Thursday, October 7, 2010

I Can't Afford College! Now What? (Relax!)

For many young people, college is little more than High School 2.0, which is a shame.  It is horribly expensive these days, and you should think carefully about how you want to approach college.  But even if you are flat broke, or worse yet, middle class, you can go to school.  I did!

(Note:  If this article interests you, you may also want to read 10 Common College Mistakes as well.   While College may seem "unaffordable" - relax!  You can still go, it just make take more time.  It took me 14 years - and I was a college drop-out to boot, and I didn't do so bad.  You'll be OK, too!.)

Regular articles appear in the idiot media, like CNN, about how "unaffordable" college has become.  To some extent, they are right - colleges and universities have been raising tuition levels by 2-3 times the rate of inflation for a decade or more now, and the cost has skyrocketed.

Many are wondering whether this passes the cost/benefit test anymore.  For example, if you spend $50,000 to go to college, at age 18, and graduate with a degree in Anthropology and become a bar tender, it was pretty much a colossal waste of money. If that money was put into an IRA with a modest return, it would be worth nearly a half-million dollars at retirement.  Which would have been a better "investment" for the student?

Many college graduates end up unemployed or underemployed, mostly because they get degrees that are lacking - or require additional education to turn into a career.  An undergraduate degree in psychology is pretty worthless, unless you go on to graduate school and then become a Psychologist.

And yet, American colleges and universities churn out hundreds of thousands of unemployable graduates every year, most with degrees that are not applicable to anything, and most of the students still giving you that same blank stare they had in high school when you ask them, "What do you want to do with your life?"

Employers are not excited to hire a young person who went to Party-U and got straight C's in Liberal Arts and "isn't sure" about his career path.  In fact, no one wants to hire that kid.

This is not a terrible tragedy, but if the parents mortgaged their home, or worse yet, cashed in their retirement savings to put the kid through college, it was a total waste of money.  And if the student took out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, his life is going to suck in short order.  And frankly, we already have enough dope-head kids with staggering student loan debt and no job prospects.  So please don't become another one!

Learning for learning's sake is a fine thing and all.  And back when no one could afford to go to college, rich people would send their kids there, not to "learn a trade" but to become educated and refined, make political connections for future use, and perhaps meet potential spousal candidates from their own social class.  Sounds crass, I know, but that was what they did, even if they won't own up to it.  So while they claimed they went to Oxford to "study the classics" what the upper crust did back then was actually make political connections and perhaps find a suitable spouse from their own social class.

Such folks would look down on people studying Medicine or Engineering or Economics or other difficult areas of studies, as mere "tradespeople".  I know my Mother felt this way - considering anyone without a degree in Liberal Arts to be "uneducated" and Engineering College to be a "trade school".

It would be lovely if you could afford to go to school and spend four years studying poetry or art.  And if you plan on being a poet or artist, this is probably a good idea.  But for others, who have no such artistic inclinations, it is not a career path.  And if you plan on being a poet or artist - good for you!  But please don't bend my ear about how the pay sucks, because you knew that going into the gig.  They don't call them "starving artists" for nothing!

Education for education's sake - to be more "well rounded" is a desirable goal and ideal.  But the reality of education today makes this all but unfeasible for the average student.  When college is going to run well into the five figures or six figures, you cannot afford to be a dilettante about it.

But wait.  There is a way to get an education without spending a boatload of your parent's money - or borrowing a hundred grand and spending the rest of your life paying it back.  And you will get a better education as a result!  How can you do this?  Well it takes a lot of hard work - but hard work is really what is fun in life, believe it or not.  The satisfaction of doing something yourself, and getting somewhere through your own sweat and labor trumps being handed something 1000 to 1.

Bear in mind that most of us fall bass-ackwards into our careers. Very, very few people set out to do one thing in college and end up with a career in that area.  Thus, spending a lot of dough getting a degree in a particular area, only to have to go to grad school later on to get the degree you really want, seems kind of foolish.  Don't rush the college process - use it as a chance to figure out what it is you want to do in life.   It is OK to change majors - or even drop out.  That is one reason, to me, that spending a boatload of dough on college makes no sense at all.

Here are some ideas to think about in terms of "affording" college:

1.  Do You Really Want to Go to College?  Many, if not most, middle-class parents freak out when their kid says "I don't know if I want to go to college!"  Parents would rather cough up their life savings to send junior to State U. and flunk out after a year or two than have a kid who isn't going to college.

