Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that the cost of college is out of control and won’t slow down any time soon. If you take a look at the chart below, you’ll see that the cost of college is growing faster than inflation and the cost of health care. How much faster? How about 2 ½ times the rate of inflation and almost 30% more than the cost of health care. This increase in the cost of getting a college education has resulted in more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loans with the average student graduating with $28,000 in debt. These numbers are staggering and this kind of debt makes it that much harder for a college graduate to get out from under this huge debt load and get on the track to saving for a car, home or more importantly their retirement.
So, how do you get your child a top-notch education without breaking the bank? Although there are various options ranging from state-run schools to private institutions, it’s imperative you select a school based on affordability and quality, not status. The problem with selecting the right college is that people view the university you graduated from as a status symbol more than the quality of the education. No matter where you attend, you have to put in a lot of time and energy in order to get the education you’re paying so dearly for.
What makes a college education so meaningful isn’t the institution but rather the person who earned the degree. There’s no substitute in life for hard work and dedication. I have worked with plenty of Ivy League graduates who can’t hold a candle to some of the state school graduates who put themselves through school by working nights and weekends. You can’t just buy your way into a better job by going to the most expensive institution; you have to earn it. And at the end of the day, good old-fashioned common sense goes a lot further than a school that charged you $300,000 for a sheepskin after four years.
Now I’m not trying to bash schools like Harvard and Yale but rather point out to you that you shouldn’t make the same mistake with your child’s education as most people do when they’re buying a house or car to give them status. Look at college as you would any other expense. For example, you wouldn’t just go out and buy a Mercedes because everyone says it the best car on earth and that’s what all the seemingly wealthy people drive. You’d do your homework and find all the features that Mercedes offers in a car and see if you can find them in a less expensive alternative. At the end of the day, a vehicle is nothing more than transportation that gets you from one place to the next safely and cost effectively. Think of college in the same light. Ultimately, you want your child to graduate from an institution that offers a quality education at an affordable price.
So how do you get a quality education at an affordable price? Besides selecting a local university and having your children stay at home until they graduate, which might not be an option in your city, you could choose the path taken by many college graduates. The path I’m referring to is a community college for the first two years and then transferring to a university for the last two years. Community college is a great place to get all your general education and lower division courses out of the way for one-third the cost of a state university. Since these classes are required to get a bachelor’s degree, why pay $1,000 a class for English 101 when you can get the same class, probably with the same textbooks, for $300?
If you know what school you want to transfer to and have already selected a major, you can take the required classes that will transfer to the university you want to attend without losing any credits in the process. In fact, a growing number of community colleges offer a direct path to top-notch public and private schools as long as you take the required courses and maintain good grades. For example, the local community colleges in California provide a great path for students to transfer all their core classes (i.e., general education and lower division courses for a particular major) to various California State or University of California schools. If a local state-run school isn’t to your liking, talk to the counselors at the private institution you want to attend in order to map out a game plan of what classes would qualify as transferable credit hours. In today’s dollars, an approach like the one I just outlined could save $30,000 to $60,000 in expenses the first two years.
If you feel going to a community college doesn’t sound appealing, remember this. When you list the college you graduated from on your résumé, no one asks or even cares if you attended a community college first. Their focus is on your background/experience, your problem-solving skills, and then the school you completed your degree. In fact, some interviewers might be impressed that you had the wherewithal to get your education by seeing the big picture and utilizing cost-effective management. That kind of clear thinking, which is something that’s lacking in most college graduates today, might very well be the difference that gets you the job.
Another way to reduce your college expenses is to make sure your student understands that getting his or her college education is their top priority. This starts with taking a full class schedule every term that puts them on the path to graduate in four years. I know this sounds foreign in today’s society, but graduating in four years used to be the standard but over the past two decades, students have turned the four-year experience into five or six years. Although there are various reasons why this happens, some which are legitimate (e.g., changing majors, unable to get necessary classes, etc.), you can’t allow them to use this time, especially on your dime, to party and try and find themselves. They need to understand that getting a college education is their job for the next four years. After they graduate, they can pursue a job that actually pays them which is why they’re going to college in the first place.