It’s undeniable: College education is expensive. As a parent, I have spent the last nine or so years thinking, researching, and saving in anticipation of this future cost. This post isn’t about traditional ways to save through scholarships or what sort of loans to pursue. Instead, I want to share some less-orthodox ideas I have formulated to cut the cost of a higher education. Here is what I would tell a high-school senior about the realities of college (assuming he or she would listen.)
Attend Community College First
In the late 1980s when I attended college, attending a community college first would have been a heretical notion for university-bound students. At that time, community college was considered a place for those unable to go to a “real” college. I’m not endorsing this idea but merely remembering the perceptions at that time. My experience with community college back then included taking two summer school classes to get some general education classes out of the way. Those community college classes were two of the best, most memorable classes I had in my undergraduate years. But I digress.
Today’s community colleges can provide very excellent general education – especially for high school seniors who aren’t certain about what they want to study at the university. And community college is a bargain! For a fraction of the cost of a year at a four-year college, you can take two years at a community college and get most, if not all, of your general degree requirements satisfied. Just be sure to check reciprocity of credit acceptance, though, before you engage this strategy.
“But, Dawn! What about the experience of being away at a four-year college?” Hogwash. If the latest statistics are correct, many university graduates are moving back home after graduation, up to their eyeballs in debt and unable to find employment. So much for four years at college to learn to live independently!
The reality is that the stigma against community college has largely disappeared in the wake of the economic realities we now face as well as the improved quality and diversity of community college offerings. Use this to your benefit.
Work While You Attend College
Working while attending the two-year community college is a sound idea. Young adults can start gaining “grown up” skills and responsibilities while getting their college education underway. Even if you go to a four-year school, get a job and offset some of the cost of your education.
Some work-study programs are still available, but don’t limit yourself to that. If you know what you want to major in, seek out work opportunities that give you needed experience in your field.
Work Before You Attend College
Unsure what you want to be when you grow up? You are not alone. Instead of diving into an educational scenario that is costly in the best circumstances, take a year off to work and find some direction. You can save money for school as well as potentially identify a career path that excites you.
If you think you know where your interests lie, this strategy can still work in your favor. Attempt to find work that complements your area of study. More often than not, those early connections will serve you well later.
Or, Don’t Work, but Cram Your Education
You’ll need to query your educational institution in advance, but most degrees can be completed in three years with careful planning and summer school attendance. This approach works especially well for hard-core bookworms and/or highly motivated individuals. Saving 25% of the cost of a four-year degree is a pretty big incentive.
The caveat is that the “community college for two years” plan likely won’t correlate with a four-year college. Most universities want you to have two years with their institution to earn a diploma. But if you’re able to knock out almost two years’ worth of general education classes into one year at a community college before you transfer, that might result in huge savings.
Try Online Education Instead
Another heresy! Not so long ago, I would have turned up my nose at this suggestion. However, education online has picked up steam and clout. It’s worth looking at how online education could supplant some of the undergrad requirements and maybe save some money.
Online programs are picking up steam for graduate programs in particular. My advice for this or any of the other strategies is to do your homework. Not all online programs are cost effective, just like all community colleges are not created equally.
Forego the Gold-Plated Degree
Is an Ivy-League degree really necessary for your area of study? In most cases, probably not. Why spend twice or more in tuition dollars for an undergraduate degree? If you hit college age and are certain of your course of study, check out your options. Do your career aspirations benefit from a degree from a pedigreed educational institution? Then have at it. If they do not, find a less expensive alternative.
Speaking as an employer, I have met some pretty unimpressive folks from a variety of “prestigious” universities. I have also met some very first-rate folks from universities without the Ivy League badge of honor. Where you went to undergraduate school matters a whole bunch less than it used to. Education matters. Character matters. Work ethic matters. Pedigrees? Not so much.
If You Can’t Live Without the Big-Name School …
If you insist on earning a fancy diploma, check out this article in Forbes that discusses colleges with no student loans. I CANNOT REPEAT THIS ENOUGH: DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Make no assumptions about the cost to attend any school based on the published statistics. If you have your heart set on an Ivy-League school, dig in and find out how to appeal to the school of your choice.
Conversely, don’t assume a private school is out of your price range. I attended a public school that had a higher final cost than the private school my sister attended. And private schools have far more flexibility to offer creative aid packages.
Don’t Go to College at All
Yep, I said that out loud. I’m not advocating being an uneducated dumbass. Get educated, because being educated is the only way to go far in whatever field you choose. One of the biggest benefits of the information age is if you want to learn how to do something, it has never been easier. Employers are realizing having a college degree doesn’t mean the job applicant has a real, well-rounded, relevant education or common sense. These days you have to be more creative to catch an employer’s attention, but it’s absolutely doable.
The other post-high school career path is to pursue a trade school-type education. People are wising up and realizing finishing a one or two-year training program to be a tradesman who makes decent money is a pretty awesome outcome. Contrast that with coming out of a four-year college with a liberal arts degree, tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and no immediate job prospects.
My point is this: Consider your strengths, interests, and opportunities. Past stigmas about certain educational paths are quickly fading with the arrival of new economic realities. Think long and hard about the path you desire and weigh the pros and cons of all options.
Of course, college can be fun and exciting. Honestly, I’m not trying to take all the fun out of it. But at the end of the day, it is a potentially enormous investment. For parents reading, I would suggest saving as much as you can, but start having this discussion early with your kids. Like most things, it comes down to setting expectations. Work with your children to come up with the right higher education solution for your child and your family.
What other unorthodox ideas do you have in approaching a meaningful path to higher education?