College in who live in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin have the option of beginning their undergraduate education at community colleges or branch campuses of the larger schools. The costs of attending the community college are significantly lower, although the ease of transferring credits to the junior year is greater if you start at a branch campus.

As flagship state universities become more selective and more crowded more and more students are offered the option of beginning their college education on a branch campus, with the possibility of transferring to the main campus to delve deeper into the major. The system best known to me that operates branch campuses is Penn State, although several other university systems including the University of Delaware, Miami (OH), Ohio State and Wisconsin, among others, do as well.

Penn State’s branches are called Commonwealth Campuses. Starting in 1936, this network of campuses spread throughout the state. The idea was, and still is, to make a Penn State education accessible to anyone who lived in Pennsylvania. All 19 Commonwealth Campuses grant Bachelor’s degrees (though some are more limited than others) as well as Associate’s degrees. Nine of these campuses also provide on-campus housing.

Penn State encourages students who are not admitted to the main campus to begin their students at one of the Commonwealth Campuses instead of another four-year school or a community college. The major reason is that the transfer process is seamless. Students who begin their studies on a Commonwealth Campus are “re-assigned” to the major department on the main campus. These students have also paid less–they would have likely saved on room and board if they attended the campus close to home–to begin their Penn State education.

Penn State currently charges freshmen Pennsylvania residents approximately $17,000 in tuition and fees if they enroll on the main campus and receive no scholarships. This is one of the highest rates in the country.

By comparison, the Commonwealth campuses charge between $13,000 and $13,600. Not exactly a bargain compared to the in-state tuition and fees charged by other state universities. The real savings comes from living at home versus living on campus.

For comparisons sake, a student living in the Harrisburg area, about an hour and a half from the main campus, has the option of attending Penn State-Harrisburg for approximately $13,700 as a first or second-year student. That same student will pay around $4,500 to attend Harrisburg Area Community College and around $9800 to attend Shippensburg University, the nearest state-supported school that is not part of Penn State.

So the branch campus costs more. But at the same time the students at the community college and the other state university are not part of the Penn State community. There are few assurances that their coursework will transfer with full credit over to Penn State’s main campus.

However as the booming voice shouts in the infomercials: “But wait there’s more.”

Penn State’s faculty control admissions to their major programs. All students, regardless of the campus they started, are considered for admission in competition with each other. The faculty has the right to set a cut-off for grade point average if too many people are interested in a major. Students who began their academic journey on the branch campus may not be able to continue on the main campus. They might be able to continue on another branch campus that offers the major, or transfer to another university.

Fortunately, Penn State placed some of the high-demand majors such as Business, Information Sciences and Technology and Nursing on multiple campuses. The Harrisburg campus, with more than 4,000 undergraduates, offers programs in Civil, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering as well as in business specialties such as Accounting, Finance, Management and Marketing. This campus offers a more personalized professional education than many larger state schools. You will pay more–just under $17,000 for the junior or senior year–but you have the same Penn State degree in these fields as the students who pursued their degree on the main campus.

Most important, all Penn State alumni are members of the university’s alumni network, the largest in the world, regardless of the campus from where they received their degree. They also benefit from some of the best career services available at a national public university. For some it’s worth starting the journey at a Commonwealth Campus to be sure you can graduate into this community.

Students and families who face this decision have some homework ahead of them.

If you are considering the branch campus, be sure that you visit the academic advising office so that you clearly understand what it will take to move on to the main campus, if that is your intention.

If you are considering the community college, ask about articulation agreements. Good community colleges will usually have agreements with four-year schools that will accept all courses with a grade of ‘C’ or better. Some, like Burlington County College (NJ), Harford Community College (MD) and Polk County Community College (FL) will have agreements with state-supported schools that have campuses literally across the street.

If you are considering another, lower-cost state-supported school, choose one where you might consider staying until you complete the degree. Ask about freshmen retention rates (the percentage of freshmen who continue on to their sophomore year) and graduation rates. Ideally, you want a school that retains at least 80 percent of the freshmen and graduates at least 60 percent within six years.

Whatever option you choose, you want a school that is committed to student success.

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