The reasons for this are multi-fold.  First, statistics say that if you don't go to college after high school, every year after that, the chances of you going will diminish.  This scares parents, who are convinced their kid will lead a life of low-wage jobs.  But actually, the reason for this statistic is that for every year you don't go to college, you gradually realize you may not need it.  If you skipped college and by age 25 have a roaring welding business making $100,000 a year, you might be excused for thinking that going back to study "the great authors" really isn't relevant.

But parents are right (once in a while) and what they are really worried about is you moving back into their basement and smoking dope all day long, while occasionally working at slacker jobs part-time to pay for your dope.  This is a real concern.

If you don't want to go to college, then at least learn a good trade.  Job openings exist all day long for someone who can repair an air conditioner, weld steel pipe, fix plumbing, wire a house, drive a truck, dig a foundation, run a machine tool, repair a car, tear down a jet engine, or whatever.  In addition, our elderly population is creating a strong demand for skilled workers in elder care, including nurse practitioners, nurses aids, and the like.

If you have a skill, you will always have work.  So if "college" doesn't seem right for you, at least learn a trade.  And most trades can lead to self-employment (owning your own business).

But doing nothing is probably the worst idea.  And you know what?  A trade may lead you back to college.  You may find that a career in elder care leads you back to school to get a business degree, so you can be an administrator at an elder care facility.  Or perhaps you find that working in a trade is not to your liking.

And knowing a trade is a nice form of security. I can weld, solder, wire, plumb, and repair cars and other machinery.  I can program computers as well as build and repair them.  If this lawyer thing doesn't work out, I have something to fall back on.  Not many lawyers can say that!

 2.  The Two-year two-step:  A friend of mine was caught in the classic middle-class nightmare.  Too "rich" to get a scholarship while too "poor" to afford an expensive school.   Their solution was to have their daughter attend a cheaper school, at lower tuition, for two years, to take all the freshman and sophomore courses (which are the same for most undergraduates) and then transfer to the higher-priced school.

Since most colleges have a pretty hefty dropout rate, many are looking for transfer students to fill out the classes in the Junior and Senior years.  The Junior year is a good time to transfer, as most schools require you get at least half your credits there, in order to graduate.

This is one alternative, and sort of what I did, albeit not by design.  After dropping out of college, I started going to Syracuse University's night program for Adult Students. These were the same courses that the regular students took - and in fact, many of my classmates were full-time students taking these courses to solve scheduling conflicts.  After a couple of years of night classes, where my grades were fairly decent, I applied for, and was accepted at the University.  The majority of my credits from GMI were transferred and accepted at SU.

While in the night program, my employer paid for part of my tuition as well.

Whether by accident or design, there are options out there for you.  And no, often these are not "advertised" by the School.  For example, I am sure if you went to the Admissions Office at S.U. as an 18 year old undergrad, they would tell you that what I did was not permissible, and in fact, never happened.  But the diploma hangs on my wall, so there you have it.

3.  Co-Op Programs:  GMI was a co-op school, in that the company paid us to work and then gave us time off for classes.  It was a great way to attend college, on a budget.  The school is now called Kettering University and is still in business - and still offering a co-op education.  Getting a co-op position these days can be hard - but not impossible! 

In fields where demand for skilled workers is high (i.e., the fields you'd like to get into) there is a higher chance of finding such a scenario.  In fields where the market is flooded with people already (e.g., Dentistry) you might find it a lot harder.  This alone should tell you something about the field you want to get into.  It someone is willing to pay for your education in a particular field, chances are, that is a pretty good field to get into!

Kettering is still going today - with a broader range of sponsoring companies and majors to choose from.  It, along with other co-op options, are worth looking into.

In addition to co-oping with GMI, after I went back to SU, I ended up co-oping with UTC, my employer, who was only too happy to have me back.  So I ended up co-oping twice!

4. State Schools - In-State Tuition:  Most State Universities and Colleges have reduced tuition for in-State students.  Tuition, like medical bills, has very elastic pricing!  Most Colleges and Universities have "retail" prices that foreign students and the very rich pay (if they have dumb students) - but the rest of us pay a lot less.

Many people complaining about the "high cost of education" are often trying to apply to "name" schools, convinced that having the right degree from the right institution will make the difference between a successful career and abject failure.

