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Attending College on the Cheap

Unserviceable student loan debts. New college graduates unable to land their first job. Hundreds of thousands more are under-employed (either working part-time or in a job that doesn’t require a degree). The benefits of a college degree are simply not worth what they used to be, and that might make a priority out of attending college on the cheap.

Here are some options that will not require six figures in tuition and fees, and nearly as much in student loan debt after the fact. Some are radical, but the times are changing.

Attending college on the cheap – Old fashioned work-study

There was a time – not so long ago – when the majority of college students attended with some variation of work-study. Either you held a full-time job and attended college part-time, or college was full-time and you held a part-time job.

This can be a difficult way to earn a college education, but it does have certain very tangible advantages:

  • Working generally requires that you attend school close to home, and that lowers the overall cost of your education.
  • Lower school costs, plus the contribution from employment earnings, greatly reduces the need to take student loans.
  • Work experience has a way of shaping your education – as a result of working, you may choose your major, or change the one you started with. It’s an opportunity to find your niche.
  • Work provides valuable experience that will usually make it easier to land a job upon graduation. Many of the college graduates who are struggling to land their first job have zero work experience to put on a resume.
Attending College on the Cheap
Attending College on the Cheap

Work-study doesn’t come close to fitting within the TV version of going to college. But it gets you your degree, and it does so at far lower cost, and with valuable hands-on experience.

With the cost of a college degree today, this route should be seriously considered by students from middle class families. Just because there are generous student loan programs available to cover what you can’t afford doesn’t mean that you should take advantage of them.There are alternatives, and work-study is one of them.

Attending community college for the first two years

Community colleges aren’t the cure-all for college cost containment, but they can save you a small fortune if you spend the first two years of your college career in one, then transfer to a four year school. In addition, community colleges generally confer Associate degrees to graduates, which often is all you need to enter certain careers.

Costs run the gamut since there are so many community colleges. Tuition and fees at Gwinnett Technical College in Georgia are just $1,605 per semester, or $3,210 per year. At North Shore Community College in Massachusetts, tuition and fees are $169 per credit for state residents, or $2,535 per semester ($5,070 per year). California Community Colleges has 112 campuses attended by over 2.4 million students. Tuition is $46 per credit, or $690 per semester ($1,380 per year).

Compared to what it costs for attending a four year college, particularly a private college, these fees are a real deal.

In-state colleges

In-state colleges are usually far less expensive than private schools, and have the added benefit that they charge substantially less in tuition and fees to in-state residents. They may not have all the prestige of an Ivy League (or equivalent) school, but you can earn a four-year degree with far less money. And for what it’s worth, some in-state schools are actually highly rated and line up favorably with prestigious Ivy League schools. An excellent example of this, here in the state of Georgia, is Georgia Tech. It’s consistently rated as one of the top engineering schools in the country.

Still another advantage of in-state colleges is they offer the possibility of commuting to school, rather than incurring the cost of room and board at a remote school – which is the subject of my next suggestion.

Commuting to school rather than living on campus

One of the almost built in advantages of attending either a community college or state four year college is that there’s a far greater likelihood that you’ll be able to commute to school from home. This will eliminate the need for costly room and board required to live away on campus. In general, room and board roughly doubles the cost of attending a college or university, and by commuting you eliminate this expense entirely.

A 50% reduction in your overall cost of attending college should also drop the amount of student debt you need to carry by 50% as well. No, you will not have the traditional on-campus college life as a commuter, but by the time you graduate you will have far less debt and be able to get on with building a meaningful adult life much more quickly.

Opting out of the college norm entirely

I’ve written before on this site that college has become something of a default option for young people who don’t know what else to do in their lives. Sometimes this default is aided by well-meaning parents and high school faculty. The conventional view is that college is the way to high paying jobs and anything else could be a recipe for failure.

But if you have any aptitude for non-college careers, you should certainly consider them. There are many careers that don’t require a degree but provide income levels comparable to what you would earn with a degree. The possibility exists that you can earn a substantial amount of money working in the trades, having a career in sales, or even running your own business. Strictly speaking, none of those occupations absolutely require a college degree, or the expense and debt that are needed to earn one.

The high cost of attaining a college degree, as well as the massive amount of debts that many graduates are now carrying, mean that there are now risks to getting a college education, risks that weren’t there just 20 years ago. Those risks mean that non-college alternatives need to be seriously considered.

If you are facing the college decision for yourself or for one of your children, have you considered any of the options above as a way to cut the cost?

( Photo by Tax Credits )

4 Responses to Attending College on the Cheap

  1. Great post. Fan the college is overpriced cultural smolder, please. That market needs a smackdown.

    Might want to also mention:

    – Military service benefits for paying for college (not for everyone, sure)
    – Government grants, like Pell grants.
    – Third party grants and assistance
    – Merit scholarship costs reduction
    – Possibly free MOOC learning
    – Creative textbook cost reduction

  2. Hi mc – All great alternatives, thanks for adding them!

    Yeah, I plan to hit this topic more in the future. I think a lot of people are blindly paying too much under the assumption that they have no real alternatives.

    And if I might add, I think a lot of people are paying too much because they want the college lifestyle (dorm life, frat parties, spring break, etc). The problem is that it’s all beyond the ability of the vast majority of the middle class. And that’s where student loans are becoming a bigger problem.

  3. Transferring for the last year or two is also an option. If you want to graduate from college X you can look at the list of places it accepts transfers from and go to the cheapest one, then transfer in the end, getting your degree from your first choice college.

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