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For a student accepted or enrolled at a residential university who’s afraid or unwilling to pay $60,000 or more to show up at the dorms in September, facing the real risk of being told to pack up and return home in November, there’s a productive and affordable alternative:

The visiting year.

It’s different from a gap year as those are typically understood. The usual gap year involves either paid employment or some sort of subsidized travel. COVID-19 has constricted the options for both of those (and the latter is typically available only to the affluent, anyway).

The visiting year offers a chance to reduce the cost of college and stay on track for on-time graduation.

Here’s how it works.

Postpone your freshman (or sophomore) year at the university and enroll at your local community college, taking 30 credits of general education classes over the course of a year. Then, in a year, when the whole virus situation has settled, return to the university and transfer those 30 credits there.

That way, you complete a year of college much more affordably than you otherwise would have. And at the intro level, you’d be hard-pressed to see a difference. I say that having taught Intro to Political Science at both Rutgers University and the County College of Morris. If anything, students at the latter had the better experience because they weren’t crammed into a 300-seat lecture hall.

“But wait!” you say. “What about the college experience?”

If you’re sent home or have to stay home anyway, then the experience of taking classes online from home won’t be notably different. Except, of course, for the tens of thousands of dollars you stand to save. As a bonus, community colleges tend to be much more adept in the use of open educational resources, so you could save hundreds more on books while you’re at it.

“Will the credits actually transfer?”

Typically yes, but it’s worth checking first. That’s why I recommend focusing on the gen ed classes. If you’re, say, a business major, chances are you still have some English, math, humanities and social science requirements to fulfill. You can pay $6,000 to do that, or you can pay $60,000 to do that. If you’re online or remote anyway, why pay more? Typically, receiving departments are much less picky about accepting gen eds than they are about accepting courses within their own disciplines. I’ll just leave it at that.

“Wait, I thought community college was supposed to be free.”

In some places, for some people, it is. But even if you aren’t in that group, full price here is a terrific deal.

“But I want the prestige of a name degree!”

You’ll still get it. You’ll just get it with dramatically lower student loan payments. There’s no prestige in student loan payments. Transfer the credits in, and you graduate with the same degree as everybody who started there and paid more.

“Don’t you feel bad brazenly poaching students from four-year schools?”

Don’t they feel bad about charging $60,000 for online classes students take from their bedrooms? If that’s the alternative, then no, I don’t. “How dare you provide an affordable alternative?” is a question I’m happy to answer. When the dust settles, many students will make their way back. Until then, this is a much more reasonable answer for many people.

“Won’t that wreck your graduation rate?”

Don’t get me started on the abject stupidity of applying the IPEDS graduation rate to community colleges. If serving the community is wrong, I don’t want to be right. I’d rather save long-suffering students and parents a whole lot of time and money than game some statistic, and I’d be happy to explain that to any legislator within earshot. As would those families.

“What if my kid decides they actually like the community college?”

Have them return for a second year to finish the degree, and then transfer. You get a second year of remarkable savings, and you’re still eligible for the prestige of the four-year degree. If their 529 sits untouched for two years because community college is so affordable, then you can use twice as much of it per year for the rest of the bachelor’s degree. Not bad!

“Wait, is this legal?”

Yes. Completely legal.

“Why don’t more people do this?”

Community college stigma is a real thing. But it’s also silly. The reason that #EndCCStigma is catching on -- hat tip to Steve Robinson at Owens Community College for starting the campaign -- is that we’ve hit a tipping point on college costs, and people are starting to ask some hard questions about classist stereotypes. Be among the first wave to get past that bias, and you stand to benefit enormously. As does society generally. This is one of the best deals in American higher education, and it’s available nearly everywhere.

“Can you handle a massive influx of students?”

Bring it. The visiting year awaits.

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