Community College vs. a Four-Year University

February 28, 2013

This spring, my youngest sister will graduate high school. When she goes to college, she wants to eventually study pharmacology. That could mean four years of graduate study after she gets her bachelor’s degree. She’s worried about how much this will cost, and she would like to avoid taking on more debt than she needs to.

For that reason, she has enrolled in classes at Front Range Community College, which are certainly much cheaper than any four-year university in the area. I did not choose to do this for my first two years of college, although my parents tried to convince to go to FRCC as well. After I describe the general financial differences between four-year universities and community colleges, I’ll describe why I chose to attend CU for my entire college career.

My sister is financially savvy to take classes at FRCC instead of at nearby CU. The former costs $112.75 per credit hour, while the latter would run her $268.53. Over two years, and 60 credit-hours of classes, my sister would pay $6765 if she went to a community college and lived with my parents. CU requires that freshmen live on campus except in extenuating circumstances. That’s an extra $11,730 on top of the higher tuition rates, which means the first two years for an average student at CU will cost $27841.8. So an equivalent two-year education at CU would cost my sister over $20,000 more than at the local community college.

If you're a parent of a college student, you've probably noticed that tuition rates are drastically higher than when you went to school. The cost of college has risen so much faster than inflation that nearly all students need help paying for their education -- be it through loans, scholarships, or parental assistance.

The days of working part-time through the school year and full-time in the summer to pay tuition are long gone.

I think it's great that so many parents start saving early, and help in any way they can. But you can also make it easier on yourself by encouraging your children to attend community colleges, or stay in-state.

I've heard of many parents near retirement who almost go bankrupt because their children want to attend that far-away "top-school.” Know how much you're willing to spend, and share that information with your child. If your child is bent on going to an out-of-state school simply for the social experience, let them know that you won't (or can't) pay for all of it. I don't see a good reason for parents and children to ruin their financial futures at the same time.

With that said, there are benefits to going to the same school for four years. My sister is smart to go to FRCC and save a big pile of cash, I won't deny that. However, I bunked in the dorms and racked up a pretty big bill, and I don’t regret doing so. In my case, the social benefits of living on campus outweighed the financial cost I incurred. I’m still paying those loans, but that’s worth the friends I made during that time. Of course, my sister will likely meet plenty of people in her classes, but the social life of the community college student is much different than the four-year university student, from my own experience.

In high school, I took a math class at FRCC, and nobody seemed to make friends during the class. I never heard anyone getting together to do homework together, or just to hang out. Most students would drive to class from work, and head home right after. No one loitered and chatted like you can when you live on campus. I believe this is because the community college population is different from CU’s in one important aspect: most of them have jobs already, and take classes to further that career or get into something else.

In a four-year university, the students aren’t immediately concerned with getting a good job. They wait until the end of their college career, and spend time building their social contacts (to put it euphemistically!).

But most importantly, the first two years I spent at CU were a time of drastic social change. I lost contact with almost all of my high school friends, but that wasn’t a big deal because everyone else around me was in the same situation. Now that I am moving closer to a career, I’ve noticed how important this period of social renewal was for me.

Adults are rarely put into a situation where no one knows anyone else, and everyone has to make friends all over again. We usually join a workplace with established social cliques, if there are any in the first place. I might sound too wistful when I say this, but I find that most people aren’t “hiring new friends” now. The groups we built at the beginning of college have solidified – and I worry that my sister will arrive at a four-year school too late to be assimilated.

I may be worrying unnecessarily about my younger sister, and projecting my own experience onto her. For all I know, she’ll fit right in at whichever four-year college she ends up going to. In that case, I don’t see a downside to her plan. She’ll save money, and still have a great social network. But if anyone wants to start “fresh” after high school, I heartily recommend starting with the four-year school and living on campus.

What do you think? Is it worth it to rack up the extra debt in exchange for a better social situation? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Matt Reichenbach is a graduate of CU Boulder, where he earned his B.A. in mathematics. He writes the CU MoneySense blog.

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