When it comes to the world of higher education, it's the elephant in the room that no one quite knows how to handle: college affordability. A college degree doesn't usually come cheap or easy, but it can be one of the wisest investments of a student's life. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers with a bachelor's degree or higher in 2014 earned almost twice as much as those with only a high school diploma.
Keeping that in mind may help temper anxiety as students (and parents) face alarming financial trends, including runaway tuition prices and skyrocketing student debt. Prices at public and private four-year universities have tripled since 1980, and even community college costs have doubled since then, according to a report by The New America Foundation. The result, per a 2014 report from The Economist: total student loan debt in the United States has now exceeded $1.2 trillion.
So is anything being done about this? Local, state, and federal politicians and school administrators fill news feeds almost daily with different proposals to make college more affordable to all, and even the 2016 presidential candidates on both sides have outlined plans to make higher education more financially realistic for more Americans. The problem is that any proposal likely won't become a reality for a long time -- which leaves millions of students trying to figure out how to pay for the education they need now to get ahead in their careers and make a better wage.
If you're one of those millions of students, here are five specific, practical actions to take for better control of your college expenses today:
1) Plan for the total cost of your education.
Investing in a college degree is a huge financial commitment, but it's still a smart choice. Make sure you consider several schools and understand the entire potential cost of your different educational choices. It's not just tuition and books; it's also living and transportation expenses, health care, entertainment, etc. The more detailed a picture you have about your projected expenses, the more you'll be able to make an informed decision.
2) Start at a community college and then transfer to a four-year program.
In January 2015, President Obama proposed an initiative called America's College Promise that would wave tuition costs for students attending community college. But as of October, the initiative is still being discussed by a congressional committee -- and has a long way to go before it's even up for a vote.
Still, community college could be the way to go. Students who aren't 100 percent sure of their career goals may want to explore different subjects by taking classes at a cheaper price. And those who do have clear goals in mind may also find it cost effective to take general education classes or prerequisites at a community college. Josh Wyner, Vice President of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute says, "It's less expensive to start in this way. For many people it feels more egalitarian; it's a much broader range of people." But if you plan to transfer later to a four-year college, you'll want to make sure the class credits you take at your community college are transferrable.
3) Take a more efficient pathway to a degree.
Andrew Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, says students should look to more time-efficient pathways to a bachelor's degree. "There's so much wasted time in a traditional bachelor's degree program; summers off, month-long breaks. All of that makes no sense when you can be getting credit," he says. So instead of traditional, residential programs, students could choose to study entirely online or through a hybrid program. Students may also want to consider self-paced, rather than credit-hour-based, classes through an online college.
4) Explore all funding options.
Financial aid for college often includes a "mixed salad" of sources, such as savings from 529 plans, grants, loans, and scholarships. College isn't cheap and funding options can be complicated, so students will need to spend time researching all of the different cost-saving possibilities. Not sure where to start? Look first to financial aid options that don't have to be paid back, like grants and scholarships.
5) Stay focused and flexible.
There are many different ways to get a college education. While you may have a target school in mind, it's always good to have back-up plans -- other options that may be more cost effective. And depending on your career goals, a two-year degree might be a better educational choice than a four-year one. Wyner points to two-year degrees in fields such as advanced manufacturing, where graduates can often end up earning $50,000 a year.
- Andrew Kelly, interview with the author by telephone, September 2015
- "The Digital Degree," http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21605899-staid-higher-education-business-about-experience-welcome-earthquake-digital
- Josh Wyner, interview with the author by telephone, September 2015
- "Millennials and Student Debt - New America Foundation", https://www.newamerica.org/.../Millennials_and_Student_Debt.pdf
- "Obama's Free Community College Program Has a Catch", http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2015/02/02/obama_free_community_college_program_wealthy_kids_need_not_apply.html
- "Obama to outline plan for free community college," http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/obama-outline-plan-free-community-college/
- "Tennessee Promise: Offering Free Community College to All Students," http://republic3-0.com/tennessee-promise-free-community-college-for-all-students/