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5 Smarter (And Cheaper) Ways To Get A Four-Year College Degree


Here on TFD, we talk a lot about the college experience, student loans, and the emotions we all have tied up with the process of choosing whether or not we want to pursue a “traditional” four-year college degree. It’s something that we urge people to be honest and vocal about, and the more we talk about our respective experiences, the more favors we do one another by providing specific and necessary insight. Honestly, I’ve learned more listening to someone break down their experience consolidating student loan debt than I ever have reading a thorough and arduous FAQ section on some loan refinancing website. You simply can’t recreate the experience of hearing it from someone firsthand.

My own journey with deciding where I wanted to go to college was filled with ups and down. During my senior year of college, I looked at a TON of colleges that ranged in options from expensive artsy colleges in NYC to remote state schools in the suburbs of New Jersey. I admit, I was tempted by the allure of those prestigious schools with postcard-worthy architecture, storied and illustrious alumni, and the promise of making me feel accomplished as soon as I walked through the gates on the first day of classes. However, my parents (thank God for their counsel) urged me to be realistic about student loans.

Deep down, I knew I was scared to sign paperwork that would leave me in major debt for the foreseeable future. Of course, taking out some student loan debt is necessary and a useful long-term investment in careers that will make back that investment, but it needs to be a well-thought-out decision. For me, at that point in time I didn’t even know what I wanted to study — it would have been a bad move to go 100k+ into debt for a Literature degree. In the end, I opted to go to a state school in New Jersey, which had all the things I wanted and more (plus a reasonable price tag that made me feel comforted).

Now that I’m four years out of school, and have a lot of perspective on my situation and others, I feel confident in the decision I made back then. Since I ended up getting a graphic design degree, it made sense to go through a hands-on major where I got to learn programs, experience group critiques, software, art techniques, etc. I wouldn’t have done it differently, but I wish I did at least know the full range of options available to me and other college seniors. The simple fact that students abroad sometimes take what’s called a gap year (which I’m sure most of you have already of), was entirely new to me and something I think students could really benefit from talking about with more openness.

I’ve come across a lot of articles that talk about different strategies for students looking for alternatives to a four-year university, and I’ve rounded up a few good options below. Obviously, there are ton of different things to explore and this is only a sampling of “what’s on offer,” so to speak. Read on below!

1. Secure credits for stuff you already know.

It makes sense to go to college and already have some credits under your belt for material you already know, right? Well, that’s exactly what the CLEP tests allow you to do. CLEP stand for the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), which helps you “receive college credit for what you already know, for a fraction of the cost of a college course. This is a useful way to get the same four-year college degree but for less money. However, these tests are only available for lower-level classes. An article on CollegeU explains that, “most schools will grant students college credits for lower-level classes (100 or 200 level classes) if they simply pass a test to prove that they’ve already mastered the information taught in those classes.” There’s an excellent article here that covers essential questions you should ask yourself before pursuing a CLEP college credit, which will help you decide if it’s a viable option.

2. Two years at a community college + transfer.

This was a very popular way for students in my class to save money by taking classes at community college, transfer, and then graduate with perhaps a higher-ranked university on their diploma. I knew a few people who transferred to my college with ease, since it was a state school, but I had no idea how common it was. I, myself, did some general education summer courses at my local community college so I wouldn’t have to pay to take them at the other more expensive college. Kiplinger provides some additional facts about this process saying, “About 60% of community-college transfers graduate within four years of making the move—in line with the six-year grad rate of students who start at a four-year public college, and twice as high as the four-year grad rate at public colleges.” Chelsea didn’t transfer herself, but she did a great video on why she is so grateful she chose community college.

3. Attend a college that offers a three-year degree program.

When the economic downturn began back in 2008, more colleges began offering three-year programs for a Bachelor’s degree. A 2012 article on U.S. News And World Report interviewed Tony Pals — the Director of Communications from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) — who explained, “The economic downturn has encouraged more students and families to consider the three-year option, and for academically well prepared and highly focused students, these programs can be very attractive, and these programs can represent a significant cost savings for consumers.”

4. Take a gap year.

What exactly is a gap year? Well, it’s “a period, typically the length of an academic year, taken by a student as a break between secondary school and higher education.” Yes, taking a gap year will technically mean you are behind you friends if they choose to jump right into school. However, taking a pause to figure out what you want to do, work, or study online instead of enrolling in college straight away, it’s a totally viable option.

Among the 10 reasons listed in the Huffington Post article about the usefulness of gap years, my favorite was the one that corroborates my point above. It explained, “More often than not, college students commit themselves to one area of study, realize it’s not for them, and then swap to a completely different major…often two or three times. You’ll cut down on coursework, tuition bills and stress if you take time before college to decide how you want to spend your academic experience before you get there.” Taking one might also have a surprising affect on your career by making your résumé stand out to employers. While gap years might not be right for everyone, they’re definitely worth considering.

