the BARGAIN in your own BACKYARD Two years at a community college can knock thousands of dollars off the cost of a bachelor's degree.

(MONEY Magazine) – If someone told you there was a secret strategy that could get you a college education at nearly half-price, you'd probably dismiss him as a daydreamer. Yet that strategy exists. You simply spend your first two years at a low-cost public community college and then transfer to a four-year school. The result: You can cut the cost of a bachelor's degree by as much as 40%, just as Wayne Beadles, 20, pictured at right, is doing at Colorado State University. Tuition at the country's 1,000 or so tax-supported community colleges, which can be as low as $200 a year in California, averages just $1,022 nationwide. That's less than half of the going rate at public four-year schools and only a tenth of the $10,017 average annual tuition and fees at private institutions. And since most community college students commute from home, they don't pay for room and board, saving another $4,000 or so a year. Thus someone who spends two years at a community college, followed by two more in residence at a four-year school, can trim about $10,000 off the $29,000 average cost of a degree from a public college and a whopping $26,000 off the $63,500 cost of one from a private school. (About 200 two-year schools around the nation are private, not state supported; generally known as junior colleges, these institutions charge tuitions comparable to those of four-year private schools.) One obvious question about this strategy is whether you can get a good education at a two-year school. The answer is yes, but don't expect lectures by world-class scholars or classrooms bursting with high achievers. Community colleges are usually open to any high school graduate who applies, space permitting. Courses often are less demanding than those at most four-year schools. If you're not careful, such lower standards can create subtle roadblocks. ''The climate at a community college generally doesn't promote high expectations,'' says Yale sociologist Steven Brint, co-author (with Jerome Karabel) of The Diverted Dream (Oxford, 1989; $11.95), a study of community colleges. ''And it can depress motivation.'' + Yet other experts argue that many community schools provide excellent instruction. With no research faculties or graduate programs, community colleges concentrate on teaching; professors devote full time to the classroom and to advising students. ''All the money you pay goes toward your education, not research or graduate study,'' says William Deegan, director of the higher education program at the University of Miami. As for the academic climate, about a third of the 6 million students now attending two-year schools expect to move on to four-year schools. Wayne Beadles is one of many recent community college success stories. His standout high school record earned him a spot in the engineering program at the Colorado School of Mines. But he balked at the $9,500 annual cost, even though he qualified for $2,600 in financial aid. ''I wasn't positive I wanted to be an engineer, and I didn't want to pay that kind of money to find out,'' Beadles says. Instead, he decided to spend two years at Otero Community College in La Junta, Colo., a 10-minute commute from his home in Swink, Colo. (pop. 600). During his first year at Otero, where annual tuition is less than $1,000, Beadles discovered he loved mathematics. This fall, he will enter Colorado State University in Fort Collins as a junior to train as a math teacher. His 3.6 grade point average at Otero, combined with his Hispanic heritage, has earned him a $2,000 yearly scholarship to help pay his $9,000 annual expenses. ''I still have to take out loans for the rest, but only for two years,'' he says. ''I'll end up saving at least $12,000.'' To execute the community college strategy, you must make sure that the four- year school you transfer to will recognize the credits you accumulate during your first two years. Before you apply to a community college, ask someone in the school's transfer or guidance office to tell you how many recent graduates went on to four-year schools -- and which ones. If you have a specific four-year college in mind, check with its admissions office about your chances of being able to transfer and its policy on accepting credits. ''The best way to avoid unpleasant surprises is to choose your four-year school at the same time you pick your community college,'' says Muriel Shishkoff, author of Transferring Made Easy (Peterson's Guides, $11.95). Some states simplify the process. In California, for example, state community college graduates who meet specified requirements are guaranteed admission to one of the state's public four-year colleges or universities. Florida uses the same course numbering system in its two-year and four-year college networks so that students know in advance which courses satisfy transfer requirements.

In addition, community colleges often strike individual arrangements, called articulation agreements, with four-year schools to smooth transfers, usually by making sure transferred credits will be accepted at full value. Nearly every community college has an agreement with at least one four-year school; some have relationships with far more. Along with lowering education costs, community colleges can help a wayward student get back on track. They generally provide heavy doses of individual attention, including tutoring, remedial help and counseling. Says Steven Zwerling, an education specialist who heads the Ford Foundation's community college programs: ''The forgiving, low-pressure atmosphere can turn a poor student into a good student and a good student into an excellent one.'' That pretty much sums up Rob Engle's story. A mediocre high school record prevented Engle, 20, of Dearborn Heights, Mich. from earning the scholarship he needed to afford the prestigious University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (in- state tuition, fees and room: $10,000 a year). Rob's 2.9 grade point average was good enough, however, to win him a full scholarship for $2,620 from nearby Henry Ford Community College. His friends ribbed him about attending ''Hank High.'' But he boosted his average to 3.8, which gained him a $500 award from the U. of M. as the school's top incoming transfer student this fall. With help from his parents and the $5,000 in savings he piled up from part-time and summer jobs while living at home, ''I can afford the last two years now,'' says Rob. Recognizing a winning strategy, Rob's 18-year-old brother David, also an aspiring U of M student, is now a freshman at Hank High.