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Community college: is it a good financial choice?

By Konrad Strzalka 

What do Loyola University Chicago, George Washington University, and the University of South Carolina all have in common? They wanted me to pay ridiculous amounts of money to attend their fine institutions when I applied to them my senior year. 

It’s no secret a college education is becoming ridiculously expensive. As reported in Business Insider, the average 2021-2022 annual tuition for public, four-year colleges was $10,740 for state residents, and $27,560 for out-of-state residents. That’s not including annual room and board costs — which add $11,950 to the cost of college. 

Out of the schools that accepted me, the cheapest options came to about $30,000 a year, all costs considered.

For that reason, by April of my senior year, after much consultation with my parents, I decided to commit to Harper College in Palatine, Illinois – my local community college – for the fall of 2019.

I wasn’t excited to stay home after high school. I was jealous of my friends who were going off to larger state schools far away. Nevertheless, I understood that this was the
financially responsible choice. I hadn’t gotten into any of my ‘reach’ schools, and as a risky major (political science), I knew I wasn’t going to have much career success unless I went to a good school with a good program. 

I had planned ahead and participated in a program that allowed me to go to Harper for
free if I completed a certain amount of volunteer hours and kept up my grades throughout high school. Even without this advantage, Harper would have been less than 10% of the price of most in-state public 4-year schools (let alone out-of-state and private schools!)

One day in August, I was talking to my good friend Josh (who was going to attend the University of Wisconsin) and his mom in his kitchen. She asked me where I was going to school, and I told her I was going to Harper.

“What!?” she said, loudly, in a tone indicating surprise and confusion. “Money reasons…,” I muttered, a little embarrassed. “You’re going to miss out on your college experience!” she replied.

Three months later, Josh had switched his major from pre-med to English. Four months after that, COVID-19 hit, and he ended up transferring to Harper. Later, he dropped out of college altogether.

Josh is doing well for himself now, and I respect his life choices, His mother burned $40,000 for nothing. But at least he got his college experience… for a while anyway.

Going to Harper did not end up saving me as much money as I expected. I got my associate’s degree and then transferred to the University of Missouri in the fall of 2021 with a scholarship that allowed me to pay in-state rates (about $30,000 a year for all expenses).

The plan, of course, was to attend Mizzou for two years. I had already completed two years, so surely, I had two years to go…. right?

Unfortunately, I didn’t account for the fact that it is borderline impossible to do all the courses for your major in two years. At Harper, I had done mostly general education classes and a handful of political science classes.

After a year, I switched my major to journalism and took a couple of related classes. But the Missouri School of Journalism did not accept those credits. I had 60 credits of general education, but in terms of journalism degree requirements, I was starting from square one. 

Even if I wanted to squeeze in 4-5 journalism courses per semester to speed the process, I couldn’t.

Like many schools, the journalism curriculum is a lock-step sequence. Everything is a prerequisite to a prerequisite to a prerequisite. Instead of doing two years, the best I could hope for is three.

So, where am I now financially? By the time I graduate in May 2024, I will have paid about $90,000 for my college education. Of course, this is better than the $120,000 I would have paid if I went to a 4-year school from the start.

On the other hand, I lost some precious time. It will have taken me five years to get my bachelor’s degree instead of four.

On the other hand, if I had gone to a 4-year school from the start and then changed my major, maybe I would have had to be a 5th year anyway, and paid $150,000? … yikes!

It is impossible to give a blanket answer as to whether community college is worth it. Even in my own case, I’m not sure if it was or not! In fact, my parents were inspired to send my younger sister to a 4-year school after seeing how discouraged I got from my education getting prolonged.

But two semesters in, she has already switched majors and is doing…. not too hot, grade-wise. Maybe it would’ve been worth it to just send her to Harper for much cheaper, to give her time to figure herself out.

Here are some things you must consider before deciding between a community college and a four-year school:

1. How confident are you in the major you have chosen? 

If not confident, or undecided, consider going to a community college so you can explore your interests without burning money. 

If you are confident in your choice of major, how confident are you that you will do well in the classes you need to take for your major? My sister really wanted to be a
psychologist or counselor, but she was never STEM-minded, which is why she ended up switching majors. 

If you’re confident in your major and that you can succeed academically in that field,
maybe it is worth it going to a 4-year school right away to save some time.

2. What are the financial consequences of going to a four-year school? Is your major going to lead to a well-paying career?  

If you’re valuing a field that interests you over a higher paying field, maybe go to a community college first so you’re not struggling with student loans for years and years and years.

Secondly, are your parents going to help? If they are, and they’re relatively well-off,
maybe a four-year school is worth it. If they aren’t…. why drown yourself in all that debt?

Don’t think just about tuition — consider living expenses. If you stay at home and go to community college, you’re living rent free (unless your parents have a real tough love policy). You’re also, ideally, not paying for groceries. Maybe if you go to a four-year school far away from home, your parents will pay for your room and board and food expenses anyway…. but you must have that conversation to make sure.

3. Is the “college experience” worth the money?  

I can’t say that I had a bad time staying in my hometown for two extra years. Several of my friends went to Harper as well, or other local Chicago-area schools, so I spent a lot of time with them. Sure, I was living with my parents and didn’t have as much freedom as I wanted, but I still went out, partied, had some late nights. I made some great memories and made new friends at Harper too.

When COVID-19 hit, a lot of my out-of-town friends came back home in the middle of their freshman year spring semester. At that point, they were having the same “college experience” as I was but paying thousands more. 

Overall, I can’t say that I recommend either option. You really must make your own decision factoring in career goals, academic goals, your financial situation, and your social situation. 

But if you want to know whether I regret going to community college… probably not. I’m very happy where I am right now, and I don’t know if I would’ve gotten to this point if I went to a four-year school right away. 

Although my college education has been prolonged, I still saved money overall and had time to mature and figure out what I really want to do with my life. 

While community college isn’t for everyone, it’s something everyone should consider.

After all, your “college experience” may end in no degree and plenty of debt you’re paying off while you are working on a farm in Idaho. Sorry, Josh.

 

Konrad Strzalka is a senior at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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