The Easy Way to Cut Your College Tuition in Half

But will your ego allow you to do it?

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A neighbor of mine is sending her son to a well-respected New England liberal arts college. A friend of one of my kids is starting her college career at a West Philadelphia Ivy League institution. Another friend is attending an excellent state school in Michigan. My kids, as I wrote in this month’s Philadelphia magazine, are each attending good schools in the mid-Atlantic area.

As parents, we are all forking over anywhere from $30 to  $60K per year, per kid in tuition, room and board.




Are we paying too much? Yes.

Is it the fault of our higher education system? Mismanagement? Gouging? Yes.

But let’s not entirely blame these colleges. As parents, we share some of this blame. We could be paying a lot less in tuition and getting the same result. But we don’t. Why?

We’re afraid of what others may think. Our egos sometimes get in the way.

Yes, our egos. C’mon, admit it. You love telling your friends and distant family members that your kid goes to a well-known university. You enjoy plastering your car with those bumper stickers that serve no other purpose than advertising to the world how smart your kid is (and that everyone in the Middle East should just “co-exist”).  You walk around proudly wearing the colors of that great college. You may be in the poorhouse, but you can die happy knowing that your child is attending an institution that ranks among the top 50 of the latest Forbes or US News and World Report survey of the country’s best schools:

“I say, my daughter is studying economics at one of the top institutions in the country!” “My son attends the same college that graduated Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, my good man!” “Did I tell you? A former Secretary of State teaches there!”

You have few things in life, at this point, that really give you happiness. And this feels good, Right? College isn’t just about your kids’ education and success. In some ways, it’s about you and your success. I’m as guilty as anyone.

We can still have all of this. And pay half of what we’re paying now. But we would need to be willing to make a few sacrifices. We would have to walk away when our friends start bragging. We would need to wait a couple of long years before putting that bumper sticker on our car. We would have to lay low … shh. If we quietly do this, we would end up with a pile of money and that diploma while our friends continue to dig themselves out of their pile of debt for the rest of their lives. How? The answer lies closer than you think. It’s on Spring Garden Street. Or on DeKalb Pike in Norristown. Community College? Gasp! Well, I never! Quickly! Get my wife some water! She just fainted!

Sure, the top 50 universities on that latest survey have a lot of smart people. But the smarter people (and their families) are, in my opinion, the ones who are closely looking at the benefits of a community college, like the ones in Philadelphia and Montgomery County. Some of them have no choice, be it from financial or academic challenges. But many of them are looking at community colleges as a sensible way to cut their tuition bills. These are people who appreciate a return on investment and don’t, like myself and many of my friends, let their egos get in the way of making sound financial decisions. And it’s not just here. Enrollment numbers at community colleges, from Missouri to Maine to Louisiana have increased over the past few years.

Why? A single year tuition at Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) costs less than $4K per year ($129 a credit for 30 credits). Compare that to nearly $7,000 in tuition per year at a Pennsylvania state school, or as much as $20,000 annual tuition (excluding room and board) at one of Pennsylvania's state-related schools. Of course, many of my friends pay twice that to send their kids to one of those tony New England (or Main Line) liberal arts schools. What’s important is that many of these same students who attend a local community college then move on to good colleges after two years.  At Community College of Philadelphia, students can take advantage of dozens of transfer agreements and partnerships with great four-year colleges around the country.  MCCC says that close to 70 percent of their students enter the college each year with the intention to transfer to a four-year institution and most succeed in doing so. Students aren’t forced to seek this route either – there are plenty of programs that provide more technical degrees that are perfectly fine to start a career after only two years

When it comes to saving on tuition, you can’t argue with these numbers. Your child can attend a local community college for a couple of years, get good grades (a must) and then transfer to any number of well-respected four year colleges and the tuition paid at the end of the day will be half what you’d pay if your kid went to that same college for all four years. Sounds like a smart and common-sense thing to do. So why aren’t all the smart people doing this? Why don’t I do this? Why am I paying a full, four years of tuition for each of my kids? And then why do I write articles for Philadelphia magazine suggesting ways that colleges can improve themselves and complain and moan to my friends about the high cost of education when I could be paying so much less with the same result?

