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Here’s How I Made My College Degree $12,000 Less Expensive

College is expensive. People are coming out with an average of $17,000+ of student debt. I’ve seen figures that are larger than that, upwards of $30,000+. I was lucky in that my parents paid for all of my college, but I also saved them $12,000 by graduating in three years. 

A lot of people suggest going to community college for the first two years and finishing the other two at a university to save money. Realistically, only 16% of students who attend a community college actually finish a bachelor’s degree — but in comparison, “62.4 percent of students who started at a four-year public university completed their degree within six years. That completion rate ticked up to nearly 74 percent for those who started at four-year private schools, the center found.” So, what should you do about college?

Getting into College is Tough

I completely agree. My SATs scores were significantly less than perfect. My GPA was luckily a 3.2 out of 4. At the end of the day, many colleges care about your potential rather than your scores. Are you someone who pushes themselves and has a great story? Are you someone who does more than just study?

When I applied to college, I focused my essays on what I learned from working multiple jobs and holding leadership positions in school clubs. I think that the college I attended passed over my terrible scores and less-than-perfect GPA for my potential instead. And the college I went to was not an easy school to get into. It’s one of the top 10 public universities in the U.S. with an acceptance rate of 20%.

When applications start, you should be applying to at least three colleges.

  1. Reach School: A well-known school that you want to attend, but you know will be a little harder to get into when comparing scores
  2. Same School: A college that you are within their averages and may be slightly better
  3. Safety School: A college that you have better than the scores listed on their website and know you have a very good chance of getting into

Even if you end up with your safety college, I recommend committing to it and attending. This was what allowed me to graduate in three years and seriously cut costs.

Unless you’re Serious about Engineering, Choose an Easier-to-You Major

In the beginning, I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and major in engineering. But I took my first coding class and immediately knew it wasn’t for me. So, I quickly switched to economics. There were lot fewer major requirements in economics than engineering, and the number of courses was also smaller. The economics courses definitely made a lot more sense to me, and I enjoyed them more. Also, many of the first-year engineering students came in with lots of AP credits. Most of them ended up as third-year standing and were a lot smarter than me. There was no way I would have been able to compete. I came into college with 12 quarter units, which is basically first year, second quarter standing.

Take the Full Load (4 Classes Every Semester/Quarter)

While college is designed for four years, it doesn’t always take everyone the full four years. Those who came in as third-year standing were pretty much done by their second or third year, because their credits covered all the general requirements and they just needed to finish their major requirements. For me, who came in as a first-year, I took a full load every quarter and sometimes even five courses a quarter. This allowed me to finish in three years.

Make a Schedule

This is key to finishing early. You need to plan ahead. Most schools will prep in-coming students and they also post all their courses with a description online. You’ll also know what general requirements you’ll need to meet along with the major requirements.

Take a few hours before school starts and map out your next four years. Then move the classes around to see if you can meet all the requirements in three years. If you are able to, figure out how to finish in two years. The two years might be the goal, but know that you can always slowly move courses to a later time if things get too difficult. Lastly, stick to it.

Finish the Course without Flunking

While I finished in three years, I failed to mention that I scraped by with a final of 3.1 GPA. But having a less-than-perfect GPA was okay with me — unless you plan to work for McKinsey or going onto to Law/Med school, no company will know your GPA. The most important thing is that you graduated. I ended college with mostly Bs with a few As. Make sure you finish with a C or better. Anything less than that will usually require you to retake the course, which will cost you more. 

Other Ways to Finish College Without Debt

If you parents don’t help you one bit, here are some other ways to graduate with as little debt as possible.

1. Work Part-Time on Campus. My parents and I agreed that they would pay whatever was on the college bill, and I was responsible for anything outside of that. That meant I worked 10-15 hours a week to cover books and going out with friends for the first two years. In my third year, I had to live off-campus, which meant my expenses went up. However, I found an internship that took care of those expenses.

2. Commit to Finding an Internship in Your Last Year that Pays. As you’re nearing the final months of college, it’s important to land an internship that helps pay the bills. Hopefully, that internship turns into a full-time opportunity after graduation. Even if it doesn’t, the internship will be a good resume builder as you look for a job.

In my third year, I used the college’s career site to look for a part-time office job at a company. When I interviewed, I mentioned that I would be graduating this year and was looking for a place that I could grow into that would turn me into a full-time employee. Luckily, one of the companies I interviewed with was also looking for the same thing. I got the job and worked 20 hours a week. Based on good pre-planning, I had taken the bulk of the more difficult classes in my first and second year of college. So, my third year was filled with easy courses and in two of the quarters, I only needed to take three courses instead of four. This allowed me to work 20 hours a week without difficulty. This also paid my bills while living off-campus.

3. Financial Aid. Apply for financial aid every single year. Even if you think your parents make too much, who knows — you might actually get something!

4. Purchase Older Versions of Textbooks or Don’t Buy Them at All

In my first year of college, I purchased every textbook the professor stated was mandatory. This adds up fast! Then as classes went on, I realized the textbooks were useless because I couldn’t understand them, and the lectures were the important part. I made sure to attend all the classes and print out the slides to take notes on. For textbooks, I either stopped buying them, or if I did actually need them, I would purchase an older version on Amazon for way less than the current version. They were almost always identical. By the end of it, I realized that I needed the textbook about 10% of the time. I stopped wasting money on textbooks and just attended class.

This doesn’t apply to everyone. It really depends on the class and people’s style of learning. I don’t do well with text and needed to be in every single class, while others just need to read. Again, each person needs to take this into consideration and see what works or doesn’t work.

What Did 3 Years of College Teach Me?

I don’t need a lot. Living as a broke college student, you realize that you don’t need fancy stuff and that you can get by on very little. In my last year, I slept on a mattress pad placed on the floor and shared the room for $375 a month. Had my parents not helped with college, I know I still wouldn’t come out with the national average of $17K in debt.

Financial aid definitely helped. Also, working in college made a difference. In my last year of college, I landed an internship that paid $15 an hour and I worked 20 hours a week. It covered the $375 room, $175 car payment, food/utilities, and extra every month that could have paid down student loans.

Bottom Line

There are many things that people can do to cut the cost of college down. The more you can do in high school, like pass as many AP exams as possible, will help reduce the cost. For people like me who aren’t good at taking tests and didn’t pass as many AP tests, focus on shortening your timeline in college and finding jobs that will help pay the bills.

The author prefers to remain anonymous.

Image via Unsplash

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