Students, parents trying cost-saving two-year colleges as a starting point to higher ed

Two-year community colleges may not radiate the same glamour and prestige as four-year universities, but more parents are steering their children that direction as a way to afford higher education while keeping the option of transferring to a larger university later.

In its 8th annual State of College Savings survey of parents, the Washington, D.C.-based College Savings Foundation found almost three quarters said increased awareness of rising student loan debt has caused them to look at different strategies for funding their children’s higher education.

“Increasingly, starting at a community college and transferring to a four-year college is a top strategy for reducing the overall cost of college,” said Mary Morris, chair of the national not-for-profit organization of state and private 529 leaders helping families achieve education savings goals.

“Of respondents, 26 percent said the most important cost-reduction strategy was starting at a two-year college, with almost as many saying that living locally to save on room and board was a key strategy.”

Ms. Morris said in her home state of Virginia, 3 out of 5 students enrolled in higher education are attending one of the 23 community colleges with 40 campuses.

Whether they are trying to raise money for a child years away from college or come up with ways for children currently in college to fund their education, many parents feel it is their responsibility to pay the bill so their kids can succeed in life. But many families are still behind in reaching their college savings goals, which is why 71 percent of parents reported they are looking at different strategies.

Robert Fragasso, chairman and CEO of Fragasso Financial Advisors, Downtown, has for years advocated the financial and practical benefits of families using two-year colleges as a stepping stone.

“I am a big fan of the community college track and would castigate those who would avoid its consideration out of old-fashioned snobbery,” Mr. Fragasso said. “Foremost, it saves money and allows the student to graduate with less debt.

“It gives the student who is unsure of an eventual major the opportunity to experiment with courses of study at a lesser cost than a four-year institution,” he said. “It may turn the student on to a more functional course of study than he or she could discover in a four-year institution’s freshman and sophomore years studying basic liberal arts prerequisites.

“And it does not prejudice the student later during employment-seeking as the four-year school issues the diploma.”

Despite the popular idea that many young adults are barely scrapping by with day-to-day expenses, the College Savings Foundation survey paints a different picture: an emerging generation of savers — ages 21-30 and ages 31-35 — who are prioritizing saving for their own children’s education and starting to save when they are born.

In related findings, over half, or 51 percent, of all parents are already saving; and 44 percent are 35 year old or younger, according to the foundation.

Children also seem to be getting the idea they should avoid student debt.

Parents surveyed said 18 percent of their kids had considered not going to college, with a third of those feeling their career choice could be achieved without it and others balking at their parents spending that much money or taking on student debt.

Parents described numerous ways they plan to reduce college costs: 26 percent will pair up two years in community college with two years of traditional college; 22 percent said their child will live locally to save on room and board; 22 percent would encourage their children to take as many Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes — which can sometimes earn college credits — as possible in high school; and 21 percent will choose a state school over a private school.

Ms. Morris said a number of states are encouraging families to look at community colleges, in part by establishing transfer agreements and providing transfer grants to make the transition to a four-year school easier.

Transfer students are in a different pool than freshmen. Some universities even offer scholarships to transfer students that did not receive them after graduating high school. Advisers at community colleges should be able to help students take classes likely to transfer to four-year colleges.

Mr. Fragasso said some community colleges may even have a higher number of adjunct professors and instructors who are working in their fields than does the more traditional four-year institution, thus imparting more real-world perspective.

Tim Grant: tgrant@post-ga­ or 412-263-1591.

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