There’s no question that tuition at a community college is cheaper than at a four-year college, public or private.

In fact, shows that annual tuition at a two-year community college costs, on average, over a third less than what you’d pay at an in-state four-year school ($10,940 versus $28,240). So, it stands to reason that if you’re looking to save money, a community college might be the right option.

Not necessarily. Sticker price is just one part of the equation. Consider this: One report by the American Talent Initiative revealed that only 14% of students who started at a community college and transferred to a four-year institution graduated with a bachelor’s degree within six years. The longer it takes you to graduate, the more expensive that diploma will be. And, with financial aid and scholarships, you may not have to pay full tuition at a four-year college. Factoring in these other considerations, how can you determine if you’ll come out ahead financially starting out at a community college? Here are some tips to help you make those calculations.

Reach Out for Help

Don’t try to go it alone, says Ben Kohl, former president of the Kansas Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. He urges students and parents to pick up the phone and speak directly with financial aid officers to get a clearer picture of how much aid they’ll receive as a freshman versus a transfer student. Financial aid officers can help navigate different scenarios and weigh the benefits and costs of attending their school. Once you have a sense of which community colleges and four-year schools you’d like to attend, get in touch with the financial aid officers at both. “They can tell you, ‘If you come as a freshman, we’ll be able to offer you this… If you’re a transfer student we’ll be able to offer you this…’ They want to help,” says Kohl.

Know What’s Only for Freshmen

“Many four-year institutions will offer large scholarships to students in the freshman class,” Kohl says. These scholarships can last throughout a student’s four years at college, but they are typically only offered to those entering as freshmen. “It’s also important to know that many four-year institutions do not offer much in scholarships to transfer students. If students have exceptional experience in community service and high grades and high standardized test scores, they might be offered thousands of dollars from a four-year institution that [may not] be offered from a community college.” When you’re on the phone with the finance offices of the four-year schools, make sure to ask which opportunities are available only to freshmen students and which, if any, are awarded to transfer students.

Ask About Transferring Credits

Make sure the community college credits you intend to earn will transfer to the four-year schools on your list. “If they’re not eligible to be transferred, you could end up paying more to take the same classes again,” personal finance expert Dominique Broadway points out. Some schools have an “articulation agreement” laying out which credits they’ll accept from local community colleges. Find out if the four-year institution you’re interested in has this information in writing, so you can determine which courses at your community college could be a cost-effective way to earn credits. If no such information exists, Kohl suggests you find the person in the admissions office who’s responsible for handling transcripts. They will be your best resource for figuring out which credits will transfer. “I’ve known many students over the years who have failed to do this and have wasted a lot of money and time,” Kohl warns.

Check for In-State Perks

Take the time to research state-specific programs, Broadway says, because many community colleges have partnerships with other schools in your state that might guarantee your admission to the respective school—and provide scholarship money as well. Massachusetts, for instance, has a program called Commonwealth Commitment for students who attend an in-state community college and complete an associate degree in two and a half years. The program has certain GPA and timing requirements, but it also offers rebates on tuition and fees. Not every state has implemented these sorts of programs, so you should check with your local community colleges to see if they have pre-established relationships to four-year schools, and what financial benefits may be included.

Look Past the Numbers

While up-front costs are a major factor in choosing between a community college and a four-year school, the money you spend now shouldn’t be the sole consideration. “There are a lot of intangible benefits that students give up by not attending their freshman year at a four-year institution,” says Kohl. “They don’t get the on-campus experiences and, at many four-year institutions, academic cohorts are formed during the freshman year, and transfer students sometimes get left out or struggle to connect academically when they arrive later.” Networking and a longer window to develop relationships with professors and alumni can translate to shorter and easier post-grad job searches. Of course there’s no way to quantify the monetary benefit of a future connection, but you should think about these indefinites as you make your college decision.

Deciding what type of school to attend is a big decision, so try to start early and gather as much information as you can to make the smartest decision for your wallet—and your future.

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