Report: Transferring From Community College Might Not Help Student Debt

Starting at a community college might not alleviate the pile of loans a student could face after graduation, despite lower costs, according to a recent report.

It seems logical that college costs can be lowered by knocking out degree basics at a community college before attending a four-year university, but a report recently released by TG, a nonprofit state group that provides information for financing higher education, shows that those students who started out at community college and transfer to a four-year university borrow as much as those students that start at the university level.

Dominic Chavez, coordinating board spokesman, said taking basic classes at community college is the best way to reduce the price tag of tuition for students and parents.

"The best and most effective way to reduce cost was a two-year college degree and then move up to a university for upper division work," Chavez said. "The challenge is, we in Texas don't have an effective pathway to make that jump and gain financial aid."

The TG report analyzes financial aid, grants and how much students borrow that started at community college versus those that spend their freshman years at the university level based on data from the 2007-2008 academic year. For those students who borrowed, the cumulative student loan debt of both transfer students and native students at public four-year universities was about $20,000. In the private four-year school sector, the cumulative loan amount borrowed by transfer students was approximately $27,000, compared to $25,000 for native students.

"Many students have traditionally been guided to follow the transfer route, with the assumption it will help them save on certain college costs," said Carla Fletcher, TG senior research analyst and the report's author. "Unfortunately, we found this to be untrue, and in fact, the transfer route may end up creating significant barriers for some students."

The median overall grant aid awarded to native and transfer students was nearly the same in the public sector, but in the private sector transfer students received $4,600 less overall grant aid than native students, according to the report.

Community college costs are typically about one third of the tuition at a four-year university. For in-state freshmen, the tuition, fees and room and board for a year at the University of Houston is $18,071 without financial aid. For in-state transfer students the price of tuition is slightly higher at $19,688. A class at Houston Community college costs about $67 per hour. With a 15 hour course load, a semester would cost $1,012.50.

Texas aid recipients on both ends of the income spectrum rely heavily on students loans to finance their education. Even students with the highest need and limited family resources must rely on borrowing, according to 2011 report on financial aid by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

In Texas, 65 percent of first-time college students enroll at one of the state's 80 community or technical college campuses.

At the same time, the number of people failing to keep up with student loan payments continues to increase, with 3.6 million borrowers defaulting in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Rep. Dan Branch, chairman of the state House Higher Education Committee, in an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News pointed to a flawed system with transfer credits from community colleges, forcing transfer students to re-take classes at a higher cost. Branch called for improvements to the community college transfer system and filed a bill that would attempt to improve the community college transfer system.

"We need a statewide transfer pathway that more clearly articulates the courses and learning objectives required by our public universities. This system must be equally clear to admissions staff and counselors, as well as to parents and students," Branch said.

Chavez said the TG report adds weight to a coordinating board recommendation for the 2013 legislative session for the TEXAS grant program.
The TEXAS grant program, the state's largest financial aid fund, can only be granted to freshman at a four-year university or for a student's first year a community college. If students transfer from a community college, however, they will not be eligible for the grant.

The coordinating board is recommendation a pathway within the grant program to expand access for transfer students once they make the jump to the university.

"We need a pathway for community college to make that jump," he said.


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