Starting at Community College Can Save Thousands

Following what's known as a 2 + 2 plan means lower costs for the first two years of college.

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Want to reduce your educational debt? Consider attending a community college for two years and transferring to a four-year college or university to complete a bachelor's degree. This strategy is often referred to as a 2 + 2 plan.

Many community colleges have agreements to ensure students' credits will transfer to a four-year school, and some schools offer need- and merit-based aid to community college transfer students. Additionally, the cost of tuition at community college is often significantly lower, and saving on room and board for two years can help cover the increased costs that will be incurred when the student transfers.

For example, students who graduate from a Massachusetts community college with a GPA of 2.5 or higher, and transfer through the state's Joint Admissions or MassTransfer programs, are guaranteed admission and transfer of credits to any state university.

A new program at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst takes this even further. The UMass Amherst Community College Connection (UMCCC), publicly announced in March, makes it possible for Massachusetts community college students to receive full tuition waivers when transferring to UMass Amherst to complete a bachelor's degree.

A key component of the UMCCC is the Tuition Advantage Program, through which the state waives one third of tuition for qualifying transfer students who complete their associate's degree with a minimum 3.0 GPA. UMass Amherst waives the remaining two thirds if the student meets additional requirements, comprising a full tuition waiver.

However, this only covers the cost of in-state tuition. Additional fees at UMass Amherst are estimated at $10,000, not including room and board. To ease this burden, qualifying students with high GPAs are eligible to apply for additional competitive scholarships, and students remain eligible for additional grants from the school, state and federal government, and student loans.

[Get tips and tools for managing student loans.]

A seemingly expansive program like UMCCC allows for savings that can reduce educational debt and expand access to many who may not otherwise be able to afford a bachelor's degree. However, even without waivers, grants or scholarships, a 2 + 2 plan can significantly cut costs.

For example, UMass Amherst currently estimates annual costs of attendance at $23,739. Assuming no change, four years of attendance would cost $94,956. A 2 + 2 scenario reduces these costs to around $49,478, without counting any additional aid. The Tuition Advantage Program and additional grant and scholarship opportunities during community college and at UMass Amherst can reduce this even further. While $49,000 is no small sum, it is serious savings from $95,000.

There are incentives for schools to offer such programs. Encouraging community college transfers brings in students, increasing patronage and reputation. For example, the Boston Globe reported that UMass Amherst wanted to boost its graduation rate. Increasing access to community college graduates who are just as likely to graduate as students who enroll as freshmen increases the overall number of four-year graduates in the school and the state.

[See the schools with the highest four-year graduation rates.]

Given the benefits to both schools and students, schools that do not have transfer programs similar to the UMCCC should consider developing them. This would help overcome the significant and growing educational debt barriers students are facing and increase access to higher education for many.

When considering a 2 + 2 path, students should first identify the four-year institution from which they'd like to receive a bachelor's degree and then determine which community college to attend, and what courses to take, to maximize their transfer credits. Often, a student can fulfill general education requirements at community college and pursue specialized credits after transferring. Many transfer agreements apply specific requirements to determine whether credits for certain classes transfer, and how they are applied. Stay in touch with counselors at both institutions throughout the process to ensure you are meeting requirements and following procedures to guarantee a smooth transfer.

[See the schools with the greatest number of transfer students.]

Students should also contact financial aid counselors at both institutions to determine their eligibility for grants, scholarships, or other financial aid. The College Board, among others, has reported that community college students are eligible for millions of dollars in aid for which they never apply!

Finally, for students who believe there is a stigma attached to attending community college, consider UMass Amherst chancellor Robert Holub's statement that "[c]ommunity college graduates are desirable simply because they have already achieved something," and the fact that 2 + 2 can save thousands!

Radhika Singh Miller is a program manager for Educational Debt Relief and Outreach at Equal Justice Works. In 2008, she served on the Student Loans Team in the Negotiated Rulemaking for the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) and has extensive knowledge of this landmark educational debt relief legislation. Miller graduated from Loyola Law School Los Angeles and was most recently a staff attorney at the Partnership for Civil Justice, focusing on constitutional and civil rights litigation and advocacy.