Cheap college: Ten Tips

If you’re about to embark on your undergraduate education in the US or Canada, you probably have a good chance of ending up owing some money to pay for your studies and expenses. Can you avoid financial disaster and still end up with a pretty good “education” section on your CV? I believe so, and I’d like to share with you a few tips on cheap college education. They might turn out to be useful, whether you want to go straight to the job market after graduation or whether you have further studies in mind.

I did my undergraduate degree in Brazil. Then, I moved to the UK and completed my graduate education there with a very generous stipend. I also taught in higher education in both countries, including two top universities in the UK. I worked part-time for an institute attached to a university in Europe. Now I work at a major university in South Africa. I know a few things about higher education, and here’s a list of tips for you.

1. Accept a full-tuition scholarship.
If you’ve received an offer of a full-tuition scholarship, go for it. As long as it’s not a loan. No brainer. You’re being subsidised to study full-time. This is your job now. Do a little bit of networking and career skills training, but focus on your degree. Try to do as well as you can. The problem with this strategy is that, quite frankly, the vast majority of students aren’t offered scholarships that get even close to covering full tuition costs.

2. Avoid the athletics trap.
Don’t count on your prowess in sports to put you in a position where you earn full tuition to study. Athletics scholarships cover at most a fraction of the college cost. At most, you’d be able to combine an athletics scholarship with some other source of funding, but even if you get to that stage, you’ll have to figure out a way of earning B+ or A on average with little time to study.

3. Split your degree.
This is the oldest trick in the book. Yet, not enough students seem to follow it. I didn’t know the North American system very well, and I owe this point to Gary North. He explains it on this video. In the US, you can save a lot of money by doing the first two years of your degree at a community college or some other low-cost higher education institution. You can earn an Associate degree and then transfer credits to a four-year college to complete your Bachelor’s degree. One advantage (apart from the financial factor) is that you could do it in the evenings, while you earn some money during the day. Another advantage is that permanent teaching staff in a small college or a community college are gifted teachers – that’s why they were given their jobs in the first place – whereas at a major university professors are rewarded according to their research achievements and teaching might not be terrible, but it’s not necessarily the best you can get either.

4. Try distance learning.
This is emerging as a major alternative to traditional university attendance. You can either earn credits (which you can, later, transfer) or a whole degree at a fraction of the normal cost of university attendance. You can also combine this with point (3) above.

5. Stay with your parents.
Okay, as a Brazilian I didn’t see any problem in staying home for another four years during my university education. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, and it’s up to you to decide if this strategy is worth it, depending on your family’s culture and habits. But the fact is that, even if your parents charge you some rent, they won’t charge as much as the average university dorm would. This means you can save. Plus there won’t be any learning curves related to living in a completely new locality. This strategy requires you to do either a distance-learning degree or to attend your local college, and you can combine this with points (3) and (4) above.

6. Distance learning abroad.
This can be combined with (3), (4) and (5) above. The truth is, most employers don’t care very much about where you got your undergraduate education, except if the place is one of the top five or ten universities in the country. Higher education in the UK is slightly cheaper (on average) than in the US, and often much cheaper if you’re doing it online. You can register at the Open University, or at the University of London’s international programmes. Depending on the area of study, you can even do a distance degree part-time while you work, paying for each course at a time. The University of Aberdeen, for example, offers a distance degree in Religious Studies along those lines. If you give up halfway, you can still earn a CHE degree after completing the first year, a HE Diploma after two years, and the undergraduate course in the UK normally lasts for three years (except, normally, for Scotland).

If you want to save even more money and benefit from favourable exchange rates, you could also apply to study at the University of South Africa (UNISA), one of the world’s largest universities. UNISA has a very good reputation. Remember Nelson Mandela? He earned a degree there. For South Africans, each year of study costs around 1,000 dollars, and if you live abroad, you need to pay extra, but not a whole lot more. There are no classes. Normally, you use multimedia material, lots of written material, and travel to some place in your country where you can do the exams. So you need to factor in the cost of travel, but it still might be worth it. Other South African universities, such as North-West University, also offer distance degrees for certain fields.

