The matter seems settled in the minds of the American public: It costs a fortune to obtain a bachelor’s degree at any of the nation’s institutions of higher learning.  Annual tuition and fees of $40,000 or more are not unusual at many prestigious universities, and a thriving student-loan industry exists to provide funds for millions of students.

The fact is that many graduates find themselves deeply in debt the moment they first set foot into the working world.  It’s not uncommon to find these college loan obligations remaining unpaid a decade or two after graduation, with increasing instances of offspring of these graduates applying for college loans before the parents have paid their own off.

I’d like to offer a different scenario.  It’s my belief that a first-rate diploma can be obtained inexpensively.  I think of it as college-on-the-cheap.  Let me describe how it’s done.

  1. The first two years of post-secondary education, the freshman and sophomore years, are pursued at a local community college.  Here in my state of California, tuition costs are $20 per semester-unit (recently reduced from $26).  With a little counselor guidance, subjects that are fully transferable toward a university degree can be chosen.  In this way, a year’s course of study, consisting of a full load of 30 units, is available at a $600 tuition charge.
  2. The next two years, as a Junior and Senior, will be earned at a state university.  Tuition charges vary with each state, but legal residents generally enjoy low preferential rates.  The annual charge for a full academic load at the California State University system is currently $2,520.  At this point, a comment is in order.  If you believe the brochures of the major universities, you will conclude that a graduate of other than a renowned institution is forever doomed to mediocrity.  The official line is that only name universities offer quality education.  My experience indicates otherwise.  I’m convinced that a bright and motivated student who completes the schooling I suggest will be as well-educated as if the four years had been spent at either Harvard or Princeton University.
  3. The next dictum I specify Is that the student live at and commute from home during the full course of study.  This requires cooperative parents, of course, and perhaps some negotiation will be in order between all parties involved.  Family dynamics change as children grow into adults, but the favorable result of an economically obtained degree for the progeny should encourage compromises.
  4. For those of you unfamiliar with modern schooling, the price of textbooks have become something awesome.  It’s not unusual for hundreds of dollars to be spent on them each semester.  It’s for this reason that I recommend used books.  Unfortunately, most university bookstores that deal in them set prices approaching those of a new issue.  Your best bet will often be purchasing them directly from a student just completing the course.  And there’s a serendipitous benefit to a used book.  It’s not unusual to find helpful underling of important sections as well as worthwhile comments written in the margins.
  5. My next recommendation is that the student spends each summer between academic years working at a paying job.  The one benefit is obvious: money earned will help finance the forthcoming school year.  But there’s an additional value.  There is a component in toil that instills appreciation for what learning is all about.  The mixture of education and experience is a winning combination.
  6. Although incurring debt of any sort during the school years must be resolutely resisted, you should welcome any opportunity for financial assistance that need not be paid back.  In this regard it pays to search for scholarship programs, many of which are not highly publicized.  I’ll describe one such opportunity as an example of what there is to be found.  A private foundation located in Orange County, California, assists students who have creditably completed two years of chemistry at the community college level.  The selectees each receive a monthly grant of $500 from the foundation during the junior and senior years as they pursue their bachelor’s degree in chemistry at universities of their choice.  Needless to say, $500 per month can make a significant difference.
  7. Let me offer my final admonition.  Unless a student has substantial assets at his or her disposal—in which case everything I’ve said thus far is essentially moot—a vital factor in obtaining a reasonably-priced college degree demands that, during the school years, the individual subsists low on the hog.  Fortunately young and unattached persons can manage to get by on limited funds without much distress.  And perhaps in doing so, attitudes will be honed and lessons learned that will prove beneficial for the years that follow.

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