When contemplating college, most of us hope for the best: scholarships and financial aid to help offset the soaring cost of higher education, yet try to prepare for the worst: how to repay huge student loans. Earning a college degree definitely opens doors and invites opportunities, while other decisions like incurring debt to earn that degree set you on a path that can take years to recover from. The two are simply not compatible.
Shocked at the cost of college and determined not to let the debt of earning a degree define our futures, I set out on a journey to discover a path to earn a college degree without incurring mountains of debt. What I found surprised even me. Though we are a single-income family, my kids are graduating college in less than four years and are doing so debt-free.
How’d we do it? Here was our four-step approach:
First, my students became experienced users of Credit-by-Exam. Interesting fact: the first two years of college are primarily a review of the courses students take in high school. Two nationally-recognized CBE programs are the College Level Exam Program offered by the College Board and DANTES Subject Standardized Tests offered by Prometric.
These programs allow students to earn college credit by passing an exam demonstrating mastery of college-level material. The exams cost about $100 each and are accepted at 2,900 colleges nationwide. If there was a corresponding test, my kids simply took that exam at the end of that high school course. If they passed, which they often did, their credits were banked with the testing organization. Later, they transferred these credits to the college they were enrolled in, thereby earning two years of college credit with CBE.
Second, we took advantage of our state’s Dual Enrollment program which allows 11th and 12th grade students can attend college full-time for free. After prepping for and taking CBE, my kids were adequately prepared to handle the academic rigor of these courses and the responsibility that comes with being full-time college students.
Determine a Major
Third, we spent time researching and discovering a college major that suited each student before they began taking their major coursework. Switching majors mid-way through just causes students to spend more money on college courses. To keep it affordable, we needed to streamline their path, taking only those courses that were required. The degree is what opens doors. Their on-the-job performance and experience is what will determine their success.
Fourth, we shopped around for courses. Why spend $4200 on US History when that same course could be taken for $500 at a community college? I made a spreadsheet for each of my kids’ degree plans. Aside from meeting the university’s residency requirement, courses can be taken outside of the college where the student is earning his/her degree. It took some planning, but we looked for options where they could take the same course for less.
Of course, this took time on my part, but I likened it to a part-time job and the savings far outweighed the hourly wage I would have earned from working outside of the home. The results? Their accredited degree cost about $500 more than what my daughter’s braces cost.
One-size does not fit all. Some students earn scholarships that cover tuition and some want the college experience no matter the expense. For us, it was about the opportunities and options that come as a result of not being burdened by student loans.
Cheri is a homeschool parent who has been offering extremely valuable workshops to families for five years. She keeps up a blog and website sharing resources and ideas – www.CreditsBeforeCollege.com.
Your turn: What experience do you have with any of the methods Cheri suggests to help minimize college education costs?