The Easy Way to Cut Your College Tuition in Half

But will your ego allow you to do it?

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.

Follow @GeneMarks on Twitter.