In 2005, Stanley Hicks started his slow and steady slog toward completing an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering.
He enrolled at Indiana University-Purdue University--Indianapolis, a regional campus of both schools, and spent the next eight years working while he studied.
At first Hicks, who financed his own education, could afford the courses. But then his budget got tight. Now he's finishing his four-year degree though online courses at Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College.
"At IUPUI some classes, with fees, are 1,200 bucks," says Hicks. "At Ivy Tech, the same class is $400."
Hicks, now 45, is one of many students across the country who are accumulating credits toward a four-year degree through online courses from community colleges.
Experts say taking online courses at community colleges can have several benefits, including lowering the overall cost of education. But the classes aren't always a silver bullet, they say, and students should do their research before signing up for an online course at another school.
[Learn how to tell a good online course from a bad one.]
Officials at Ivy Tech, the nation's largest community college system, say they have noticed an uptick in the number of students at four-year colleges such as Indiana University or Purdue University enrolling in their online courses. In the spring of 2013, for example, they had 1,402 guest students taking online courses from the college, up from 757 the year before.
Ivy Tech President Tom Snyder says the increase is tied to affordability - community college classes tend to be significantly cheaper than their counterparts at four-year colleges. Online courses at a community college also often have small class sizes and can help students fulfill degree requirements when classes at their four-year institutions are full, he says.
The flexibility provided by online courses is also a draw, Snyder says.
Hicks, the Ivy Tech student, says convenience was a big factor in his decision to pursue online learning. Although juggling work and school is difficult, he says taking online classes at both Ivy Tech and his four-year college gave him the freedom to pursue his degree on his own schedule.
Other community colleges are also noticing the transfer trend.
Arizona's Glendale Community College has seen an increase in students taking courses online with the intent to transfer those credits to a state or private university, says Tressa Jumps, the school's director of marketing.
In 2008, 18 percent of Glendale students were taking online classes with 40 percent of those intending to transfer, she says. Today, 26 percent of students are taking classes online with 46 percent intending to transfer.
Jumps says many of the guest students at Glendale are taking courses covering subjects they have struggled with in the past or are taking a challenging course over the summer so they can devote more time to it. Taking an online community college course gives them the chance to be in a smaller class, and in the case of Glendale, benefit from free tutoring, she says.
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Before students flock to online courses at community colleges, experts suggest students check whether they can indeed transfer their courses and actually save money.
In many parts of the country, due often to pressure from state legislatures, public four-year institutions are adopting agreements with community colleges that allow students to more easily transfer credits between the schools.
But progress has been slow, according to David Baime, senior vice president of government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges.
"It's not by leaps and bounds but by fits and starts," he says. "And the existence of an agreement on paper doesn't necessarily mean it will be observed in practice."
Before signing up for an online community college course intended for transfer, higher education advocate Russell Poulin says students should determine whether the course will fit the specific degree requirements of their home institution.
In some cases, a four-year institution will accept credit for a course, but will not count it toward a specific major or minor, he says.
Students looking to take online courses at community colleges should also consider financial aid concerns, says Poulin, who serves as deputy director of research and analysis for WCET, a cooperative aiming to promote the effective use of technology in higher education.
Students can use federal financial aid at only one institution, but some colleges participate in consortia agreements that allow students to enroll in a partner college while maintaining aid eligibility at their home institution, he says.
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Finally, Poulin recommends that students factor in any additional costs, such as admission fees, technology, charges for entrance tests and class fees.
"For a lot of community colleges, fees are very low," he says. "But they vary quite a bit."
Hicks, who will end up taking six courses at Ivy Tech before he graduates, says his classes at the two institutions were more or less the same in terms of quality. For financially stressed students, he says taking online community college courses is a great option.
"There seems to be no 'hidden' fees at Ivy Tech," says Hicks. "I also like the smaller class sizes and you seem to get better one-on-one assistance from the professors if needed."
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