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The Community College Track

Community college can be an inexpensive place for affluent students to get started.

Prestigious universities, such as Ivy League schools and state flagship universities with the shiniest brand names, are usually the schools that end up on the dream lists of both teenagers and parents.

But the vast majority of students don’t attend those trophy schools.

A large percentage of teenagers get their start at community colleges, the true workhorses of higher education.

Out of nearly 18 million college students, more than 40 percent attend community colleges, while just 0.4 percent enroll at Ivy League universities.

And tuition at highly ranked colleges can be upward of $70,000 a year. With the price of college continuing to escalate, an increasing number of affluent families are turning to community colleges as an inexpensive place for their children to get started.

Here are seven things that your clients need to know about choosing this option:

1. Community colleges have the lowest sticker prices. According to the latest College Board figures, here is the rundown on tuition prices:

  Tuition/Fees Per Year
Community college $3,520
4-year public university, residents $9,650
4-year public university, nonresidents $24,070
Private university $33,480

2. Getting started at a community college won’t always turn out to be the lowest-cost option, if students never earn a bachelor’s degree or linger too long in school.

Here’s a sobering statistic: Only 14 percent of students who start at a community college end up transferring and earning a bachelor’s degree in six years.

3. One of the reasons why the graduation success rate is so low is because the path leading to a bachelor’s degree can be complicated.

My best friend, a did her undergrad at Yale and earned her medical degree at Johns Hopkins, provides an inside look into how challenging it can be to navigate the community college world.

Jeanne and her daughter, Emily, a criminal justice major, spent countless hours pouring over catalogs and major requirements necessary for an ultimate transfer. With her mom’s help the teenager is nearing the finish line and is preparing to apply for a transfer to San Diego State University.

“I was stunned at how complicated the process is,” Jeanne told me. “Even with an advanced degree, it’s hard to figure out.”

4. Your clients need to know what schools are open to transfers and which aren’t. While I was working on this column, I got an email from a mom who said her son, a college freshman, is interested in transferring to an Ivy League school. It’s sad that the child doesn’t want to focus on getting settled in at the school he attends, but beyond that, it’s nearly impossible at many of the most coveted schools to transfer.

For instance, it’s harder to get into Harvard University as a transfer student than it is as a freshman, which is hard enough. According to the latest statistics, 1,491 students applied as transfers to Harvard and just 13 were admitted.

Many schools, however, embrace transfer students. The University of California, Los Angeles, for instance, received 22,287 transfer applications, and the popular research university accepted 25 percent of students applying.

It’s easy to locate transfer statistics at individual colleges on the College Board’s website. You will find information for each school on transfer requirements, as well as transfer admission statistics.

5. While students heading to community college can skip the SAT or ACT, they will probably have to take placement tests in reading and English. Your clients might assume that their children will easily pass placement tests, but they shouldn’t be so sure.

According to Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, 30 percent of the time students are placed in math and English classes below their ability.

In some cases, students just need to refresh their memory about math they took earlier in high school. What students definitely want to avoid is taking remedial courses for no academic credits.

Students should ask the community college what they should study before taking the placement tests.

In a study by the Center for Community Student Engagement, nearly half of community colleges that were surveyed provided study materials for placement tests. Khan Academy, a nonprofit that works closely with the College Board, offers free placement-test resources for community college placement exams.

6. Your clients should check for articulation agreements. At some community colleges you’ll find agreements with four-year universities that attempt to make transfers as seamless as possible. While most articulation agreements involve public universities, there are some agreements with private universities.

7. Students need to check in every semester with a transfer advisor at the community college to make sure they are on track to graduate. What frequently happens is that students take the wrong classes, which leads to unnecessary academic credits. When my friend’s daughter visited the transfer counselor last month, the staffer marveled that the student hadn’t taken a single unnecessary class to transfer to San Diego State. She doesn’t see that very often.

Your clients should also consult with a transfer specialist in the admissions office of the university that the student hopes to move to. They will want to make sure that as many academic credits as possible will transfer.

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