Attending college means that you'll be committing about four years of your life and a significant amount of money to acquiring knowledge and skills that are meant to improve job opportunities and earning potential for the rest of your life. Even if it's always been a given in your household that you would attend college, it's not an experience to take lightly. And if getting into college or finding a way to pay for it was a struggle, you're already aware of what a big deal the upcoming years are going to be. So how do you make the most of them? We'll offer you six ideas for making the best use of your time and tuition dollars. (For related reading, be sure to check out The 6 Worst Student Loan Mistakes You Can Make.)
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1. Take the Maximum Course Load
When selecting your courses, take advantage of the shopping period to seek out a mix of easier courses and more challenging courses so you can earn more credits each semester. Don't sign up for so many courses that you're barely scraping by and letting your grades suffer, but do push yourself a bit. The fewer semesters you spend as a full-time student, the less expensive your total tuition bill will be.
College Board reports that in 2009-10, public four-year colleges charged about $7,000 per year in tuition and fees for in-state students and about $18,500 for out-of-state students, while private four-year-colleges charged an average of about $26,000. These figures don't include room and board, books, or other expenses.
If you're attending a public college in state and your parents have been saving for your education your whole life, the stress of increasing your workload might not be worth a few thousand dollars in savings. But if you're taking out loans or you're attending a private school, graduating even a semester early can make a major difference.
2. Attend School Part-Time
If finances are a major concern, consider attending school part-time. Yes, this will mean a less "typical" college experience: part-time students may not be allowed to live on campus, so you'll have to work harder to make friends and be involved in the social life at your college.
However, by attending school part-time, you'll be able to spread your tuition costs out over a longer period and you'll have more time to work and offset those costs as you go along. Attending school part-time also allows you to choose the number of classes you can afford to take each semester and pay for exactly what you use. Full-time students will pay the same amount each semester whether they take four classes or seven.
One caveat: Some schools are kinder than others to students wishing to study part-time. If you think part-time study will be your preferred path through college, make sure to thoroughly investigate the policies of the schools you're interested in ahead of time.
3. Attend Summer School
Fees and policies vary by school, but sometimes credits earned in summer school are significantly cheaper. In the University of California system, summer school classes in 2010 cost UC undergraduates $229 per credit hour, plus a small registration fee. During the 2010-11 school year, undergraduates who are state residents pay mandatory tuition and fees of $11,867.94 for a year's worth of classes. The University of California operates on a quarter system, with the regular school year encompassing three quarters: fall, winter and spring. With 180 credits required for graduation, a typical student might earn 15 credits per quarter, or 45 credits per year. This means that one credit earned during the regular school year costs about $264. Taking courses during the summer can save money if it reduces that amount of time you spend paying regular tuition and fees.
Summer course offerings may be limited, so plan ahead and take courses during the year that aren't offered during the summer. It may be easy, for example, to get a basic math requirement out of the way in summer school, but difficult to take an upper-division computer science class.
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4. Place out of lower-division courses.
There are many ways to place out of general education requirements and other lower-division courses. Taking AP, IB and CLEP exams or passing community college courses are all potential ways to earn credits on the cheap.
The College Level Examination Program (CLEP), for example, offers 33 exams in subjects ranging from English literature to financial accounting. Students may earn three to 12 college credits for each test on which they receive a qualifying score.
Each school has its own policies concerning what it will accept for credit and how many credits students may earn outside of the college or university, so make sure to check with your school before you spend time or money on these options.
5. Graduate in Three Years - Not Four or Five
With focus and careful planning, it is possible to graduate early. By attending summer school and/or placing out of lower-division courses, students may be able to earn an undergraduate degree in just three years (policies will vary by school). The UC system, for example, allows undergraduates to earn 16 to 18 credits during the summer depending on the program they're enrolled in. A student who took 16 credits each summer for three summers would earn 48 credits - an entire year's worth.
6. Don't Make School Your Default
Unless you want to go into academia, the best way to figure out what kind of work you might enjoy is to stop paying tuition and get a job. Then you can go back to school and earn the degree that will best facilitate that career instead of getting a degree in some arbitrary subject, as so many students do. If you go to school only to discover that you don't really want to do the career it prepared you for, you'll be in almost the exact same place you were when you started - but with a whole lot more debt. Yes, a bachelor's degree does open doors and increases pay, but a degree in psychology is not too likely to get you started in corporate accounting.
This advice also applies to making your post-graduate plans. After getting their undergraduate degrees, some students head to law school, medical school or other types of grad school just because school is all they've ever done and they don't know how to do anything else, or because they haven't figured out what kind of work they might enjoy yet. If you don't actually know if you'll have a use for one of these degrees, going to grad school can be a big waste of time and money. (For related reading, check out Should You Head Back To Business School?)
The Bottom Line
Graduating from college requires an incredible commitment of time, energy and money. Use these tips to minimize your tuition bill and maximize the results of your hard work. (For additional reading, check out Pay For College Without Selling A Kidney.)
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