Community college can be a major cost saver for students. But it can also be an expensive endeavor for students and taxpayers alike if those enrolled don't complete their degrees.
In every year from 2004 to 2009, about one fifth of all full-time community college students dropped out after the first year, according to an October 2011 study by the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit organization. The federal, state, and local governments spent about $4 billion on the incomplete degrees, and those students likely wasted their own time and money, too. (Only 1 percent of first-year dropouts went on to earn a degree within six years, the study notes.)
"These students have paid tuition, borrowed money, and changed their lives in pursuit of a degree they will likely never earn," the AIR study notes.
[Read more about the hidden costs of community college study.]
"Better ways are needed to ensure that the students who enter a community college expecting to earn an associate's degree or a certificate finish the first lap and ultimately cross the finish line," the study says.
If you're considering community college, earn the degree you're working—and paying—for with the help of these tips:
1. Get help: Whether you'll be starting your freshman year at a community college or returning with some credits already under your belt, don't try to map out a degree plan on your own. Meet with a school adviser to make sure your goals will be aligned with your course loads and timeframe.
"The key is to get advising early on so [students] don't waste any time or money, even though [community colleges] are very cost effective," says Norma Kent, senior vice president for communications and advancement at the American Association of Community Colleges. "We know that students don't do that, and that's when they get into trouble."
For Lindsay Garvin, a high school senior in Marion, Ohio, meeting with an adviser helped her map out an education track that will include pre-nursing and nursing programs at Marion Technical College through 2015. Ultimately, she hopes to transfer to Ohio State University. Though she'll be juggling a slew of electives, prerequisites, and applications, Garvin says meeting with a seasoned professional helped put her at ease.
"[My adviser] just gave me a list of everything I have to do, so I feel like I'm on a good track," Garvin says. "I feel like I know what I need to do because she laid it all out."
2. Apply and repeat: One of the biggest pitfalls for students at Marion Technical College is an avoidable one, says Financial Aid Coordinator Deb Langdon.
"Usually, [students] think if they apply for financial aid once, they're done," she says. "They forget to file and then they come in and say, 'Where's my financial aid?'"
You'll need to fill out the FAFSA annually, as well as applications for some scholarships. Many schools, including Marion Tech, offer financial aid counseling or have helpful websites that walk students and parents through the process.
Filling out your FAFSA is a good—and necessary—first step in the process. If you'll need loans to help fund your education, make sure to utilize all federal options first, experts recommend.
[Read about the benefits of taking loans.]
Many community college students also receive a Pell grant from the government, according to the AIR study. If you're applying for aid for next year, make sure you know the Pell eligibility changes for 2012-2013.
4. Consider your career: Even the best laid plans can be hard to stick to if you don't have a concrete goal in mind. Community colleges offer a wide variety of degree programs, some of which may align well with industry needs.
[Find out how community colleges are stressing job skills.]
"We do know that some experts projecting what's going to be happening with the workforce have said that many of the jobs that are going to be open are looking for someone with a two-year preparation," says Kent of the American Association of Community Colleges, citing healthcare and information technology as examples of burgeoning job areas.
It's normal for students to be unsure of what they want to study in school, notes Joan Zanders, director of student financial aid and support services at Northern Virginia Community College. If you need help pinpointing a field of study, duck into the career counseling center, Zanders recommends—a useful resource offered at most community colleges.
A career focus will help future nursing student Jessica Cameron stay on track while studying at Hudson Valley Community College in New York next year, the current high school senior predicts.
"Nursing is a very competitive field, and it will drive me to do better and do the best that I can to get my goal," Cameron says. "Having an end goal is always a good idea ....that goal will push to be better [and] will make you want to do everything you want to do in life and push yourself forward."
Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.