Vanessa Flores always wanted to attend the University of Southern California. She grew up near the school in Los Angeles, and her mother worked at the university as a contracts manager. But when USC offered Flores admission, her mother and father balked at the nearly $10,000 in room and board costs. So Flores struck a deal with her folks: She would live on campus her freshman and sophomore years and then stay at home and commute the following two years. "It was tough living with my parents," she says. "You can't just roll out of bed and go right to class. You have to get in your car and drive." Yet, she adds, "I saved anywhere between $15,000 to $20,000."
Community college has become one of the most attractive options for students who want a low-cost, four-year degree. The schools are inexpensive-average annual tuition is $2,191-and they can serve as a springboard to four-year universities. After attending Hostos Community College in New York City for five semesters, Folashad Kornegay transferred this year to New York University. "I always knew I would go to a four-year school," she says. "Community college is a great place to start out. It's cheap, and there are a lot of opportunities to learn."
But making the leap from a two-year school to a four-year institution isn't always easy. Credits earned at a community college might not all transfer, and university hopefuls have to perform well academically to get an offer of admission. To make her application attractive to NYU, Kornegay enrolled in a rigorous set of liberal arts courses, participated in various extracurriculars, and maintained a 3.6 grade-point average. When considering a community college, students should be sure to ask about transfer rates. While some two-year schools send only 5 percent of their students on to four-year colleges, others transfer over 30 percent. In recent years, some states like Florida and Pennsylvania have eased the transfer process by guaranteeing community college graduates a spot at one of the states' four-year universities.
Other students have found the Reserve Officers Training Corps a successful way to pay for college. The Army, Air Force, and Navy ROTC train students to be military officers while they earn their degrees. About half of all cadets receive scholarships, which vary in size by school and armed service division, and all juniors and seniors receive tax-free stipends of several hundred dollars for living expenses. Students who win ROTC scholarships can quit after freshman year and owe nothing. But anyone who leaves during sophomore year or later must pay back the balance to Uncle Sam.