7. Move abroad.
This is also becoming more of an alternative for North Americans. In Germany, for example, you can register at a university, as long as you can prove you know the German language well, and get a degree from some of the top universities in the world. The downside is the learning curve of moving abroad, visa bureaucracy and, perhaps, the cost of living in Europe might not be worth it. For example, you could pay low tuition fees in Finland, but it’s not that cheap to live there. For a tuition fee of around 1,000 Euros per year you can also do a degree in Portugal or Spain. Tuition fees in France and Italy are also relatively cheap. All this assumes you can prove you know the local language well enough to register. Depending on where you go, the case for doing a degree abroad is even stronger. In Portugal and Spain, an undergraduate degree normally takes four years. In Italy and France, it depends. In Germany, it normally takes three. This means you save a whole year of expenses.

8. Erasmus+.
If you decide to do your degree in Europe, you can still end up experiencing campus life and networking in North America. The reason is that students at European universities can be selected to do a year abroad under the Erasmus+ programme, and some of the partner universities are from North America. This is not very easy, but what I mean to say is simply that going abroad doesn’t mean abandoning any hope of experiencing student life in North America.

9. Cut corners while still following the rules.
You should thank Gary North for pointing this out. In a North American degree, you must do a number of credits, including electives or credits you can choose, as part of the total number of credits you must earn to obtain the degree. You can cut corners and save time and money by learning independently and then doing a credit-awarding exam. Some of the exams you can do are for general courses you’d end up doing as an elective anyway.

10. Make sure you do French and German.
How does this relate to “cheap college”? I confess there’s no direct relation. But I’d still urge you to do French and German as electives, particularly if they’re “for reading knowledge“. Those are intensive courses that get you to be able to read scholarly work in French or German by the end of a semester. This might not in itself make your college life cheaper now, but it will get you some skills you can use in the future. It gives you a head start in applying for the top, well-funded, PhD programmes in the US and Canada, in case that’s what you’re planning to do. Most PhD courses require you to have reading knowledge of at least one, if not two, of these languages. You might as well do it now. Moreover, if you just want to go to the workplace after you graduate, this can also give you a little advantage over the competition. While it doesn’t necessarily make your college any cheaper, this strategy will make your life easier by adding another relevant item to your CV which might turn out to be very useful in the near future.

I hope those tips can be useful. Maybe you’re even reconsidering whether you should really get deep into debt in order to earn a degree. Well, here’s my appeal. Please reconsider. Student loans may be common. Some even call this kind of debt an investment. But it’s not healthy to owe tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars when you’re just 22 or 23 and under pressure to find a good job to pay that money back. You want to be free. Maybe you want to go to a well-funded graduate programme without that stress. Maybe you want to get married. Who knows? Before accepting a loan to finance your education, please consider these alternative options. I urge you.

Before concluding, a disclaimer. I’m not saying any of these tips will work in every case. Be responsible and make sure you understand the details and implications of any decisions you make. Check, for example, if your target university or college will accept credit transfers from the place where you obtained those credits. Read the small print. But this is more or less what you’d be doing if you accepted a loan – you’d read the small print, right?

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2 thoughts on “Cheap college: Ten Tips

  1. The problem with (3) is that you can’t control how many of your community college credits transfer to the 4-year institution. The better the latter institution, the more likely that they will either look askance at your community college credits, or demand that you take some special sequence of general education credits distinctive to the institution. That not only adds to the amount of time it will take to finish your degree, but adds to the expense. It also adds to the hassle, because transfer credit approval can be a long, tedious, and confusing process. Finally, the process is also entirely discretionary on the part of the person making the decisions. The result is that you can’t predict how the 4-year institution will behave with respect to your 2-year credits. In my experience, it always ends up being a slightly unpleasant surprise. Many of my students use this strategy, but I have real doubts about how well it works.

    • This can be a potential problem, hence the need to know the rules in advance. I’d personally only register at a 4-year college that accepts the Associate Degree and builds up on that. The “quality” of the 4 year institution doesn’t matter that much in the long run anyway.

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