Studies show that despite transfer credit losses, attending community college for two years can ultimately help students save.
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Many students who want to save money on their bachelor’s degree attend community college for their first two years, but a recent paper by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College says that budgeting it isn’t always that simple.

“Credits cost less at community college,” wrote the authors of the paper. “But if these credits do not transfer, or if the student takes an inefficient pathway through college, that total cost may be greater.”

Why is it so hard to transfer the right credits?

Transferring is complicated because of two main issues: the clarity of schools’ degree requirements and the flexibility of their transfer credit agreements.

The first part of the problem is that students are unable to find the most efficient path toward graduation. Students entering community colleges often don’t know what major to pursue, or which school they plan on transferring to, resulting in them taking excess credits.

The CCRC paper cites a study that shows many community colleges are structured in a way that encourages students to take excess credits beyond or outside of their requirements, ultimately wasting students’ time and money.

This inconvenience is furthered by the complications that come from transferring credits.

Though many two-year colleges have articulation agreements with four-year colleges, they vary by state, and students are often unaware of them. Though some students know about articulation agreements, studies show that these agreements can be complicated and incredibly difficult to understand.

Research has also identified credit transfer loss as a significant burden for community college students. Only 58 percent of transfers are able to bring 90 percent or more of their credits with them, and one in seven students is unable to transfer any of their credits, leaving 15 percent of students with no choice but to restart their bachelor’s degrees.

How much does community college really save?

The CRCC compared whether pursuing a four-year degree or transferring from a two-year school is more affordable through data from two unidentified states.

The first state they used has moderately strong links and agreements between two-year and four-year colleges, while the second state has weaker links and articulation agreements in place.

The CCRC found that in the first state, it was significantly cheaper to attend community college for two years, with tuition and fees totaling $29,880 per degree. Ultimately, students who started at four-year schools in this state ended up paying an extra 17 percent for their degrees.

In the second state, with trickier credit evaluation rules, there was an insignificant difference in cost, leaving the researchers to assume that it is reasonable for students in this state to attend two-year or four-year colleges.


Though it depends on the efficiency, or lack thereof, of a student’s path, it is usually less expensive to start a four-year degree at a community college.

Despite transfer credit losses, the paper maintains that it is often more economical to attend a two-year college first, especially in states that have strong connections between two-year and four-year schools.

Ultimately, students would save the most money if colleges made their processes more transparent. If two-year and four-year colleges offered clear articulation agreements and requirements, students would be able to cut down the time and money they spend at each institution.

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Posted 05.24.2017 - 03:28 pm EDT