Tradeoffs of Enrolling in a 2-Year College to Save on Tuition

Community colleges are an inexpensive option if a student is interested in earning an Associate’s degree or certificate. But, if the student’s ultimate goal is to earn a Bachelor’s degree, taking a detour through a 2-year college to save money may ultimately cause the student to miss his or her destination.

Enrolling at a community college for two years and transferring to a 4-year public college can save the student $10,000 or more. Based on the 2011-2012 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), the average net price of a public 2-year college is $7,071, compared with $14,296 at a public 4-year college and $23,001 at a private non-profit 4-year college. The average potential savings from enrolling for two years in a community college is illustrated in this table.

Savings from Enrolling in a Community College Compared with 4-Year Public College Compared with 4-Year Non-Profit College
Dollar Savings $14,450 $31,860
Percentage Savings 25% 35%

However, most of the students who enroll in a community college will not succeed in eventually obtaining a Bachelor’s degree. Of the students who start off at a 2-year college intending to obtain a Bachelor’s degree, only about a fifth will graduate with a Bachelor’s degree within six years. This compares with about two-thirds of students who start off at a 4-year college.

This table is based on the 2009 follow-up to the 2003-04 Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study (BPS:04/09). It shows the percentage of students who intended to obtain a Bachelor’s degree who succeeded in attaining a Bachelor’s degree within six years.

Initial Type of College 6-Year Bachelor's Degree Attainment
2-Year College 20.0%
   Community College 20.5%
4-Year College 64.5%
   Public 4-Year College 63.5%
   Private Non-Profit 4-Year College 70.6%

The reasons for the disadvantage in Bachelor’s degree attainment are unclear. However, some hypotheses include:

    Articulation Agreement: An articulation agreement specifies whether and how course credit earned at one college or university will transfer to another college or university.
  • Articulation agreements prevent credits from transferring or credits from one college to another are often counted for general education requirements but not degree-specific requirements.
  • Academic degree plans are derailed by enrolling in an environment where most students are not planning on pursuing more advanced education.
  • The financial difficulties that may have forced the students to enroll in a 2-year college persist two years later when the student seeks to transfer to a 4-year college.
  • Financial aid for transfer students is more limited than financial aid for returning undergraduate students.
  • The student may not be able to relocate to the 4-year college to continue his or her education.

As an alternative to starting off at a community college, it may be better to start off at a 4-year college and seek other methods of cutting tuition. For example, the student could take a heavier course load during the academic year or take classes during the summer session. The student might even be able to take classes at the community college during the summer, after verifying in writing with the 4-year college’s registrar that the credits will transfer.