Let’s play a quick game of “Would You Rather?” – A.) graduate high school and go to a four-year university, live in a dorm, and meet a ton of new people for the best years of your life (but potentially go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to do it)? Or B.) stay at home and commute to classes at community college (with little to no debt to show for it)?
This was the choice I was left with as high school graduation approached. Looking at $25,000 to $30,000 a year for my pick of schools made me feel sick, but everyone was doing it, so why shouldn’t I? What other option did I have? I could drain my life savings, take out enough loans to go to my dream school, and spend the next decade or two of my life paying it back, or I could go the cheap route and knock the first two years out at community college. But that was for high school dropouts and people dealing with mid-life crises. (I’ve learned otherwise. But let’s be real, that’s what most people think.)
Fast forward two years. I’ve earned my associate degree, transferred to a full-fledged university to finish out my bachelor’s, and I don’t owe a dime in student loans. Going to community college was the smartest choice I could’ve made. Here’s why:
1. It’s cheap.
Or at least cheaper. According to College Board, you’ll pay an average of $3,440 a year for tuition and fees at a public, in-state two-year college. Go to a public, in-state four-year school, and the average cost nearly triples to $9,410 per year. Thinking about going out-of-state? You’re looking at $23,890/year. And private four-year schools come in at an average yearly cost of $32,410. And remember, this is just tuition. Overwhelmed yet?
In two years, I spent roughly $6,000 on tuition, books, and other fees at community college. That wouldn’t have even covered half of my yearly tuition at the other schools I was looking at. Not too shabby.
2. English 101 is English 101 no matter where you take it.
Yes, many community college instructors come equipped with master’s degrees rather than PhDs, but many universities use graduate students to teach their entry level gen-ed courses, so it’s not like you’re missing out on some secret knowledge that can only be imparted to you by those with doctorates.
The first two years of college can feel like high school all over again. You’re stuck taking boring general ed classes that are required to complete your degree. Again, why spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to take the same basic classes you could take at a two-year school for a fraction of the price?
3. The classes are smaller.
At community college, I was never in a class that had more than 25 students in it. At a typical university, lecture halls filled with 100 or more students aren’t uncommon. My instructors knew my name. How many freshman or sophomores at a four-year institution can say the same?
4. You can learn from other people’s mistakes.
I’ve watched friends, relatives, and former classmates get in over their heads in loans, transfer schools when their dream school wasn’t as perfect as they thought it would be, or change their mind and switch majors only to have wasted time and money taking classes they didn’t need.
Spending the first two years at community college gives you a chance to sit back, knock out your required classes, save some money, and figure out what you really want to do after you earn that associate.
5. You’re not living in a bubble, so you’ll learn how to adapt quickly.
When you’re not living in a dorm filled with people the same age and at the same stage in life, you’ll get accustomed to the real world real quick.
Community college forced me to get a handle on time and money management early on. My entire world didn’t exist in a few-mile radius, which meant I had to figure out how to balance work, school, and a personal life all on my own. And without loans automatically covering everything for me, it was on me to budget for tuition, books, and all of those pesky real world expenses that can suddenly come up.
Here’s another kicker: the average cost of living on campus is $10,440 a year at four-year public schools, and $11,890 a year at private schools. Compare that to the average cost of commuting to community college from home ($588/year), and there’s another $10,000 to $11,000, roughly, that you could be saving.
6. You’ll have a leg up.
With all the money I saved by staying home and going to a more affordable school, I was able to get through my first two years of college with a grand total of $0 in student loan debt. Plus, without the stress of thousands of dollars in loans hanging over my head, I was also able to work part-time (and, later on, full-time) and save up enough money to pay for the remainder of my bachelor’s degree at an in-state university.
Even if you have to take out a few small loans to get to the finish line, you’ll still have significantly less debt than most people who went the traditional route and amassed four (or more) years’ worth of tuition and fees. Not only does that mean peace of mind for you – and your bank account - but you’ll be able to start saving sooner in life. If that’s not a win-win, I don’t know what is.