Two-Year Colleges Reduce Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree

Having a good time at a four-year campus college is easy – paying for it is the hard part.

In 2012-2013, the average full-time undergraduate paid $29,056 in tuition and fees at a four-year private, non-profit institution, an increase of 27% over the past decade and 167% over the past 30 years, according to a report by the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center. Thanks to the steep rise in tuition prices, almost 39 million Americans share over $1 trillion in outstanding student loans, according to Federal Reserve data. Meanwhile, two-thirds of college seniors who graduated in 2011 had student loan debt, with the average borrower owing $26,600, according to the Institute for College Access & Success’ Project on Student Debt.

Faced with the high price tag that comes with earning a bachelor’s degree at a four-year residential college, parents and students are looking into avenues for minimizing college costs. One money-saving strategy you might want to consider is attending a community or technical college for two years and then transferring to a four-year school.

In a guest column on Huffington Post, outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban supported the idea of students taking an alternative route, such as attending a two-year college or earning credits via online courses, to combat the overpriced cost of a traditional four-year college education. “For the smart student who cares about getting their money’s worth from college, the days of one school for four years are over,” Cuban wrote.

Cuban believes prospective students should create a plan for getting a college education without succumbing to the temptation of easy-to-get loans. For some students, the solution might be to attend a local school and continue to live at home, whereby they can avoid the costly room and board of a four-year university. “Go there for your first 2 years,” the business mogul tells U.S. News & World Report. “Take freshman and sophomore classes, figure out what you want to major in if you don’t already know, or confirm your major; then decide if you want to stay local or [go] to a cost-effective school that excels in your major.”

So how much could a student potentially save by starting at a two-year college? In 2012-13, the typical public two-year college cost $3,130 a year in tuition and fees, according to a 2012 study by the College Board,  while the average private 4-year college costs around $39,000 a year for tuition, room and board. This means the average student would save $72,000 by going to a community college for the first two years of their bachelor’s degree. If you started at an in-state public college, where tuition and fees averaged $8,655 for the 2012-13 school year, before transferring after two years to a private university, your savings would be around $60,000.

Based on the tuition costs, attending a two-year school for the first part of your college education can drastically lower the price of earning a bachelor’s degree. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential risks and drawbacks to pursuing a transfer strategy. Adjusting to a new college community can prove challenging, especially when many of the other students have already formed friendships. It may take a little while to figure out where you belong socially, not to mention you have to leave the friends you made during your freshman and sophomore year. As a transfer student, you might also have to deal with relocation costs. Finally, not all colleges will accept the credits you earned at a two-year college, or will only accept a portion of them.

If you do choose to start at a two-year school, it’s critical to keep in mind that most traditional four-year schools – public and private  – are regionally accredited and will only accept credits from other regionally accredited schools that share their focus on academics, as opposed to credits gained at a nationally accredited school where the focus is on career training. For this reason, you will have a much easier time transferring credits from a community college, because they are regionally accredited, than from many for-profit or vocational schools, which may only offer national accreditation.

To make sure that you don’t end up wasting time collecting credits at a two-year college that won’t count towards the requirements at a four-year school, you are better off choosing a two-year college that has established a reputation for transfer programs. You should also find out the four-year colleges with which they have articulation agreements (which ensures a smooth transfer process between the two schools). The site has put together a partial state-by-state guide of four-year colleges that have articulation agreements with community colleges.

And while only one in five community-college students transfer to a four-year college, according to a 2012 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, those who do have respectable graduation rates — 60% of transfer students earned a bachelor’s degree within four years of transferring, and 71% of students who transferred after completing an associate degree earned a bachelor’s degree within four years of taking the leap.

If you’ve done your research and confirmed that your target transfer university will accept your credits, starting at a two-year college could be a smart way to lessen the financial burden of graduating with a bachelor’s degree. What’s more, most employers are only interested in where you graduated, meaning that if you start out at a two-year public college you can still enjoy the same benefits of somebody who went to your college for all four years – just with less debt to your name.


The College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, Trends in College Pricing 2012.

Federal Reserve Bank on New York, Student Loan Debt by Age Group, March 29, 2013.

The Institute for College Access & Success’ Project on Student Debt, Student Debt and the Class of 2011, October 2012.

Huffington Post, Will Your College Go Out of Business Before You Graduate?, January 26, 2013.

U.S. News & World Report, Mark Cuban: College Is a Business Decision, May 16, 2012.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Transfer & Mobility: A National View of Pre-Degree Student Movement in Postsecondary Institutions, February 2012.

CourseAdvisor, Transferring Credits Between Colleges., College Partnerships and Articulation Programs.

New York Times, Six Keys to Saving by Starting at Community College, Apr. 2011.

CNN, Save $50,000: Go to a Public College First, Mar. 2011.