community college that partners with the four-year school you ultimately would like to attend. You can find partner lists on the admissions websites.
And here’s the thing, If you do change your mind — whether you decide to change majors or decide higher education isn’t for you after all — it’s two years of community college costs vs. the university costs. And you have an associate degree to show for you time.
How Much Can You Save: You’d save $12,361 by discovering higher ed wasn’t for you during your first two years at the community college as opposed to four years at a university.
2. High School Wasn’t Your Best Subject
Not the star student in high school? Walking into a university’s lecture hall with 300 other freshmen for your first general education class could be daunting.
And considering an estimated 30% of college freshmen drop out after the first year, you wouldn’t be the only student to fail a class.
With their smaller class sizes, community colleges present a less intimidating introduction to collegiate coursework along more personalized instruction.
Besides helping you complete your general education requirements, an improved community college transcript can give you a second chance at getting into the four-year institution you didn’t get accepted into the first time.
Have your heart set on a school? Ask about transfer options before you apply — some universities guarantee admission if you earn an associate’s degree from one of their community college partners.
And don’t assume your past performance necessarily predicts your future success.
Community college students graduate at equal to higher rates from the 100 most selective colleges as students who enrolled directly from high school or those who transferred from other four-year institutions, according to a study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
You’ll also have additional opportunities to snag funding when you make the leap with one of these 25 transfer scholarships.
How Much Can You Save: If the average school year consists of 30 credit hours, that’s $9,037 you’d save by not dropping out after your first year.
3. Work-Study Won’t Pay the Bills
If you need to work full time while you attend school, starting locally provides a two-fer benefit.
First, a community colleges afford more flexibility because they cater to non-traditional students — and because many of the professors have day jobs besides teaching. Schedules typically include night and weekend classes.
Don’t be lulled into complacency if you can afford the first two years of community college on your own. Use that time to build savings you can draw on when you’re at the pricier university.
Second, you can use your associate degree to command higher pay at the job you take when you go on to complete your bachelor’s degree.
How Much Can You Save: By working a full-time job while completing your associate degree, you’d make $75,920 on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compare that to working 10 hours per week at minimum wage ($7.25/hour nationally) while attending the first two years at a university, which would earn you a total of $7,540. That’s a difference of $68,380 over those two years.
4. You Like Your Parents (or at Least Your Town)
This is kind of a personal question. How much do you like your parents? And perhaps just as important: How much do your parents like you?
Living at home for the first two years after high school — whether you attend a community college or a university close enough to home for a cheap commute — can help you save on rent, utilities and even food. (But please clean up after yourself. Your mom is not your maid.)
And sure, you don’t get the full “campus life” experience by foregoing your dorm years, but keep in mind the distractions — and costs — of on-campus living and meal plans add to your student loan debt.
How Much Can You Save: Even if you aren’t living at home, room-and-board estimates for a commuter college are $8,660, compared to $11,140 at a public university, as reported in the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges. So staying close to home would save you $4,960 over two years.
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Data journalist Alex Mahadevan contributed to this story.