5. Start with online college classes.

With the rise in popularity and availability of online college classes, this would be a smart alternative to jumping right into a four-year university. The number of individuals learning online has skyrocketed in the last ten years, and this article provides some truly astonishing numbers to support it saying, “Today the number of college students learning online exceeds seven million. With the overall higher education student body in the U.S. currently at 21 million, that means one out of three college students is taking at least one course entirely online.” Check out this list of the 50 best online colleges of 2016 as well as the 25 most affordable programs, which will help you navigate through the network of options. Now, I’m a firm believer in the fact that learning can’t thrive in a bubble sitting alone at your computer, and I think it’s really tough to get a rich and diverse college experience ENTIRELY online. However, there’s no reason why you can’t supplement online learning with in-person meet-ups, study sessions, seminars, talks, etc. Even a combination of online classes + in-person traditional classroom learning might be the right way to go. Explore your options!

Obviously all the options above require making a big decision, and I, nor anyone else, can make the right decision for you. It’s important to measure out all your options, think ahead, and plan for your future in a lucid way. Even if you do end up going to a four-year college like I did, that’s totally fine as long as you’re making the decision for yourself and don’t feel pressured. We all have to make the right choices for ourselves, and the sooner we feel more comfortable and confident with that, the happier we’ll all be.

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  • disqus_lkdChzmzjm

    Although all these options are great, I’m surprised so many americans opt to do college in the states. Europe and other parts of the world have on par education for a fraction of the cost. In germany, france and the UK the cost of university is much cheaper (depending on the programme) and living costs are also low + it’s usually a three year degree. Of course living in Paris or London isn’t cheap, but there are smaller university towns all around europe that offer degrees taught in english. And frankly, when you do the math I would bet that even living in Paris and doing a three year degree there would cost you less than going to one of the top colleges in the US. Just a thought 🙂

    • Irisgeist

      I totally agree! I did my PhD in Germany. I paid something around 100 or 110€ tuition *per semester*, which included already a student ticket for using the local transport system (which was fairly good, not to mention that the city was super bike-friendly). I lived alone in a furnished flat, for 350€/month. Had I been an undergraduate student, I would have been eligible for living at the student dorms, which would have costed me something like 150€/month. I paid a bit less than 100€/month for health insurance.
      Altogether, I lived quite comfortably with my german scholarship of 1200-1300€/month; I even had the chance to travel a bit around across Europe and to pay for the transportation costs of my long distance relationship. The university I attended had a really nice graduate program for my field (in English!), and I had the chance to be at a research institute with state-of-the art equipment, facilities and renowned scientists. I can only recommend it.

    • Violaine

      I was going to say that – I wouldn’t recommend the UK as, for Europe, the fees are really expensive – £9000 a year, which is about … 22 times more expensive than the same course in France or Spain, which cost between €300 and €400 a year. The only good thing about the UK is the classes being always in English, whereas if you want to study in another country, you would usually need to speak the language.
      I have several degrees, which many people find really impressive – two BAs, two MAs… all from French universities. And a teaching degree from the UK that costed, overall, MORE than my other four degrees.

      • disqus_lkdChzmzjm

        I studied in the UK because it was still cheaper than the US, and my programme wasn’t offered in other places. (I speak french, but couldn’t find a BA option there)

        But I agree, in most cases the UK isn’t the best option.

        • Violaine

          Well done you for doing this! I didn’t realise it could be cheaper than the US (wow! makes you think about US prices – WHY do you guys pay so much?? I think UK universities are better than French ones, which justifies the price a bit but are they better than US ones?) but well done for going abroad and studying here – I did that but I was two hours away from home – by plane – so that is not the same 😉

  • I did dual credit while in high school through a local community college and was able to get 44 credits knocked out by the time I graduated high school. It saved me a lot of money and I’m super glad I did it.

    I’m curious about the whole “go abroad to go to college” reasoning. A few countries in Europe offer free college, even for international students. What I’m curious about in this instance is the things you might miss out on: an alumni network, career services, etc. How exactly valuable are these services to students?

    • Violaine

      We don’t have these kinds of services usually in Europe, except in the UK – which is more expensive.
      To be honest I don’t find them valuable and when I studied in the UK, I did not use them. I think it’s a different culture, we don’t really use these things and we don’t really think we need them.
      It would never be free to study if you’re from abroad, but it’d a lot cheaper. Not everywhere – international fees for the UK and Ireland are crazy expensive, like easily £20000 a year depending on the course. But if you were going to study in France or Spain, the price is usually the same as for EU students, and that’s between €300-€400 a year (including the compulsory student health insurance…) For info, 400€ is $450 – per year.