The economics of higher education today is completely intimidating. It doesn’t matter whose statistics you choose to believe, the average undergraduate student is graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. That debt can dictate employment options for the following decade or so, and may create a barrier to further academic pursuits. The value of a bachelor’s degree can be debated endlessly with no real resolution, but there is no question that it’s the only path to graduate work. And if the cost of a BA or a BS destroys ambitions for a higher degree its cost goes far beyond the student debt that’s been acquired.
A Practical Perspective
All of this suggests that a new perspective on undergraduate work may be in order. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have deep pockets supporting your education or you have earned a scholarship, it may not be practical to target the college of your dreams, but rather set a financial goal for the ensuing four years and see if you can meet it. This perspective is particularly relevant for students who are targeting a master’s degree; avoiding massive undergraduate debt is more important than the name of the school on the sheepskin.
The most obvious route to an “affordable” quality education is a public university. Many of them are among the finest large educational institutions in the nation, and the tuition rates are still a bargain although state budget crises are reducing the bargain factor yearly. Still, it costs less than $12,000 for a California resident to attend UC Berkeley; Schools in the State University System like San Jose State cost about half that. Tuition and books at a State University of New York (SUNY) campus is about $7,000. Those figures don’t include living expenses or transportation or other personal expenses, which brings up another cost saving option.
Bargain Basement College Credits
Community colleges are the best bargain in higher education today. Returning to our northern California example, tuition at any California Community College for a full time student is $312 per semester. Throw in the cost of books and the annual cost is still under $2,000 per year for a full time student. Couple that with a part time job and two more years living at home, and you’ve completed the first two years of college debt free. California is an example, but the ratios don’t change much in other states and in California, if you maintain a certain GPA for those first two years you are guaranteed admission to a state university in a vastly overcrowded system.
A degree from virtually any state college or university is perfectly respectable; the stigma that used to attach to transfer students is gone – graduate schools are primarily interested in your performance in upper division classes associated with your major. So now the challenge is getting through the junior and senior years without calling down an enormous student loan. One of the options is taking a part time approach, which can allow you to put in more hours on a part time job. If you knock your course load down by a third and attend summer school you can still finish on time.
The other option along this line is online courses or evening courses, which free up the day for employment. The SUNY Learning Network offers an astonishing number of online courses and degrees drawn from its 23 campuses. You have to enroll at the campus in order to take the course, which can be a hassle but not necessarily a major cost item. Many of the California State University campuses offer online classes as well, and the pattern repeats in other states.
Just because you sign up for some classes online doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to complete your entire degree in this manner. Many universities give you the opportunity to take classes both online and on-campus, which gives you the ultimate flexibility. If you want to work a few days a week and then enroll in classes on your days off, it is entirely possible by taking advantage of this option. Keep in mind that the less time you spend on campus, the more money you will save in terms of transportation costs and other expenses that arise when attending classes.
Majoring in Debt Management
We’re not suggesting that you can emerge from college debt free, but there are enough options available to undergraduate students such that someone with energy and a little discipline can complete a degree with a transcript worthy of consideration in one of the graduate programs you’ve targeted. Perhaps more important is the fact that student debt now becomes a consideration for undergraduate AND graduate school, a burden that will be manageable after five or six years of higher education that have left you with the education you set out to achieve