One of the best ways to save money on your college tuition is to take as few courses as necessary to earn your degree. Every college program requires you to complete a minimum number of credits in order to graduate; and schools pretty much universally charge by the credit for your attendance. So, in math terms, fewer credits = lower costs. A handful of good options are out there to help you avoid handing over more money than you need to.
Front-Load Your Generals
Yes, it sounds like a strategy for some WWII war game, but it’s really just a restatement of the old advice that college students get all the time: get your general requirements out of the way first. It’s an old saw because it makes a lot of sense, especially for the frugal college student. Colleges typically have general degree requirements for all their undergraduate students, such as composition or foreign language courses or broad survey classes like Psych 1001. Take the required courses that you know you’ll need, regardless of your major, in the first couple years to avoid diving into electives and major programs before you’re sure what you want your major to be.
You may feel like you’re sure what you want to do or be when you get to college, and that’s great! Use your extra time to volunteer or even get a part-time job in the field that interests you. That way, you’ll gain real-world experience while getting a taste of your chosen career without costing yourself a nickel; and if it sucks, quit! It’s free… but remember: it won’t look good on a resume. Still, it’s better than paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars only to find out that your chosen field is not what you want to do. No matter how you look at it, a change of majors is an expensive proposition, especially if you’ve already started the courses in one department.
I personally knew four – FOUR – students who wanted to be medical doctors. They took all their pre-med classes and requirements and did well in their coursework. Of the four, only one actually went on to medical school. The others HATED the classes and, in spite of their stellar GPAs, dropped out of the pre-med curriculum… 16 credits of unused Organic Chemistry too late. And the one student who actually started med school? She dropped out after her first year and went to George Washington University law school instead. THAT was an expensive experiment.
So the lesson is, save the credit dollars. Take your general requirements early and don’t declare a major until you’ve had some time to explore what it is you want to do. Many schools offer (or even require) interdisciplinary survey courses or colloquia that will give you an idea of what various majors or careers will entail. Talk to career services advisors, volunteer, meet with students in departments that interest you. Any of these options will help save you tuition dollars in the long run.
Start College in High School
One genius move that Rebecca, my med-student-turned-lawyer friend, did make was to attend a public high school that offered several Advanced Placement (AP) class options to its students through a local university. This means that she was attending college, completing coursework and receiving degree credit: (1) before she even set foot on campus as a freshman; and (2) for FREE! If you’re a junior or senior, check with your guidance counselor to see what AP options may be available through your high school. Many schools offer such programs, particularly those affiliated with or located near a college or university. Work with your counselor and visit www.CollegeBoard.com/ to learn more about AP classes.
Remember What You Learn
I know we all have busy lives when we’re in high school. Between classes, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, college planning and family or social obligations, it’s tough just to get enough sleep. In spite of all the mental static and stress, it can be worth your while to make sure you retain what you’re studying it and don’t let it disappear in a cloud of “What next?” after each exam.
Why am I telling you this? Because of a little program called CLEP – the College Level Examination Program.
When I was in high school, for example, I happened to be pretty good in Spanish. I had class every day for four straight years. Upon my arrival at college, they told me that I had to take 15 credits – the equivalent of a full course load for one term at my school – of a language. I signed up for Spanish. I started at the fourth-level (out of six) course and found it to be a little basic. They moved me up to Span 1105, but I was still out-hablo-ing my amigos in class.
I spoke with my advisor and explained that I felt like I was pretty much where they wanted me to be Spanish-wise. She explained that I could take a CLEP exam and receive 15 college credits for 3% — THREE PERCENT! – of their actual cost, if I passed. I took the test, I got the credits… 15 credits for which I neither had to enroll nor pay. To this day, the CLEP exam stands as the best bargain I’ve ever received.
Spanish not your thing? CLEP offers exams in more than 30 subject areas, including languages, history and even business. Check with your academic advisor to see what kind of credit your eligible to receive through CLEP. Be careful, though: you do have to pay for each CLEP exam that you take. Also, many colleges limit the number of credits they’re willing to give for credit-by-examination (think: financial disincentive). While they can result in huge college savings, the exams can just be a hole to toss money into if you’re not proficient in the subject area. Find a subject in which you excel, make sure your school offers credit for the particular exam, and study hard. It’s worth the effort! Visit www.CollegeBoard.com/ to learn more about CLEP and the subject areas currently available.
So, if you’re serious about college – if you’re not, then don’t go! – start in high school. Look at AP options and dive deep into subjects you enjoy. This way, you’ll show up at your college of choice way ahead of fellow freshmen. Once there, knock out your general requirements and try to test out of as many subjects as your school will let you. You won’t feel bad about having a shorter college experience than your friends when they’re still repaying student loans and you’re debt-free.