Alternative Strategies for Saving on College Tuition

January 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Financial Planning, Spending

Mr. ToughMoneyLove is a regular critic of colleges and universities.  There is lots of hard truth to be spread about the deficiencies in our system of financing higher education.  First, many colleges are what one writer has called failure factories because they graduate so few of the students who attend.  Second, the out of control budgets at many universities is a driving factor in the ridiculous amount of student load debt incurred by too many students.

I have also questioned the judgment of students who go to law school or enter an MBA program for no apparent reason other than that they have nothing better to do or they think it will lead to financial rewards.

While not retreating from any of what I have said previously about wasting money attending college, there are lots of good reasons for many students to go to college and there are some college programs that can offer a decent return your investment.  By the way, I’m not interested in hearing again from those who want to tell me why college is not a monetary or career investment but a “life changing experience” where education is valued for its own sake.  That statement may be true for 1% of the students.  For the rest, the only things “life changing” are learning how to binge drink away from Mom and Dad and acquiring boat loads of debt.  This is based on my own college experiences (attending two, teaching at a third), and listening to my sons’ college stories.

Returning now to the actual subject of this post, the standard strategies for saving money on college tuition are (a) to attend an in-state public university and (b) starting at a local community college.  These are actually the best strategies.  However, you do get those students who feel the need to leave the state to attend school (and their parents let them push them around) or cannot find a program that meets their interests.   I have two suggestions for alternative tuition savings strategies for these students and parents.

Alternative Strategy 1:  Become a barista at Starbucks.  OK, this is not a serious suggestion but, sad to say, you do run into a lot of college graduates at places like Starbucks.  That’s because the only thing they got out of college is that “life changing experience.”  Unfortunately, that did not include any experience that an employer would value.

(Actual) Alternative Strategy 1:  Use the Academic Common Market.  I don’t know if this concept exists in every part of the country, but there is a consortium of public universities in sixteen states in the south and mid-south that participate.  The concept is simple:  If a student wants to enter a college program that is not offered in his or her home state but is offered in another participating state, that student can apply for and enter that program and be eligible for in-state tuition.  In the Southern Regional Education Board Academic Common Market, there are over 1400 programs.  Some are unusual, but others are reasonably mainstream, such as Petroleum Engineering, Landscape Architecture, Marine Biology, Journalism, and Forensic Science. 

By the way, the Academic Common Market can also be used for graduate programs.  In fact, Florida, Texas, and North Carolina participate only for graduate programs.  Once again, there are some strange but also interesting graduate programs available through the common market.  Examples:  MBA with a real estate or health administration concentration, Gerontology, City Planning, and International Diplomacy and Commerce. 

The Academic Common Market offers online college programs as well.  This way, you can live in your home state, take classes online in a common market state, and pay in-state tuition.  Some of the online ACM programs I found interesting were a Masters in Forensic Accounting, Master of Public Health Administration, and Masters in Nuclear Engineering. 

Alternative Strategy No. 2:  Secure an in-state tuition college scholarship.  I mention this one because we used it.  Our third son did not want to attend college in-state.  Fortunately, one of the schools he was interested in (Mississippi State University) offered four years of in-state tuition to any out-of-state student who achieved a certain GPA or ACT/SAT score.  Our son met both of these criteria.  

What’s interesting is that the academic standards were quite reasonable.  In fact, any student in our home state of Tennessee that was eligible for an in-state lottery scholarship could also have attended Mississippi State with in-state tuition.  A second interesting aspect is that the in-state tuition scholarship is not need-based.  (No way we would have qualified based on need.)  No forms to fill out except a basic “I have good grades – may I have the money” form.  Finally, Mississippi State was so eager for out-of-state students that they offered our son some scholarship money in addition to in-state tuition.  All he has to do to keep the scholarships is to maintain a 3.0 GPA.  Now that he is there he likes it and is enrolled in a program that is not offered at any of our in-state universities.

I know that there are other state universities that want to attract out of state students who have good academic records.   I don’t know how many or where they all are, but I suggest that you look for them.  If you (or your child) want to get out of state for college, then finding in-state tuition in exchange for decent high school grades is a great way to make that happen in an affordable way.

There you have it.  Frugal college tuition ideas from a non-frugalist.  Comments?

Photo credit:  Bob Smith

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6 Responses to “Alternative Strategies for Saving on College Tuition”
  1. Meg says:

    Another way to save money that most people don’t consider is to graduate early.

    I’ll be graduating this spring at 20 with my BA, which I completed in 3 years. I had no credits coming into college, but took an extra class every semester and a couple of courses at a local community college during the summers and it was fairly painless. A bright and motivated student could easily do it. There are lots of ways to earn college credits. Graduating early is letting me afford a degree from a much more prestigious university than I otherwise would have been able to afford.

