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Community college should be a first choice, not a last resort

Repeat after me: My child is not a failure if he or she starts out at a community college.

And then I need you to stop saying, “Community college is like the 13th grade” — meaning a continuation of high school. This expression is derogatory and disparages students who attend a community college as a more affordable option than starting their college career at a four-year university.

And saving money on tuition is more important than ever. Outstanding student loans for the first quarter of 2019 were $1.49 trillion, according to the latest Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Household Debt and Credit report.

“The prevalence of student loans grew steadily between 2004 and 2016,” according to a recent Federal Reserve Bank of New York blog post. “Since 2016, about 18 percent of the population has held student loans, up from only 10 percent in 2004.”

The evidence still shows that a college degree can significantly boost lifetime earnings. But that higher income is increasingly offset by the burden of debt.

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In a 2015 blog post, Fed researchers wrote: “Until 2009, student loans had been the smallest form of household debt. During the Great Recession, Americans reduced their other debts but continued to borrow for education, making student debt the largest category of household debt outside of mortgages since 2010. Since 2004, student-loan balances have more than tripled, at an average annualized growth rate of about 13 percent per year.”

During a recent online discussion about parents taking on enormous amounts of Parent PLUS federal student loans for their children, one reader championed community college as an option to reduce the cost of college.

“My parents could not afford to send a third child away to college at the same time; so I started out in community college,” the reader wrote. “At first, I was pretty upset. But to everyone’s surprise, it was a fabulous experience.”

Here are some more observations from the community college graduate:

●“My classes were way smaller and taught by faculty, not teaching assistants, and I had better grades and was better prepared for the rest of my education than my peers who went off to sit in classes of 200 to 300 students.”

●“I forged a stronger bond than did my siblings with my parents, who used the two more years I was at home to try their best to treat me like an adult.”

●“I was able to participate in lots of extracurricular activities, made friends of multiple age groups and backgrounds and saw why education mattered to them.”

●“Saved tons of money. No student loans for me.” (Several community colleges offer free tuition to academically talented students.)

●“I have a far better career than my two sisters, and now out-earn them both by about two times.”

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To have a successful transfer from a community college to a four-year university, here are some things you should do:

●Forge a good relationship with an academic counselor so that the two of you can develop a plan to continue your education.

●Be sure you are taking classes that will transfer to the university you want to attend. For example, many community colleges have transfer partnerships referred to as “articulation agreements” with four-year colleges and universities.

●Consider staying within your state school system. “It is often easier for students to transfer credits when transferring to a school in the same state, especially in states that have policies outlining how credits should transfer,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office wrote in a 2017 report on the challenges of transferring college credits from one school to another.

For example, Florida has a statewide articulation agreement that generally guarantees that students who earn an associate degree from a Florida community college can transfer at least 60 credits to one of the four-year public schools in the state. But nearly 1 in 5 students who started at a two-year public school transfer to a school in a different state, the GAO reported.

●Don’t rule out programs for professional certificates or apprenticeships that can help you get employment without having to get a bachelor’s degree.

“When friends with kids are approaching their college years, I tell them that community college worked well for me,” the reader wrote. “It gave me a terrific debt-free start to adulthood.”

With the cost of college having reached record highs, many families feel they have no recourse but to take on large loans. But have your child consider community college — not as a last resort but as a more economical first choice.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or To read previous Color of Money columns, go to