Your Finances: Community colleges in crisis

Students and parents who in the past counted Students and parents who in the past counted on an additional Pell grant for summer classes should check with the college's financial aid office about alternatives. The extra summer Pell grant was eliminated last year by Congress. Photo Credit: iStock

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Community colleges, and their students, are paying a heavy price for popularity.

Community colleges are currently home to more than 13 million students across the country, with enrollment that skyrocketed 22 percent between 2007 and 2011.

It is no wonder why. The average annual bill for a local community college is a relatively affordable $2,963, according to the College Board. Public four-year colleges average $8,244 a year for in-state students, and private universities now average $28,500. In an era when total student debt has surpassed $1 trillion, a cheaper educational option is a natural winner.

But a perfect storm of factors is making community colleges less than an automatic choice.

"It stands to reason that if you have X capacity, and your enrollment increases by 20 percent, you're going to have issues," said Norma Kent, senior vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C. "Then you also have sustained decreases in state funding."

What's more, state colleges that often receive transfers from community colleges are facing significant problems of their own, and having their own budgets gutted means that they cannot be so magnanimous about taking in every transfer student who comes their way.

Here are a handful of ways to maximize your community college experience, while sidestepping the pitfalls of a system in crisis.

Be disciplined. If enrollment for required classes opens at 9 a.m. on a Monday, then that is when you sign up. Delaying even by a day can lead to a domino effect of negative outcomes: You miss out, those classes are not offered again until the following year, and you subsequently have to put off transferring to your target four-year college.

Consider starting at a four-year state college. Yes, the initial bill for tuition and fees will be higher. But then all the myriad worries about transfers, credits and articulation agreements become moot.

Look to out-of-state community collegesThe lowest tuition bills are always reserved for local students. But if your hometown college is at the breaking point, then crossing state borders could make economic sense.

Get in touch with your transfer college early. Let's say your goal, after two years of community college, is to transfer to Stony Brook University. You should be in touch with Stony Brook almost from Day One to determine which courses and credits will be transferable and which will not.

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