College Is Affordable


Overcoming the High Cost of College

The cost of higher education is soaring, when compared to the rates of inflation, housing, health care, and household income. My wife and I are taking stock of our finances, along with millions of parents of high-school aged students, as we file our taxes and dutifully start our portion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  A common question arises:  Is an “investment” in a degree still worthwhile?  Although the potential earnings for your future graduate are subjective, and the tuition costs are certainly increasing, it is true that the attainment of a degree will still be an economic advantage for your child.  Our key to success is to make a plan that addresses rising costs, and potential earnings for young graduates.

Step One: Research Careers More Than Schools

Our objective here is a rewarding, but economically viable career for your child. Being realistic about life in the real world is not being negative. Rather, a sober look at the realities of the workplace better prepares you and your child for the commitment that’s required.  College isn’t right for every kid, and all areas of study are NOT the same when it comes to earning power, and professional growth. We tend to lump majors together when we discuss the value of a college degree, but that doesn’t paint a reliable picture of cost versus benefit. It doesn’t make sense to go into more debt than your graduate’s ability to repay. Some areas, like teaching, require a graduate degree right away, and suffer from high competition and low initial salaries. Others. Like engineering, demand an aptitude in science and math that may be too late to develop in the last year of high school, yet their earning potential is quite good.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a good starting point for general data regarding job descriptions, competition for employment, and regional salary data. The BLS will not give you an idea as to the culture of a particular profession. For families that don’t have  a friend or relative actively working in a field of interest, I recommend surfing the groups and message boards with active members of the profession in consideration. I use LinkedIn to get a feel for what people “in the trenches” are experiencing at the work place. There are many sites to chose from. You’ll get a feel for the legitimate sources of knowledge from the malcontents, and spammers.

Take the time to investigate job placement reports that indicate the percentage of graduates working within their degree major. Again, a simple Google search will suffice. Job placement (within a chosen major) varies dramatically among disciplines. Not surprisingly, education and engineering students tend to find employment in those industries. Those with “soft” degrees tend to suffer from higher rates of unemployment, or are less likely to lead to employment in their chosen field.

What about kids who don’t know what they want to be when they grow up? It is quite normal for most kids to be undecided on their future profession, and this is a source of great stress for children and parents. Remember, your young student has a golden opportunity to approach future employers and successful professionals in their role as students doing research. This is real education, and it far surpasses sitting in a lecture hall. Assigned papers and interviews are the foot in the door to seeing what’s behind the curtain. A college freshman, (perhaps unsure of his intended major or career plans), has the advantage of not being in the stressful “job interview” mode, and will get some valuable advice in the process. In my own life, I’ve found leaders will be generous to young people, who sincerely approach them about their experiences in the real world. Sometimes, internships and letters of recommendation spring from these meetings as well. Regardless, researching the life “beyond the university” can only help address some of these unknowns, and give undergraduates the interview skills they’ll soon need, too.

Step Two: Get College Credit Where Credit is Due

In my own experience, I was able to leverage my own knowledge and talents to earn 21 credit hours through the College Level Examination Program or CLEP. I did not take Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school, and CLEP was a great opportunity to get easy credit. I chose courses that were interesting enough to complete on my own. CLEP exams are widely accepted, and ideal for getting credit for introductory level core classes or electives Study guides are widely available at a fraction of textbook costs, too. For nominal exam fees, I shaved over half a year off of my degree timeline, and saved thousands of dollars in the process. The time I saved through CLEP allowed me to work a full-time job, increase my grade point average (CLEP exams are not factored into GPA calculations), and win a partial scholarship. The benefits are substantial for what amounts to about three weeks of self-study per course. 

Step Three: Invest in Entrance Exam Preparation

My son, Kevin, won a nearly $40,000 scholarship to a state university thanks to his performance on the ACT exam. His composite score of 136 placed him in the top half of the top one percent. How did he do it? He took the exam three times, and attended two classes, totaling six evening prep sessions. Scoring well is more a function of preparing for the test methodology, than being brilliant. Our persistence paid off handsomely for a total investment of about three days worth of extra work, and $150. There are many software programs, and some very intensive (and expensive) tutoring programs to chose from. I recommend starting with a program recommended by your school guidance counselor. They see the results of the ACT tests from among many students, and can validate your course of action.

Summary: These are just a few tools available to you when planning for the time and cost of a college education. They have served my family well, but in no way comprise a complete list. There are many valid approaches to the common problem of higher education costs. I’d love to hear some of yours!