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How to Make College More Affordable: An Insider’s Perspective

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By Gina Stewart

As a higher education advocate and counselor, I have helped many people, ranging in age from high school graduates to adult professionals, enroll in higher education, only to see them get in way over their heads when it comes to finances. Pressured to meet enrollment numbers, admissions advisors are often guilty of selling the my kids and clients “the dream” without painting a realistic picture of the financial burden that they’re going to saddle these students with after graduation.

Here is what I tell my kids and clients: College, at any level, is expensive. Anyone selling you the dream of higher education without also providing an accurate accounting of the costs and associated difficulties, is doing you a disservice. While I will not share with you the horror stories I have witnessed in an abusive and unchecked system, I can give you some advice on how to spend as little of your money as you can to get the best return on investment possible.

Here are the most important pieces of advice that I offer to every hopeful student I work with:

Get a Degree that Pays

The most important advice I can give to anyone running the financial aid gauntlet is to get serious about the investment, and choose a degree that will pay off in the end. While it is great that many schools offer degree programs in subjects like art history and music appreciation (I majored in music theory and composition so I know whereof I speak), these programs aren’t going to help you get hired outside of your field.

It is better to get your degree in a field that pays well from a school that has a solid track-record of placing students in jobs within the first six months of graduation.

For example, I helped one of my kids enroll in the radiation therapy bachelor’s degree program offered at Gwynedd Mercy U, located here in Pennsylvania. I explained that radiation therapy is a degree that she could carry with her wherever she went and, if she wanted to further pursue medicine or health would pay her enough to help fund that education while simultaneously giving her a leg up on her fellow students. Whatever university and degree combo you choose, make sure it is one that has a good chance of paying off (and that travels well).

Online University

If you are still carrying some doubt about the efficacy of online universities, get over it. When I was an admissions advisor for a major online university back in the day, I understood people’s reticence about joining the program. Today, though, we live on the internet and recent high school graduates are literally younger than household access to the web.

Many of the degrees that are now available online can lead to some highly lucrative careers in a variety of different industries. For example, you can complete a nursing degree online, which puts you on the fast track to paying for your education and earning a very nice living. There are always jobs available in the nursing sector, as hospitals, private clinics, and many other facilities require trained workers. The industry is expected to grow by 22 percent by 2018, since the country’s population is aging, giving you even more chances to find a great job.

Here’s what I told a man who had been downsized out of his retail management position: At the end of the day, you are going to get a solid education at an accredited school, and land a job that pays well. Your interviewer will not disregard your application because you went to a school with an online component. He went after a business degree from one of the most well known online schools in the country and now he’s making three times what he used to make.

Get on the Fast Track

Another thing that I tell everyone I work with is this: If you have the option to get it done quickly, get it done quickly. The longer you are in school, the more it is going to cost you. It’s good to look for programs that have an accelerated option. If you already have some college credits, see if you can CLEP out of the core. That could save you two years, and thousands of dollars. One of my students was looking to transfer from a community college to a four year university. We found her an accelerated program that let her finish the last two years of her bachelor’s degree in just one year. Her current employer was impressed that she took such initiative and even listed it as part of the reason my client was hired!

Let’s face it: College is expensive. But if you do it right, it is one of the best investments you will ever make.


2 Comments

  • Reply C@thesingledollar |

    I don’t think this is particularly good advice. I am not opposed to looking for ways to do college more cheaply (community college courses, scholarships, absolutely) but this is a recipe for rushing through college in a way that might (but then again, might not) lead to quicker and faster employment, and will certainly lead to students not using the full resources of the college to develop their intelligence, research, and writing skills — all of which are indeed going to serve the student wherever he/she goes.

    The writer majored in music theory and is presumably doing just fine; she’s employed doing something that is useful and that she likes. Why shouldn’t the same outcome be possible for other music theory majors? I know people with art history and English (etc) degrees who are doing all kinds of things; some are underemployed, but some are working in jobs that hadn’t been invented when we were in college (I know someone who writes for Buzzfeed, for example.) I also know plenty of un and under-employed people with technical degrees.

    The point is: if you want to be a radiation therapist, by all means go for it. But if it turns out you hate it, or don’t do it well (both real possibilities for people that have been steered there because it supposedly pays) then do not despair of a supposedly useless degree. And for heaven’s sake don’t push to get out so fast with a salable degree that you leave without actually getting what you need (the ability to learn how to do stuff that is actually fairly important in the workplace, like judge claims, research, write a little, understand the point of view of people that are not the same as you, and so forth.)

  • Reply mandalikescats |

    Boo! This is such sad advice. I don’t know how someone who works with young adults could be giving this advice and think it’s serving them well. I agree completely with C@thesingledollar. I’d advise students to ask as many working adults as they can “what did you major in?” so they learn that people can work in business without a business major, can go to Law school without a Political Science major, can become a writer (and probably a better writer) without a Journalism major. Hell, there are even working professionals in IT and Health Care that didn’t have science/math majors.

    I think we (I work at a university) do a disservice to students when we rush them through and don’t give them the time to explore their interests. Utilizing the tools available at a good college (academic advisers, interested faculty, etc.) a student can take time to explore their academic and professional interests and graduate with a degree, confidence and skills to be successful a working adult.

So, what do you think ?