Free college is a hot topic in this year’s presidential election. But a number of states and cities aren’t waiting until November to find a way to make higher education more affordable.

Instead, they are focusing now on cutting the cost to get a community college degree. Since the start of the year, Los Angeles, Detroit, Salt Lake City, and Boston have unveiled tuition-free programs for residents who want to earn an associate’s degree at a local two-year college. In the last year and a half, nearly two-dozen cities and three states (Tennessee, Oregon, and Minnesota) have launched tuition-free community college initiatives.

Though each program differs in detail, they are typically aimed at residents who finished high school or earned a GED within the previous year. Scholarships or tuition waiver programs are used to cover tuition, after financial aid is taken into consideration. Some students must also have low to moderate income or qualify for a federal Pell Grant, which is for low-income students. And most require you to maintain a certain grade point average and finish community college in three years.

The push to make community college more affordable comes as the cost of college, and the amount of money students must borrow to attend, balloons. Community college is seen as an affordable path to earning a bachelor’s degree rather than spending all four years at an expensive university. Tuition and fees at a two-year community college averaged $3,435 compared to $9,410 at a four-year in-state school and $32,405 at a private non-profit institution. Still, tuition and fees at two-year schools has also been rising, up 14 percent the past five years vs. 11 percent at private colleges and 13 percent at public colleges, according to The College Board.

About 80 percent of people who go to community college say they want to go on to get a bachelor’s degree, says John Fink, research associate at Columbia University's Community College Research Center. “College affordability is a big issue. You’re potentially taking away half the cost of getting a bachelor’s degree with these programs,” says Fink.

Challenges Beyond Making Tuition Free

While higher education advocates applaud the tuition-free programs, they say more needs to be done to ensure that those who start at a community college and want a bachelor’s degree go on to get it. Only 14 percent of students who start at two-year schools transfer to four-year schools and earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting, according to a report by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center.

The problem isn’t just tuition, says Debbie Cochrane, research director at the Institute for College Access & Success. At some schools, mandatory fees for things such as student activities, registration and lab fees can add thousands of dollars to the cost of attendance. At the two community colleges covered by the Tuition Free Community College Plan in Boston, tuition is about $600 per academic year but with fees, total cost is about $5,000, according to a report in the Boston Globe. And that doesn’t include out of pocket for books, supplies, computers, and transportation.

“Helping students pay their tuition is great, especially low-income students, says Cochrane. “But if it stops at tuition, then it’s not going to help students get to graduation or go on to a four-year degree.”

Smooth the Transition to a Bachelor's Degree

If you plan to attend community college and want go on to get a four-year degree, here’s what you can do to smooth the path to graduation.

Budget for the total cost. The true cost of college is what you pay for tuition and fees after taking financial aid, scholarships, and grants into account. Don't let unexpected expenses derail your ability to go to school. Account for costs specific to the degree you're pursuing. Consider if you'll have lab fees or have to pay for a licensing exam. Because community colleges are typically commuter schools, daily living costs account for a larger portion of the total cost of attendance than for students who live on campus, says Cochrane. So, factor in daily living expenses, such as eating out in between classes and transportation costs. 

Seek out transfer-friendly schools. Some universities have very high acceptance rates of transfer students, even very highly-rated schools. University of Chicago and Stanford accept less than 5 percent of transfer students while Cornell and UC-Berkley accept more than 20 percent. And some states, including Florida, California, Massachusetts, and Virginia, guarantee that anyone who earns an associate degree in state can transfer to the state university.

Avoid transfer shock. Make sure your community college credits will transfer to the schools where you want to finish your degree. Most schools accept transfer credit, but the classes might count only as an elective or may require a minimum grade of a B or C to transfer. Talk to the community college and the school you want to attend to understand the transfer requirements.

Get your associate’s degree. Research shows that community college students who got a certification or two-year degree at community college degree before transferring are more likely to complete a bachelor’s. The success rate may be higher because students with an associate's degree have an easier time transferring credits, says Fink.