    Furthermore, taking 20 credits a semester wasn’t that onerous. I was still able to work 20 hours a week and earns A’s.

  2. kitty says:

    A couple of things. I do think that there is a difference in program’s breath and requirements between universities. This is from experience – I got my BS (math/CS) in a not-so-great university and I got my MS (CS) in a university with an excellent CS program. Also a state university, but the one rated very highly in CS, and engineering. The differences in the material covered, requirements, amount of work required to get a degree – and I compared programs for the BS as well – was literally day and night. I had to take some additional undergrad classes just to compensate for things the courses I took as an undergrad failed to cover.

    Having said that – in many fields there are excellent state universities that provide great education in specific areas. For example, both University of California at Berkeley and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where I got my MS/CS) have great engineering and CS programs that rival the best private schools. There are several other great state schools.

    I think deciding what one wants to study early on and researching universities based on education offered in a specific field may allow to find a good value for the money.

    Another trick is for people who plan to go to grad school: they can go to an OK and relatively inexpensive public school as an undergrad, get the best grades possible and then to try to get an assistantship to go to the best graduate school for their field. Assistantships cover tuition and fees regardless of their cost and pay enough salary to live on. More than enough to live on modestly: there was a woman in my department who was a single mother of three who lived on an assistantship and felt it was enough.

    Another trick. Many undergrad programs require a number of courses outside of the major e.g. English composition, humanities or social sciences requirements for a math major, etc. Starting in a community college, taking these courses and then transferring, or simply taking these courses during summer may save money. A friend of mine daugter did it during summer.

    “Furthermore, taking 20 credits a semester wasn’t that onerous. I was still able to work 20 hours a week and earns A’s.”
    Me too, but it really depends on courses and a university. In some universities the workload is so high that it may not be possible. I did it as an undergrad, but even there I had to organize my schedule so that only 2 of these 4 courses required completion of complex projects every couple of weeks. I would’ve found it diffucult in my grad school. Still, it’s a good idea, one just needs to be careful.

    “… college is not a monetary or career investment but a “life changing experience” where education is valued for its own sake.”
    This is something I don’t understand either. For example, I can understand an English major who wants to be a writer or a journalist and actually has talent for it; I can understand someone who plans to be a teacher or a technical writer or a lawyer. What I don’t understand is someone’s majoring in English in order to “improve writing skills”. I think one should learn writing skills in school.
    In most countries, young people go to college to get a profession. In these countries one doesn’t just apply to a university, one applies directly to be a specific major. Different majors have different entrance requirements, different number of students accepted and different number of people applying on the same spot. Where I grew up, we had about 2 applicants/1 spot competition for engineering, but 10/1 competition for humanities and thousands to 1 competition in art, acting, or music. Anybody wishing to major in, for example, native language had to demonstrate writing ability well beyond one required for engineering majors, not just the good writing skills, but something special.

    I think this approach makes a lot more sense than wasting 4 years and a lot of money getting a degree one will not use. In some universities in the US, a person with only mediocre abilities can even declare a major in music… How does it make sense?

  3. Andrea says:

    I covered a few in a post here – but to summarize …

    1. Live at home.
    2. Get required courses out of the way at a community college.
    3. Look into online degrees, which are more flexible if you need to work.
    4. Test out.
    5. Join the military.
    6. Don’t go. If you’re more interested in a trade like plumbing, why go to college to get a liberal arts degree?

  4. MasterPo says:

    Regarding your strategy #1 – If a “life changing experience” is all you got of of school then you wasted your time and mommy&daddy’s money. Sure, go to college and spend 4-5 years studying Nordic Folklore or Neoclassic Literature and you wonder why you can’t find a job??

    Doesn’t surprise me. I’ve known many people like that.

    Garbage in, garbage out.

  5. There are some fairly attractive out-of-country tuition programs that will let foreign students study at domestic rates, which are often significantly cheaper than most US colleges. It’s a similar principle to your suggestion #2, but with even better results.

  6. bucknuggets says:

    Another comment on ‘“life changing experience” where education is valued for its own sake.’

    I’d say that in the age of information we’re living in – everyone needs to master quite a bit more academic skills than was necessary a hundred years ago. Otherwise they’re just someone’s tool, they will eventually find themselves in a rapidly evolving vocation but without the skills to rapidly adapt, etc.

    Additionally, I’d also state that quite a bit more analysis is coming out that shows high correlations between college education and health. Of course there are many exceptions – but in general a college education results in better economic opportunities and health.

    In other words my above comments are less directed at what someone studies than how much more effort they put into it to improve themselves.

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