Attending community college is a smart financial decision for many students.
Tuition and fees at two-year colleges are often significantly lower than those at four-year universities, and flexible course schedules allow many students to work either full or part time while earning their degree.
But tuition is not the only expense to consider when planning for the cost of community college, says Cynthia Grunden, who oversees financial aid at City Colleges of Chicago, a system of seven community colleges.
[Find two-year schools near you with the U.S. News Community College Directory.]
Students also need to account for expenses such as food and housing. Most colleges use estimates for these costs when awarding financial aid, but community college students typically do not pay room and board directly to their school, unlike many students at four-year universities. That means students at two-year colleges need to plan for those costs and keep them in check throughout the school year.
“We try to tell students there are more than just the direct costs,” Grunden says. “It takes a lot of budgeting.”
Below are four costs community college students should factor into their budget.
1. Transportation: Most community colleges are commuter schools, so students live off campus and need to drive or take public transportation to get to and from class each day.
Train or bus fare, which can run from a few quarters to a few dollars each way, is a small expense that can add up quickly.
[Learn how to build commuting costs into your college saving strategy.]
Stephanie Kuwornu, 19, a student at Harold Washington College in Chicago, estimates her public transit costs could be as much as $1,000 each semester. Fortunately, she says, the City Colleges gives students an unlimited transit pass each semester. Students pay just $30 for this pass as part of their regular school fees.
Those relying on their own vehicle need to account for regular costs – such as gas and parking – and leave a cushion for unexpected expenses, too, says Alfred Poor, who works with college students to help them succeed in school and after graduation.
"If you are depending on your own car to get to school, what happens if you lose access to it for an extended period of time because it breaks down or is in an accident? Can you afford to replace it?" Poor said via email. "Don't budget everything to the bone; leave room to handle the unexpected."
2. Food: Eating out is expensive, even if it’s just a sandwich from a vending machine, but it is often the most convenient option for community college students to grab a quick bite between classes.
“A lot of my friends, all they have to do is swipe a card and have three meals a day,” says Kuwornu, referring to friends attending four-year colleges. “At a community college, there is no meal plan and if you want to eat on campus, it is really expensive.”
Planning ahead and packing a lunch, snacks and even bringing coffee and water from home can save students a small fortune.
3. Licensing: An associate degree or certification from a community college can lead students directly into a career, but many of those professional tracks require students become licensed before entering the field.
Licensing exams are especially common in health fields such as nursing or dental assistance – popular degree paths for community college students. The cost to take the tests – which varies by state and profession – is not factored into financial aid packages, says Grunden, with City Colleges of Chicago.
Aspiring dental assistants living in New York, for example, must pay $103 for licensure and new registration. For nurses, the National Council Licensure Exam, known as the NCLEX, which is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, carries a $200 fee.
"It would be wise for students to research the licensure path and see what tests they need to take and how much they cost," Grunden says.
4. Application fees: Many community college students aspire to transfer to a four-year university, and applying to those schools can be expensive.