Can Community College Lead to a Master’s Degree?

You’ve heard that your local community college can save you thousands on college bills due to lower tuition costs. But could community college hurt your kid’s future career prospects? What if your daughter wants to get a master’s degree some day? Or a Ph.D.? Will having community college on her transcript hurt her chances of being admitted to grad school? To medical school?

community college

Here’s your answer. Nearly 20% of those who earned master’s degrees in 2016-2017 started out in community college. Fully 21.5% of doctoral-research degree earners in health and clinical sciences started out in community colleges just like the one down the street from your house.

These full-color graphs created by the NSC Research Center tell the story.

In my own work with law, medical, business, and grad school applicants at, I’ve never once seen community college hurt a student’s chances of being admitted to even very highly competitive grad school programs. One top 20 med school told me, “Oh, we are fine with students taking first year Biology and Chemistry in community college. A lot of times, they actually learn more there.”

Read on to learn how your child can get through community college at the lowest possible cost.

What is a community college?

A community college is typically a two-year college where students don’t live on campus in dormitories. Instead, they live at home and commute to campus, greatly reducing room and board costs.

(A few community colleges do have campus housing, for example Vermilion Community College in Ely, Minnesota.)

To find community colleges near you, google the words “community college” along with your zip code. There’s a community college within a reasonable commute of 90% of Americans.

What kind of a degree do community college students earn?

Community college students can complete their freshman and sophomore years of college and earn two-year associate’s degrees while proving their ability with real college-level coursework. (This is especially helpful for students who, for one reason or another, did not do well academically in high school.)

Successful community college students may be offered merit aid scholarship money—free money that need never be paid back—from four-year universities who are eager to bring in slightly older students who’ve proven themselves with college-level work to replace younger students who’ve dropped out.

My son’s not the strongest student. How can we help him succeed in community college?

Students who want to make sure they succeed in community college should seek out every academic support service provided there.

Good questions to ask are:

“What are my professor’s office hours? I’m going to go in and talk to her every time I have a question about what was covered in class.”

“Does this college have a math center where I can get help with math? What about a writing center where I can get help writing “A” level papers?”

“Where can I get one-on-one tutoring if I need it?”

“What other academic support services are available to me at this particular community college?”

What must I know before my child starts community college?

First, some community college students will earn two-year associate’s degrees and then stop their higher education at that point. Registered nurses, for example, can be licensed and hired for nursing jobs that pay $53,000—$73,000 per year after earning two-year associate’s degrees and nothing more. Many other students, though, will want to transfer their community college credits to four-year colleges where they will take enough additional credits to earn 4-year bachelor’s degrees.

Second, students who want to go on to earn master’s or doctoral degrees as soon as possible after they finish their bachelor’s degrees are advised to start the process of applying to those programs in January of their junior years of college. (Approximately 19—20 months before they intend to start grad school.) It’s also completely OK to wait and attend grad school later.

Here’s the most important thing you need to know about this process: it takes just a little strategy to be sure that every community college credit will successfully transfer to that four-year college—nothing wasted.

How can my child make sure that each of his community college credits will eventually transfer to his four-year university?

Make use of these four strategies:

1. Figure out early on which four-year college your child will probably attend eventually. Chapters 13 and 14 of my book, LAUNCH: How to Get Your Kids Through College Debt-Free and Into Jobs They Love Afterward, will give you specific guidance on exactly how to do this.

2. Each semester before registering for community college classes, contact the registrar at that four-year college and ask, “If I take these specific community college classes, will I be able to easily transfer them to your institution? May I have that in writing, in the form of an articulation of transfer agreement?

3. If your son’s already earned an associate’s degree from a community college and he’s just now shopping around for the four-year college where he’ll finish up his bachelor’s degree, have him ask prospective four-year colleges this question: “Will you allow me to block transfer my associate’s degree to your institution?”

A “block transfer” will allow your son to transfer all his community college credits in one large chunk, without the four-year college sniffing and saying, “We’ll take some of your community college credits, but not all of them.” If a four-year college refuses to block transfer the associate’s degree, simply wave goodbye and go find one that will. (Read my article that explains how even the Harvard Extension School has respect for work done by community college students.)

4. While you’re talking to the registrar at the four-year university, ask this question: “I know that most students coming from community college transfer approximately 60 credits to your institution. Is there a way that I could transfer in 72 credits instead, and still not have even one credit wasted?” Because the community college classes typically cost less than four-year college credits do, this strategy can result in significant cost savings for families.

Can my child get federal financial aid to help pay for community college?

Oh, yes.

Every student planning to attend community college should use the FAFSA form to apply for federal financial aid to help pay for it. To learn why, read every word of my article 7 Reasons to Fill Out the FAFSA Form Even If You’re Rich.

To avoid making costly FAFSA mistakes, carefully read chapter 10 of my book, and then download my free article 30+ Common FAFSA Mistakes and How to Avoid Them. Read through it now, and then have it handy on your desk when you’re filling out the FAFSA form.

Your child may end up getting thousands in extra free money financial aid for college. Some families will be awarded enough federal financial aid to pay nearly 100% of the cost of attending community college.

If you’ve found valuable info in this article, please help me by tweeting it out to the people who follow you.

Remember, choosing the right college, checking on transferring, and wisely applying for financial aid is only a small part of the picture when it comes to getting your kid through college debt-free. 

For clear, step-by-step help with the whole process from beginning to end, it takes only 7 hours to read my book:

You can get 10-minute, fast-paced video instruction on how to use this book most efficiently at

You can see more than 100 reviews of it on Amazon at:

(Tell your friends.)

You can see why financial advising professionals love LAUNCHhere.

You can see the top 9 questions parents are asking me about LAUNCHhere.

Read just one chapter of LAUNCH every 1–3 months while your child’s in middle school and high school, and you’ll know every viable strategy for debt-free college at exactly the right time to implement it.

And if your child’s already well past middle school? That’s OK; you can run to catch up. But the process of getting your kids through college debt-free goes more smoothly the earlier you start it—especially if you’re not planning to save up any money to pay for college.

Do you have specific questions for me about debt-free college and career for your kids?

It’s my members that get most direct access to me. Doors to my membership open each year for just 5 days in March, and 5 days in September. Space is limited. Join the Waiting List here.

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What about you?

What strategies have you found for keeping college costs as low as possible, while still protecting the possibility of future admission to grad school? Comment below or LIKE Jeannie Burlowski Author on Facebook, find this post on that page, and let’s talk about it there.

Who is Jeannie Burlowski?

Jeannie is a full-time academic strategist, podcast host, and sought-after speaker for students ages 12–26 and their parents and grandparents. Her writing, speaking, and podcasting help parents set their kids up to graduate college debt-free and move directly into careers they excel at and love. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Huffington Post, USA Today, NerdWallet, and US News and World Report, and on CBS News.

Jeannie also helps students apply to law, medical, business, and grad school at her website You can follow her on Twitter @JBurlowski.