I enjoyed my experience as an undergraduate at a “state-assisted, privately governed” university. As I did not live in that university’s state prior to attending, my tuition fees were higher than many of my classmates’ fees. To attend the same school as a non-resident, the total cost, including tuition, residency, and fees, is now almost $40,000 a year. Financial aid is available to lower the cost, but a fee like that can be tough on the wallet. College degrees are still worthwhile investments, but then less you can pay, the better you’re off.
During my junior year of high school — a time long enough ago that my memories hardly seem real — a visited many campuses, in state and out of state, to find the right fit for me. I intended to teach music in a high school as a career, and this course of study required auditions, and I tried to audition in person for most of the colleges I was applying for.
It may have been a mistake, but during this process, I don’t remember once thinking about money. My parents didn’t tell me I needed to remain in state to keep tuition costs lower. They did not require that I attend a low-cost school. There was no school that I crossed off my extensive list due to the price of attending. And my ignorance of the financial consequences led me to reject my second-choice school that called to offer me more financial aid (in the form of grants, not loans, I assume) after I decided to attend my first-choice school but before formally accepting. Had I accepted the financial aid offer from the second-choice school, I could have most likely saved myself and my parents — who ended up taking out loans — some money.
A few years out of school, I still had loans to pay off, and I was no longer working in the field for which I have an undergraduate degree. Some might view my college experience as a waste of money. I could have earned a degree for much less money and ended up with the same type of experience after college. It’s hard to say with any confidence what my life would have been like if I had attended a different school. I might have had an easier time financially and would have never been inspired to start writing about improving my financial condition, for example.
I have the benefit of hindsight now, but my satisfaction with my experiences and the eventual result — thus far — makes it difficult for me to say I’d do anything differently about my college education given the chance. For others whose lives are close to me, now or in the future, I would more seriously pursue ways to make their college degrees as inexpensive as possible, perhaps even free. As college degrees become more widespread, the graduate degree will be more important from an educational perspective for getting the best careers, and extracurricular experience — working or volunteering — will play an even greater role. The undergraduate degree, therefore, will become not much more than a first step, and differentiation between schools will be less important.
Here are some suggestions for getting that undergraduate degree for free or at a very low cost.
Attend an Ivy League school. Columbia University is fourth on the Campus Grotto list of expensive colleges for the 2012-13 academic year, but most Ivy League schools often provide opportunities for families earning income under a certain threshold to attend for free through grants, and the benefit eliminates the need for student loans. That is the benefit of attending a private school that has an impressive endowment. While public schools are often touted as less expensive than private schools, many private school students do not pay the full advertised cost.
Of course, attending an Ivy League school isn’t as simple as deciding to apply. Schools whose programs are in high demand have a very competitive admissions process. And there is a popular opinion, particularly among those who have not attended an Ivy League school, that the experience is over-rated.
Attend a military service academy. Also very competitive, military service academies offer taxpayer-funded education — free to the student, except for the portion of their own taxes that go towards military education. In return for the education, graduating students typically must spend more than five years in military service. The lack of tuition fees keeps students’ wallets happy, but I suppose some students, though combat service is only one option of service, could end up paying with their lives.
Attend a school without tuition. Many schools don’t charge tuition to any of their students, although room and board could be a cost if living on campus. Cooper Union in New York City, where my father attended college, offers a full scholarship to all undergraduate students. You might include the military service academies in this category, but many of the other schools that offer tuition-free enrollment or full scholarships are highly specialized, like the Curtis Institute of Music.
If you can’t find a free option, reduce your costs. I may not be able to bypass the stigma of a community college, but I have to admit it’s a great option for saving money. Many students attending community college can continue to live at home, saving on room and board costs. Living at home delays the inevitable need to gain experience living as an independent adult, but living in a dorm room doesn’t always fit that goal, anyway. You can attend a community college for two years and transfer your credits to a different college or university, and many times you might be able to find there are more scholarship and grant opportunities available to those who transfer in as a third-year student.
If you don’t care about receiving a diploma, find free classes online. Traditional colleges and universities are following the paths paved by for-profit institutions who have been prevalent in online learning. (These online universities are in turn building on research about academic distribution and distance learning pioneered in the traditional universities.) As a result, there is more competition for online classes, and in some cases, courses are available for free. It may not yet be possible to piece together a full four-year curriculum from free information online alone, but this concept is going to be the future of undergraduate education for many degrees as even traditional universities look to cut costs.
According to the Pew Research Center, college debt after graduation is at an all-time high. More families than ever have student loans, almost one in five. 19 percent might not sound like that much, but it’s a percentage that doubled over the past twenty years. Student loans limit your ability to quickly use income you receive — however much or how little — to put aside for your future. It took me years to eliminate my college debt, and I know my mother was still working to pay off the loan she took out to help pay for my education for years.
Addendum. For more about attending college without debt and other non-conforming insights, check out the podcast interview featuring Zac Bissonnette, author of Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents.
Updated June 24, 2016 and originally published October 15, 2012.