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In the face of rising tuition costs, more students are opting to attend their local community college to get an associate’s degree or take their core classes at a cheaper price and then transfer to a private or public university for a full bachelor’s degree.

Approximately 40% of U.S. undergraduate students attend community colleges, and students who are 18 to 24 years old make up the largest age group, according to a study by the College Board.

“The reason so many students come to us is because they offer a wide variety of programs, and they’re generally friendly institutions where you have small classes and that helps kids learn better,” says Norma Kent, senior vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Community college can be a good choice for students unsure of their degree path and wanting to experience several different types of courses at a lower price tag before making a decision, says David Mammano, founder and CEO of NextStepU.

“Many offer school-to-career options and are also great options for adult students, [with] night classes and specific career and training paths,” he says.

The typical cost of attending a community college will run you about $2,700 per year, explains Kent, significantly less than tuition at any public or private university.

“Let’s say you want a degree from a big name, pricey four-year college--why not start at a community college and then finish the degree at the big name college?  You still get the big name on your diploma while saving a ton of money,” says Mammano.

Relationship with Four-Year Universities

Many community colleges have agreements with traditional four-year universities that detail what is required of transfer students, making it easier for students to smoothly transition into a higher degree program. 

Many universities have an articulation agreement established with the local community colleges, stating that certain community college courses meet the requirements of the four-year university.

At some schools, transfer admission guarantee, or TAG deals, are created to help facilitate students moving to a higher degree program, says Walter Robinson, assistant vice chancellor of undergraduate admissions at UC Davis, which has a relationship with the Los Rios Community College District.

“The UC Davis-specific TAG gives students a formal, written agreement assuring fall admission to UC Davis in their desired major, one year in advance of their enrollment,” says Robinson. “The approved contract guarantees admission as long as the student meets the terms of his or her contract and applies for admission during the UC application filing.”

Mammano says the perception of the strength of an education at a community college has evolved over the last decade.

“Community colleges are now serious contenders when it comes to educational quality,” he says. “Many community colleges train their students in very specific career paths, which [can] translate to immediate jobs.”

Although community colleges are now more respected in the education community, Kent points out that many of the associate degrees/certificates offered at community colleges tend to be in more technical fields rather than a degree that will require additional school.

For students attending community college as a starting point in their collegiate careers, the experts say that they need to be constantly communicating with an academic advisor about their goals and transfer capabilities—to make sure all courses will qualify to transfer and no money and time goes wasted.

Mammano also advises students verify their financial aid package transfers, and to keep looking for new grants and scholarships during the transition.

Many community colleges have dedicated staff to assist transfer students. At UC Davis, transfer students will receive ongoing advising and evaluation from an admission professional so that there is no confusion, according to Robinson.

“Transfer students have access to our Transfer Reentry Veterans Center (TRV), where they receive orientation programs, academic peer advising, computer access and study space, social networking and information about transfer-specific scholarship programs,” he says. “They can also receive referrals for services through a group of staff working in student service programs across campus who are knowledgeable about transfer needs and resources.”