By Naomi Sheehan

In an era of high college costs, long-term student debt, and an uncertain job market, students and parents are compelled to consider a college degree as a serious investment. Measures like price, debt, and post-graduation employability and pay outlook must all be weighed in deciding on the quality of a school.

How can you make a wise choice? Posing the following questions can help you chart your educational course.

1. What are the costs?

Cost is a — if not the — prime consideration for most students and their families.

Community colleges, which as the name implies serve local communities, are a fraction of the cost of public four-year universities, private schools, and for-profit colleges.

For the 2015-16, the College Board reports average tuition and fees for public two-year community colleges across the country at $3,435. By comparison, the average cost of attending a for-profit school is more than quadruple the cost of a local community college.

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School type Tuition and fees, 2015-16

Community college $3,435

Public four-year (in-state) $9,410

Public four-year (out-of-state) $23,893

Private nonprofit four-year $32,405

For-profit $15,610

Source: College Board Trends in College Pricing 2015

2. What programs are offered?

Community colleges offer dozens of Associate degree programs, including some that lead toward a bachelor’s degree or higher through a transfer track, as well as short-term certificates taking a matter of months to complete.

These range from industrial and technical, medical and STEM-focused, socially oriented criminal justice and education degree options, to traditional humanities and sciences programs.

3. What are the economic outcomes for graduates?

Most students are rightly concerned about landing a job after earning a degree. Are the skills you learned in college applicable in the workforce? Or to put it another way, does a college live up to its claims in terms of providing a better future for its students?

While community colleges are sensitive to local economic shifts and the needs of industry in their service areas and tailor their courses accordingly, most four-years and for-profits are less responsive. Community colleges frequently forge partnerships with industry to help their students get cutting edge skills and get into the career pipeline.

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Resources

Compare and rank schools: collegescorecard.ed.gov

Net price calculator: collegecost.ed.gov/netpricecenter.aspx

Apply for financial aid: fafsa.ed.gov

Contact Your Community College: enroll@ycc.edu or 800-123-4567

4. How much debt will I take on?

Because of the low price of community college coupled with financial aid, many students graduate with little to no debt. For the 2016-17 school year, the maximum Federal Pell Grant is $5,815. This often leaves money for books and other needs. The College Board reports community college students in 2015-16 had an average $770 left over after financial aid.

This is perhaps the “best kept secret” of community colleges — unfortunately for students who enroll in for-profit schools and wind up saddled with huge debt loads and damaged credit ratings.

While for-profit schools account for about 8 percent of the total higher education student population, these students make up a whopping 44 percent of federal student loan defaults. Starting at a community college can mean avoiding a lifetime of financial headaches.

5. Will my credits transfer?

Most community colleges have “articulation agreements” with two- and four-year schools, and advisors to help you plan your transfer in advance.

Articulation agreements — like a 3+1, taking three years at a community college and one year to finish at a public four-year school — ensure you don’t waste time or money earning your Bachelor’s degree.

6. What resources does the school provide to help me succeed?

Community colleges place a premium on helping students complete their goals, even when life is complicated by work and family obligations. Most two-year schools offer flexible and online class options that work around your schedule.

Student success often comes down to the resources a college can provide outside of the classroom. Financial advising, career placement, tutoring, and other student services are vital for navigating higher education. Community colleges offer a unique support system to students.