The best hack to cut college costs? Start at community college and switch to a four-year university. These expert tips will help parents and students alike make the transition feasible—and affordable.

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The Biden higher education plan hinges on expanding community college enrollment—but not everyone has truly thought through how to make that work. Most people—parents and students alike—think the only pathway to a Bachelor's degree is by enrolling and completing a four-year program at a four-year university or college. However, a 2 + 2 program can be a more affordable alternative; in these programs, a student enrolls in a two-year Associate's program at a Community College and then transfers completed credits to a four-year university.

If the four-year college institution accepts all of the community college credits, then the student would have to complete just two more years of courses to receive their Bachelor's degree on time. This hack sounds like a golden parachute that can help parents and students cut the astronomical costs of a four-year college or university. But experts advise that there are major issues to watch out for to make transferring between two-year colleges and four-year institutions easy—and affordable.

Prioritize articulation agreements.

Tandy Caraway runs College Mode Academy, an organization to help families fund college without student loan debt. As a College Strategist with over 20 years of experience, she coaches students and parents in test prep, college admissions, and financial aid processes. When it comes to community college, "it is best practice to look for community college programs with articulation agreements with the four-year university of your choice," Caraway explains to Parents. An articulation agreement is a binding relationship between two or more higher education institutions, which formalizes how students can transfer enrollment between signatory institutions.

These agreements go one step further from just a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which might be a partnership to create joint research or to collaborate on training programs—but an MOU doesn't officially explain how a student goes from one partner institution to the next. Many state colleges will have articulation agreements with public community colleges in their state and region, but each one varies by terms and focus.

Northern Virginia Community College's website, for example, has over 43 agreements, 21 of which are degree-specific agreements with Old Dominion University. The state of Massachusetts has an easy-to-follow plan and nearly one-third of University of California graduates started at a community college first. So, these agreements work. Use sites like Finder and CollegeTransfer to search for articulation agreements in place with your or your child's desired four-year university or college.

An image of a jar of money and books.
Credit: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

Figure out housing.

Most people assume that community college students have to live with parents or relatives, because few community college campuses have dormitories. Caraway clarifies that "some community colleges actually have dorms. Keys College is an example." She's referring to the College of the Florida Keys, which began in 1958 as Monroe County Junior College. While it primarily offers Associate's degrees, it also offered its first Bachelor's degree in 2017. Even before that, in 2011, the College opened a 100–bed residence hall to entice students from farther afield to relocate to study there.

If your child has their heart set on a community college that doesn't have a dorm, Caraway says that "you can save on the cost of housing by getting roommates, a housing scholarship for a private student housing development, or a Community Coordinator position at an apartment complex."

Now more than ever, it is important to remember: With many students still attending online courses, the current value of on-campus housing may be out of sync with its actual cost. Karen Condor, a community college graduate who is now a finance writer for Loans.org, says that the lack of on-campus housing at most community colleges can actually be to your advantage.

"On-campus living is usually more expensive than off-campus living," Condor tells Parents. "You can save on the cost of housing during community college by rooming with others in off-campus housing. You can share expenses, including rent and utilities. You can also save on furnishing your off-campus apartment if it's not furnished or partially furnished." 

Count every transfer credit.

Assuming your child enrolls in a community college without knowing exactly where or in which field they want to get their four-year degree, they might miss key requirements to streamline an articulation agreement—or it is possible that their two-year college will have no formal relationship with their four-year college.

"One transfer pitfall to watch out for that could set a student back or have negative financial consequences is not checking early and often enough that all of the classes you take in community college will transfer to a four-year school," says Condor. "A community college student planning to transfer to a four-year school needs to interact more with their advisor and with each school's transfer counselor, so they're not stuck attending and paying for an extra semester at university because some of their community college classes weren't transferable."

This might mean that, although your child has been admitted to the four-year college with semesters already completed elsewhere, there's no guarantee that all those classes will count towards their Bachelor's degree. Maybe the new university has a core curriculum and those classes must be taken on their campus—even though the student took the same subjects before. Another possibility is if a student took a class but didn't pass with a grade high enough to transfer credit; most schools say a 3.0 (out of 4) overall GPA or a B in each class are the minimum passing grades needed to transfer credit.

When missteps happen, the student pays twice—once at the old uni and again at the new. This is why it is extremely important to partner with the registrar and admissions staff to follow any transfer plans available. 

Sync financial aid, grants, and scholarships.

"The best way to handle financial aid at two different institutions is to work closely with the financial aid office at each school to stay up to date on all of the financial aid offerings you can apply or reapply for, what information will need to be updated, and when the application deadlines are," advises Condor.

She says that "if you have a scholarship or a grant and you're doing a 2+2 program, you need to find out if these awards are transferable. If you're in a work-study program, you'll have to re-apply. Work-study isn't guaranteed year-on-year, and determining factors include adjustments in your financial need, as well as job availability and amount of funding received by your new school." 

When it comes to financial aid, Caraway says that "there is a student clearinghouse that coordinates things for the student behind the scenes. Typically, there is only a problem when a student is enrolled at both schools in the same term." Students who receive institution-specific scholarships, grants, or financial aid will need to notify the funder that they are transferring institutions so that those funds are returned properly. 

Caraway insists that students and parents alike need to take control of their financial futures by keeping good records and staying on top of funding coordinators. She recommends that "students download and/or print out their account summary and financial aid award acceptance details from the community college before they transfer," since they may be locked out of these detailed tracking systems once the transfer is complete. 

She also reminds her students to watch out for limits on credit hours, as there can be a cap on grant money and limits on student loans. Also, some scholarships are only for four-year institutions. "I have seen students have their scholarships rescinded for choosing to go to a community college to save money," she shares.

Still, even in that situation Condor says going to community college could work out better in the long run. "Community colleges usually have a more flexible schedule, including more night courses, which can be useful for working students saving up for a four-year school." Depending on your or your child's career field, earnings, and hours, such flexibility could save you much more than that scholarship was worth.

Plus, working for a few years prior to college might increase a student's overall pay trajectory after graduation. A Bachelor's degree alone is great, but a Bachelor's degree, with an Associate's degree, and a few years of work experience? That's a triple threat.