I think by now you know the reason. It’s the same reason why I’m driving around Lower Merion with the world’s most expensive bumper sticker on my car.

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  • Tony

    Here’s another way. Check “African-American” on your application.

    • tia

      What does that mean? My daughter is a sophomore at a PA college and is African American and doesnt get nearly enough grants/loans to cover her education each semester.

    • Jason

      i think you mean Native-American. The statistics really don’t line up with your comment

  • http://batman-news.com PPABootsquadVinnie

    Community College for 2 years, then the school with the cheapest total costs and accreditation. Good Spelling too.

  • Denise Rambo

    When it was time for my son to think about college, I told him I’d finance two years at Montco. If he wanted to go anywhere else, he was on his own. Turns out, he decided to attend the School of Unusual Experiences and did a lot of traveling for 8 years instead. After the wanderlust had dissipated and he started talking about going to school, I told him that window had closed. When we looked at the cost of community college – even thought it is MUCH cheaper than any four-year school – I found that, even if I WAS still willing to pay for it, the tuition was STILL out of my price range. I graduated from Montco in 1976. My entire two year education INCLUDING books cost my mother $1,900.

  • Heather

    Yeah, that sounds all fine and dandy…IF the university accepts the transfer credits.

    • Deb Cunningham Cheatham

      There shouldn’t be issues if you do your research first. I only had one class not transfer and I knew that would be the case before I registered for it.

  • http://www.mentortechventures.com Brett Topche

    Check out what Mercer County College and a few others in NJ and elsewhere are doing with American Honors (www.americanhonors.org). It is an honors program for community college students that provides additional services to the students such as deals with a network of 4 year schools to accept credits, advising, and help with admissions. Seems like a great middle ground.

  • Karen

    My child goes to a University in Philadelphia but takes all non-major related electives at Bucks County Community College online during the summer. He gets everything approved by his school’s transfer office first. It saves thousands and there haven’t been any issues so far.

    • http://GrowMap.com Gail Gardner

      Now this is a good idea. Your child gets the benefits I mentioned above while saving on tuition.

    • http://www.brianhonigman.com/ Brian Honigman

      Awesome idea, doing this with my kids for sure. Saving money, but you get UOP education all at once. Smart Karen!

  • http://www.paulglover.org/ metroeco

    When student loans are usurious, grads have no moral obligation to repay loans. “Student Debt Rebellion”: http://paul-glover.blogspot.com/2013/03/student-debt.html

    • https://twitter.com/richcolton RichC, brings duck to cockfigh

      Think starting life with student loan debt is hard? Try it with student loan debt AND wrecked credit due to default.

      There’s a reasonable path to reform – this isn’t it. Pay your debt like everyone else.

  • http://GrowMap.com Gail Gardner

    I would love to do a survey asking how many people actually learned anything in college that could help them make a living. After being accepted at UCLA, USC and the University of Redlands my parents refused to let me attend any of them – opting instead for the local community college (and through bad timing or lack of awareness – costing me my scholarship to go on as a Junior).

    As it turns out that wasn’t relevant as IBM offered me a career and I did not go beyond the A.A. I chose to get (just in case I ever wanted to go back and finish). Perhaps the English Composition classes benefit me now (although I tested 99 percentile in English on the community college entrance exams so I already had strong English skills).

    In hindsight I would say that the true value of college is the connections someone could make at a top college. Not attending four years would mean you weren’t part of the “in” group and could detract from that benefit.

    If your parents can pay cash for you to attend a top college, make all the connections you can. If they can’t, I would strongly recommend NOT going into debt to get a degree. The United States is full of individuals – even those with PhDs – who can’t find a job that pays enough to pay off the debt.

    Figure out what you think you want to do. Read everything you can find about that topic. Identify the experts and go sell them on the idea of taking you on as an intern. Learn from the best, stay longer than you think you need to, and then write your own ticket.

    If you aren’t even that ambitious, find a job and work your way up. Better to start broke than deep in debt.