If community college is in the cards for your high school senior, don't wait until the fall to prepare.
Having the right strategy going before starting on that path to an associate's degree can help your child finish his education on time or make a successful transfer to a four-year college.
"For the 17-year-old whose parents think he's going to community college, this shouldn't be something you just decide in August of that year," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University.
There's no question that lower tuition and fees make community colleges an attractive deal for families, particularly working students who are juggling additional responsibilities and expenses.
During the 2018-2019 school year, average tuition and fees alone at a two-year public college were $3,660, according to the College Board.
In comparison, those same expenses were $10,230 at a public four-year school and $35,830 at a private college.
However, all of that savings might be all for naught if students don't come in with a strategy to complete their studies or make a smooth transfer to a four-year university.
"It's important to emphasize that going to community college should be a plan," Goldrick-Rab said. "Be purposeful about how you go through it."
A common hurdle for prospective transfer students is the question of whether their new four-year school will accept all of their community college credits.
Be on the lookout for two-year schools that have agreements with local four-year universities that will allow credits to transfer from one institution to the other.
Further, community colleges with the best transfer success stories map out the specific courses students need to make the transition to a four-year school, according to the Aspen Institute's Transfer Playbook.
To expedite the process, colleges also need to work with prospective transfer students to help them identify their major and where they want to go, according to the Playbook.
"If you have a sense of what it is you want to study, look for a transfer pathway that's in that field of study," said Josh Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute and co-author of the Transfer Playbook.
Students should make a point of seeking help to make the jump.
"You have to be proactive and ask for that support," said Goldrick-Rab. "With that lower price tag, there are fewer resources for advising."
Here's another reason why your student should move through college with purpose: There's a time limit as to how long she can be eligible for grants and loans.
"There is a lifetime limit on how long you can get federal financial aid," said Goldrick-Rab.
For instance, undergraduate students can only receive federal Pell grants for up to 12 semesters — roughly six years.
Limits also apply to federal student loans. For students pursuing a bachelor's degree, the maximum period is six years, while those in an associate degree program have three years.
If a student starts his education and then takes a break, the period in which he's away doesn't count against the time limit, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at SavingforCollege.com.
Even if your student enters a school with a strong transfer program, remember to bear in mind the cost of moving to a four-year school.
"Are they in-state four-year schools with lower tuition costs, or are they private schools offering transfer scholarships?" asked Wyner.
Finally, students must also make "satisfactory academic progress" in order to continue receiving financial aid.
That standard differs from one school to the next. Generally, students must maintain a certain grade point average — typically a 2.0 — and complete a specified number of credits by the end of each year.
Some community college programs are more popular than others, and prospective students could be left out in the cold if they don't move decisively.
Nursing is one discipline that tends to be competitive.
"Nursing is a big one," Goldrick-Rab said. "People want to get into the program, but there's usually a waitlist."
Students with a specific discipline in mind should ask about what's being offered at their community college and get an understanding of the deadlines to enroll.
"They should know that sometimes they think they're going to get into a program, and while the college is accepting students, the program isn't because it's full," said Goldrick-Rab.