It’s common knowledge that community college is more affordable than tuition at a private university, but that may not be universally true. The average cost of tuition at community college is $3,660 per year, a cost that is twice as high as it was 30 years ago. Even if community college is less costly than a traditional four-year college, it isn’t cheap and there are other costs to consider.
In this article, we’ll determine whether community college is really the most affordable option and what costs other than tuition students should plan for. You’ll also receive some helpful tips for managing your money while attending community college.
The True Cost of a College Degree
Over the past few decades, a college degree has changed from a luxury that only the privileged were able to obtain into a necessity if you want to obtain anything more than a minimum wage-paying job. A strong work ethic is no longer enough to land a job or to keep it and many fields have begun to require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree for even entry-level positions.
Statistics show that college graduates earn 66% more than those with only a high school diploma and, over the course of a lifetime, earn about $1 billion more. It is important to consider, however, at what cost this benefit comes. A college degree has never been more necessary if you want to succeed in the workforce, but it has also never been more expensive.
Since 1992, the average amount a student needs to borrow to graduate with a bachelor’s degree doubled to $27,000 in 2017. Given that number, however, many students would gladly take it compared to the hundreds of thousands owed by the time they obtain a master’s or doctorate degree. In fact, a 2019 report reveals that Americans owe over $1.56 trillion in student loan debt and nearly 70% of college students graduated in 2018 with nearly $30,000 in loans.
Is Community College More Affordable for Everyone?
The high cost of college tuition leads many students to choose community college, but is it really more affordable? It depends on the student. According to a report released by the National College Access Network, less than 50% of the nation’s community colleges are affordable for students who qualify for Pell grants. Pell grants are the main source of federal financial aid offered to low-income students.
This highlights the key question that is on the mind of many students – if post-secondary education has become necessary, why isn’t it more affordable?
In determining whether community college is affordable for low-income students, there were certain requirements. On top of paying tuition, the student would have to be able to afford to live and have $300 available in case of emergencies. This could be accomplished through a combination of grants, loans, and family contributions as well as funds from summer employment and work-study jobs. Based on these requirements, only 27% of community colleges are affordable for low-income students.
Struggling to pay for school is not a problem limited to students who come from low-income families. According to a survey distributed by the Hope Center for College Community and Justice at Temple University, 70% of students experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness during the previous year. Some community colleges have opened food pantries and have expanded their student service offerings to include free textbook access online.
As much as some schools try to offer supportive services to their students, limited funding is still an issue. Cuts to costs and staff leave the burden of paying for school more and more on students and their families. As such, preparation for college should include financial planning beyond scholarships.
What Other Costs Should You Plan For?
Generally speaking, community college tuition is lower than tuition at a private college or university. In either case, however, tuition is the main cost any student is responsible for – but it is not the only cost.
According to College Choice, the major expenses any college student should plan for are:
- Room and Board – Whether you live in student housing or rent an apartment, room and board is the second most significant cost associated with obtaining a college degree. According to data compiled by Wells Fargo, the average cost for room and board is $9,000 per year.
- Textbooks and Supplies – Every college student knows that a single textbook can easily cost over $100. Depending on your course of study, textbooks & supplies can run over $1,500/year.
- Equipment – On top of textbooks and basic supplies, you may also need a laptop or desktop computer to complete your assignments. This is on top of dorm room/apartment essentials like sheets and towels, lamps, a microwave, etc.
- Personal Expenses – If you live off-campus, you may be responsible for utility costs as well as personal items like groceries, clothing, laundry, and toiletries. You may also be paying for your phone bill, health insurance, and other monthly costs.
- Transportation – Living on campus can reduce your transportation costs, but you may still choose to travel home during school breaks.
- School and Activity Fees – Annual fees are usually under $500, but some schools charge extra for things like parking, gym access, participating in sports, etc.
As an incoming student, you have the ability to choose a community college that is affordable for you. What you may not be able to control is the cost of living in the area, transporting yourself to and from school, and living in the meantime. What you can do, however, is learn how to manage your money.
Tips for Managing Your Money in Community College
Smart money management is something everyone needs to learn. Unfortunately, it is a skill typically learned through trial and error. For some college students, it is a costly lesson that saddles them with thousands of dollars in student debt. If you take the time to prepare yourself for the costs associated with obtaining a college degree, you can plan accordingly. While you are in school, however, you still need to be smart with your money to make it last as long as possible.
Here are some tips for managing your money in college:
- Be realistic with your student loans – borrow the lowest amount you can to live and complete your degree in the desired time period.
- Apply for as many grants and scholarships as you qualify for – even small awards add up.
- Avoid buying new textbooks whenever possible – look for options to rent textbooks online or get together with a few students in your class to share the book.
- Be smart with your meal plan, if you have one – switch to a 2-meal-per-day plan and keep a box of cereal handy for breakfast.
- Create a budget and stick to it as closely as possible – be sure to include optional expenses such as entertainment.
- Get a credit card and use it sparingly, paying it off each month. By doing so, you’ll start to establish credit history and you can avoid overdraft fees charged by debit cards.
- Use your school breaks to work and avoid incurring extra costs during that time – consider staying in town on shorter breaks to work, saving you the additional cost of travel.
- Cut out minor expenses that add up over time – things like a daily Starbucks drink or a snack from the vending machine may only cost a few dollars at a time but add up quick.
- If you have to buy equipment or supplies, look into used or refurbished options – especially for major expenses like laptop computers.
- Carpool with other students if you commute to school – you can also look into options for public transportation or buy a used bike.
College gets more expensive by the year, whether you attend community college or a private university. As a college student, you should be aware of your financial situation now and in the future so you can plan accordingly. Use the information you’ve gained here to better discern your current financial situation and to make a financially sound plan for your future.