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Prestigious college degrees at discount prices

Discount degreesThink a degree from an elite college or university is out of your family's financial reach?

Consider the power of credit transfer.

In many cases, credits earned at a less-expensive college or university can be transferred and applied toward a degree from a pricey, elite school. You could earn a prestigious diploma at a fraction of the price.

So why not attend a community college or state university for a couple of years and then transfer to your dream college?

"It's a strategy that works," says Ray Loewe, president of College Money, a Marlton, N.J., financial planning firm specializing in helping parents pay for college. "The best part about it is it can significantly lower your college expenses."

And it's not as if the fancy diploma you'll hang on your wall will say "transfer student."

"You get the degree from a prestigious school and no one knows you went to a community college," Loewe says.

School ties that bind
Attending a two-year college with ties to your dream school can help ease the transfer process.

Let's say you live in Miami and want to attend Smith College in Northampton, Mass. You're in luck.

Smith is one of more than 60 four-year colleges and universities that partner with Miami-Dade Community College.

Tuition at Smith is $27,330 a year. Room and board is $9,490.

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Tuition at Miami-Dade Community College is $56.50 per credit for Florida residents. You could take 30 credits, roughly a year's worth of classes, for $1,695.

Let's say you were able to live rent-free at your parents' home while you attended MDCC, by attending MDCC for two years and then transferring to Smith you'd save $54,660 in tuition costs and $18,980 in room and board for a grand total of $73,640.

That's some serious money. And even if you land a fair share of grants and scholarships from Smith, there's little chance your tuition costs will dip as low as $1,600.

Ready to transfer your way to an elite college? You'll need to do plenty of research and a whole bunch of hard work. It's best to start early.

Start with a list of dream schools you'd ultimately like to graduate from. Ask about articulation agreements with two-year colleges and partnerships with other schools and universities.

An articulation agreement specifies which community college course credits will be accepted toward a bachelor's degree at the four-year college or university. It also specifies what kind of grades a student must achieve to transfer to the four-year school as a junior.

"The colleges are really good about making sure if you do what you say you're going to do those credits will transfer," Loewe says.

Transfer-student aids
Study admission and financial aid policies for transfer students carefully.

Many private schools dip into their own coffers when distributing financial aid. Some schools are reluctant to give aid to transfer students.

"Some schools won't give money to transfer students at all. Some won't give money in the first year," says Kalman A. Chany, author of Paying for College Without Going Broke.

Other schools set aside specific scholarships and grants for transfer students. For example, Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania has sent a number of its top African American students to Carnegie Mellon University through the two schools' Minority Transfer Scholarship program.

And some universities will waive out-of-state tuition fees for transfer students. Be sure to ask.

Don't forget to visit local community colleges in your area. Ask about partnerships with four-year universities.

"The closer you are to major cities and major colleges, the more you're going to find articulation agreements," Loewe says.

Ask an adviser at a local college or state university about the prospects of transferring to the private university of your choice.

Some top schools have very restrictive transfer policies. Once admitted, you may be forced to begin classes as a second-year student, even though you've completed two years of classes at a state university or community college.

A transfer adviser will be able to tell you how difficult making the leap to a particular university may be and how well your courses are likely to transfer. They may be able to recommend some other schools as well.

Once you've mapped out a path from a local college to your dream school, you'll really need to hit the books.

Making a smooth transfer
"Good grades are a given," Chany says. "You have to have done very well and get great recommendations from professors to do the transfer routine and get accepted."

You'll need to be very careful with course selection. Basic core classes transfer the best.

"English 1 is English 1," says Betty Davis, assistant dean of enrollement management at Community College of Allegheny County.

You'll want to take some courses specific to your major as well. Follow the admission and course requirements for your major as spelled out by your dream school. If you're a business major, you'll want to check out the course requirements for business students.

It's best to get that admissions application in early.

"Admission deadlines are sacred at elite institutions," says Rosario Roman, district director of school and college relations at MDCC. "If you get it there a day late, forget it."

Get your financial aid application in as early as possible. If you wait until you're accepted at the school, there might not be much, if any, financial aid left.

Be realistic about your chances of being accepted at your dream school. Last year, Harvard accepted 55 transfer students out of over 1,000 applicants. Stanford typically accepts just 10 to 12 percent of the 1,200 transfer students that apply for its autumn term.

It's a good idea to keep your options open. Go ahead and aim for your dream school with all your might, but apply to a couple of backup schools as well.

Whatever school you choose, you'll have a bit of catching up to do once you arrive. You'll need to study hard to keep up with classmates accustomed to the rigors of your new school.

You've also got some serious networking to do. By third year, many college students have formed friendships and study groups, joined school organizations and applied for internships in their majors. The only way to catch up is to get out and meet people. This is no time to be shy.

"You're an outsider coming in," Chany says. "But if you're an outgoing personality type, that's not going to be a problem."

-- Updated: Jan. 6, 2004

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See Also
Paying for college in tough economic times
Avoid the college debt trap
For college aid, your loan homework is due

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