While it would be nice to go to Harvard, not everyone gets in, and few can afford it.  And a while a lot of Harvard grads have wildly successful careers, others just muddle along.  It depends on the person a lot more than the institution.

Saying you "can't afford college" because you can't afford ivy league, is utter nonsense.  And many State Schools are very highly regarded.

A State School can be also be a good place to do the two-year two-step, as outlined above.

5.  Military:  If you really have no money and can't get a scholarship, consider military training.  The military is desperate to recruit these days, and often will guarantee training in a number of areas, as well as providing a program to save for college.

The deal is, you have to negotiate these things ahead of time - and really want it badly.  Many people in the military fail to "save for college" and instead do the usual tricks that enlisted people (particularly men) do - buy a Camaro and spend all their pay on beer, rather than save for college.

But, if you have the discipline and the inclination, it can be a good place to get training - and who knows?  You may find it a good career, as well.  After 20 years, you will have a nice pension and an impressive array of benefits that civilians lack.  Some military training can also be granted college credit in some schools.

And after you leave the military, there is a new G.I.-Bill to help you pay for college.   Pretty sweet, provided you don't end up killed in Afghanistan.   And if you sign up for specialized training (e.g., electronics, aircraft maintenance, etc.) your chances of being in the line of fire are far less.

6. Part Time - Night School:  Again, this was part of my college path, although not by design.  Many major universities have "adult education" classes which allow you to take core classes at night.  These are the same classes that full-time students take, and you may find some of your classmates are full-time students.

You might not be able to an entire degree this way, of course.  But you can get those first two years of required coursework out of the way - and even some upper level classes.  I took all my Calculus classes, circuits classes, and even thermodynamics class at Syracuse while attending at night.  It was a lot of work to do, but not impossible.

Focusing on one class at a time made it easier to study, too, and I got very good grades as a result.

Eventually, most schools will require you to transfer to a full-time program for at least a year, in order to graduate.  This is what I did, taking a leave of absence from my job (ask, they may grant it!).

Many graduate level studies, however, allow you to obtain a degree at night, part-time.  In the Washington DC area, Georgetown, George Washington, George Mason, Catholic University, and University of Maryland, College Park, all have night programs for their law schools.  And hardly any of them could be construed as a "trade school".  The program is four years, instead of three, but involves the same classes and coursework as the three-year program and awards the same diploma.

And the bonus is, you graduate with work experience and fewer student loans.

And yet, you'd be surprised at how many people will tell you that "night school" is only for people learning a trade or how to be a secretary (and there is nothing wrong with either of those careers!).  The reality is, many major universities and colleges have "back door" night programs for "returning students" or "adult students".  And as the number of young people in this country shrinks, expect to see these programs expand, not contract.

7.  Summer School:  I also took advantage of summer school to complete that last year of study.  It is a  great time to go to classes, as the whole school seems like it is on vacation.  Class sizes are small, and the professors seem to be in a good mood, in terms of grading.  If you are trying to "work your way through college" with a part-time job, take less of a course load during the year, and then make up for it with summer school classes.  It helps even out the course load.

Summer school was great, because most of the students were gone.  Let's face it, most college kids today are like high school kids - more interested in social grooming than in studying.   They are annoying as snot.   Summer school was a break from all that.  Teenagers smell bad, let's face it.

* * *

These are a just a few ideas, based on my own experience.  What do they all have in common?  VERY HARD WORK.  But at the time, it did not seem like a burden, and overall, I think I received a much better education - one that I valued more highly - as a result.

Our history is filled with self-made men and women, who often had to fend for themselves and make their own way in the world.  They succeeded by not giving up the first time someone said "No".

Today, many young kids are saying "I give up" because their initial plans are denied.  They can't afford Harvard, so they will stay at home smoking pot.  Sounds like they tried real hard.

The conventional, four-year path of school is really the easy way out - and one that teaches little to the student, other than how to pass exams.  You get little or no work experience or real-life experience in the standard college program.  It is, High School 2.0, as noted at the beginning of this post.

There are other ways to go about getting a college or even post-graduate degree.  And often those ways are less expensive, if not free, and more rewarding - and far more educational!

The idea that college is "unaffordable" is nonsense.  You may not want to even go.  Or you can go, and pay little or nothing or pay your way as you go. 

College, like life, is what you make of it.