Many students simply look at the cost of tuition when considering the cost of college. However, there are many other expenses to consider when examining affordability. It’s important to know what to expect and what it will cost not just for tuition, but also for textbooks, supplies, course fees, transportation, and room and board.
Still, public two-year colleges, known as community colleges, tend not only to be less expensive than four-year public or private colleges, but open enrollment policies also make attending widely accessible to everyone. Many students even choose to attend community college for two years, earning their associate degree, and then transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree because it saves money in the long run.
This article discusses all of the costs you need to consider when planning your path to higher education at a community college, including tips on how to cover these expenses.
The Total Cost of Attending a Community College
The following sections describe each of the expenses that contribute to the total cost of attendance at a community college.
Tuition at Community College
Tuition costs vary from school to school and state to state, meaning it’s difficult to give an exact number. However, community college courses are generally cheaper than university courses, and the credits often transfer to universities, which is a major selling point of community colleges. Tuition prices can also vary for residents, non-residents and out-of-state students.
In 2021, the average tuition for one academic year of in-district community college tuition in the United States is approximately $3,340, according to EducationData.org. But it could easily cost double that amount or as little as $0 for in-state residents.
New Hampshire has the highest average annual community college in-state tuition at $7,560. But as many as 17 states have programs offering free community college tuition for resident high school graduates who meet certain requirements — such programs are part of the reason California’s average annual in-state community college tuition is only $1,310. Other states with such programs include New York, Kentucky, Maryland, Oregon, Hawaii and more.
Out-of-state and non-resident tuition vary even more widely. At some community colleges, there is little difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition, while at others, the out-of-state cost might be as much as triple the in-state price. Note that if the college you plan on attending is out of the state you live in, but your state of residence borders that state, you may still qualify for in-state tuition rates, depending on the school.
If you visit the websites of any community colleges you’re considering attending, you should be able to find the price of tuition at each school. The tuition price might be listed on a per-credit basis, so you will need to multiply it by the number of credit hours you plan to take each year to get a complete estimate. (In general, students are considered full-time if they take 12 or more credits per term. Most full-time students need to take at least 15 credits per term to graduate on time.)
In addition to tuition expenses, colleges may charge a variety of student fees. This includes technology fees, student activity fees, lab fees and more, some of which might be charged on a per-credit or per-course basis.
School and Course Supplies
Once you register for classes, you’ll need to purchase books and supplies. This includes items on the following list:
- Textbooks: These can be surprisingly pricey; however, financial aid may cover all or part of your textbook costs, or you may be able to save money by:
- Buying used textbooks instead of new
- Ordering your books online instead of buying from the bookstore
- Purchasing an older version of a text (with your instructor’s OK)
- Renting the textbook instead of buying it
- Purchasing a less expensive e-book version
- Selling your books back to the bookstore or directly to other students when you’re done with them
- Checking out the textbook from the campus library (if available — note that many instructors put their course texts on reserve at the library, which means you may not be able to check it out and take it home, but you can go to the library to read it)
- Computer: These are now vital for most college students because many assignments must be completed using computer and online tools, and, often, coursework, grades, and communication with your instructor occur online. A new computer will likely cost you between $300 and $700, and you may need to purchase additional software, as well. If you’re strapped for cash, you can make use of campus computer labs, or you might see if financial aid money will cover the cost of a computer.
- Calculator: Simple scientific calculators are fairly inexpensive; however, if you take advanced math or engineering courses, you might be required to purchase a graphing calculator, which can cost you around $100. Check with your school’s math department or library, though, to see if they rent graphing calculators or allow students to borrow them.
- Notebooks, pens, pencils, etc.: These items, while usually inexpensive, can add up. Try to hit back-to-school sales in the fall.
Community college students typically live off campus, although you might be lucky enough to live within walking or biking distance and still avoid transportation costs. Otherwise, you will need to commute to campus by car or public transportation.
The average cost of owning a car is over $10,000, according to a Consumer Expenditures Report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Public transportation tends to be much less expensive if you have that option available to you. In fact, your student ID will get you a discount on public transport in most places.
On-campus housing is not very common at community college, but even if you don’t live on campus, you may have to rent an apartment near the school. The cost of housing varies across the country, but, on average, students who pay rent to live off-campus pay about $9,500 per year. Sharing this expense with roommates or opting to still live at home with mom and dad can save you quite a bit in this department.
Some community colleges may have a cafeteria, which you can buy a meal plan for. Whether you plan on eating on campus or off, you should factor in a food budget when considering expenses. You can save money by making your own meals instead of eating out and shopping at discount grocers.
Other Living Expenses
If you are tracking all expenses while attending community college, don’t forget the following as well if they apply:
- Phone bill
- Medical expenses
- Subscription services (Netflix, Spotify, etc.)
Once you add your estimated totals from each category above, you will arrive at the net price you can expect to pay to attend community college. Keep in mind that many community college students apply for financial aid to help cover costs, and many also work either part-time or full-time to help cover their living expenses.
Financial aid in the form of grants, loans and work-study are available from the U.S. Department of Education when students submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), but there might be additional scholarship and grant opportunities from the college itself or other public institutions or organizations.
Discover More Financial Advice for Students at CollegeFinance.com
Going to college can be both exciting and a little scary. College can be expensive, and even though community colleges tend to be less expensive than four-year institutions, graduates can still be left with student loan debt. Luckily, CollegeFinance.com offers information and insights to help you prepare financially for your college education and beyond. Check out the resources available today.