Starting your degree at a community college

Experts have long recommended that budget-conscious students start with two years at a community college. It can be an inexpensive, convenient way to take care of your general-education requirements and perhaps get a start on prerequisites for your major.

When it comes to debt, graduates who started at community colleges have a clear advantage over those who went to four-year schools for their entire careers: Those who start at community college have an average of $6,500 less in total debt at graduation.

There are trade-offs, though, according to financial aid analyst Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb.com and Finaid.org. “For one thing,” he says, “the starting salary after graduation for those who started at a community college is consistently lower.”

That difference is $2,268 — so it would take only three years for students who start at four-year schools to catch up with the financial advantage of lower starting debt.

The other big difference is graduation rates. Those who start at a two-year school are 14.5 percent less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within nine years.

Although Kantrowitz recommends against community colleges for those who want to get a bachelor’s degree, he does see an important role for them.

“If your intention is to get an associate’s degree or job training, it’s a good option,” he says.

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