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Community college may be the secret sauce in affordable education

  • Consider community college for your first two years to save on overall costs.
  • Be sure your course selection aligns with your four-year target school.

Getting into college may be the end game for high school seniors, but a far bigger challenge awaits: Getting out of college with a degree and a manageable amount of debt.

"Families are so busy focusing on the first day of college, they don't think about what life after college is going to be like," says Jodi Okun, founder of College Financial Aid Advisors. "Loans can be great if you can pay them back responsibly. Otherwise, they will haunt you."

Alas, just six in 10 incoming freshmen, on average, manage to earn a degree within six years. And a record percentage of students now graduate with student loans; the average balance of $35,000 is nearly double what it was a decade ago.

Any recent graduate who needs to earmark more than 10 percent of gross monthly income to pay down a student loan in 10 years is saddled with excessive debt, explained Mark Kantrowitz, a college finance expert who lives deep in the weeds of student loan data.

"If you're borrowing more than $50,000 for a bachelor's degree, that's a sign you're headed for trouble." -Mark Kantrowitz, college finance expert

"Too much debt will have a cascading effect that will last for decades," Kantrowitz said. "When more of your income needs to go toward repaying loans, you're not going to save as much and you'll be less willing and able to borrow for other goals such as a home."

That's an ever more common rough road for many graduates. According to Kantrowitz's number crunching, more than 14 percent of recent bachelor's degree recipients, on average, end up with excessive debt, more than double the percentage from a generation ago. Moreover, if you're borrowing north of $30,000, your odds of having an excessive debt load are much higher.

"If you're borrowing more than $50,000 for a bachelor's degree, that's a sign you're headed for trouble," Kantrowitz said. His rule of thumb: If a student leaves school with a total debt balance that is no more than his or her estimated starting salary, they should be able to handle the payback within 10 years.

Developing a sense of community (college)

One way to avoid taking on crushing debt is to spend the first two years picking up credits at a steep discount at a community college and then transfer to a four-year, in-state public university.

The $3,500 average annual tuition at a community college is about one-third the average tuition tab for a four-year public school and about one-tenth the tuition cost at a four-year private school.

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However, Davis Jenkins, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, said most community colleges and four-year schools are doing a subpar job helping students navigate the transfer process.

"Access is not the same as success. The message for today's students is that you need to do some legwork to make it work," he said.

College savings
Jbrizendine | Getty Images

Here's how:

  • Step 1: Declare yourself as soon as possible. Strive to figure out your major ASAP. You can always change it, but if you start on a specific major track, you can focus on the community-college courses that will give you the best shot at transferring in as a real junior.
  • Step 2: Ask your target four-year school for some help reverse engineering your coursework. Once you have a major set, Jenkins recommends contacting the department you want to transfer into at the four-year school you want to attend and ask what required courses you'll need to enter as a junior. Getting this info from the source is more reliable than asking the community college or the admissions office of the four-year school.

"There is a big difference between credits that are transferable and credits that are applicable to the degree you want," Jenkins said.

Many community-college transfers find they have credits that are not applicable and must pile on more courses before they can officially embark on their junior-year-level work.

"Excess credits is an epidemic, and that's wasted time and money," Jenkins added.

  • Step 3: Sit down with the transfer office at the community college ASAP. Once you know the specific courses required to transfer in as a junior, map out a game plan. The earlier you do this, the greater the odds you will be able to get the work done within two years. "Know the order you need to take classes. The worst thing is to miss one required class and have to wait another semester," Kantrowitz said.

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