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Carla Fried: The best way to make college affordable

Carla Fried, on

Published in Home and Consumer News

Families committed to college, but with the good sense to also know that cost matters, have long had motivation to consider community college. The case for community college is even stronger today, with the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis upending household finances.

And this is so not about settling. There are plenty of great careers that require only a two-year associate's degree. Or, if the end goal is a bachelor's degree, spending two years at a community college and then transferring to finish up a bachelor's at a four-year public university can be a financially wily move, especially if your kid lives at home for the first two years.

Here is a cheat sheet for this decision:

--Yep, college pays off, but that doesn't mean it must be from a four-year school. The median entry-level salary for someone with a high school degree last year was $38,000 according to official government data. The median entry level salary for someone with a two-year associate's degree was $55,000.

Sure, a four-year bachelor's degree will typically lead to an even higher salary: $75,000 median starting salary. But here's where parents need to push themselves rather than their kid: If you're insisting on a four-year school, and your kid is resistant, are you really sure you are doing right by them? A two-year associate's degree might be the goldilocks. Or it might be the right choice now if your household is juggling new financial challenges in this new recession.

--You might be surprised what careers don't require a bachelor's degree. Nurses, radiation therapists, software engineers, IT specialists, project managers, diagnostic med techs, to name a few.


If a goal is future earnings potential, it should not be a surprise that certain majors are the better route (yes, this would be true for bachelor's degrees as well). A study released this year by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that engineering and architecture, law enforcement, firefighting and healthcare-related associate degrees earn the highest median salaries.

--Your family might be able to emerge without any debt. Net price is the key variable to focus on; it's the actual average cost families pay after factoring in grants and financial aid (but not loans). Get the details from a prior column:

According to the Department of Education, the average net price for students at a four-year private nonprofit college in the 2017/18 academic year was $27,000. For four-year public schools the typical net price was $13,700. And for a two-year public community college the average cost was $7,200 a year.


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