It doesn’t take a degree in mathematics, statistics or finance to crunch the numbers on the current cost of higher education. Student loan interest rates will double on July 1st if Congress can’t reach a bipartisan agreement. Tuition and fees at public universities have risen 130% over the last 20 years; meanwhile, incomes keep falling behind. Today’s high school graduates need solutions to ensure a successful, productive future. There is no panacea for the complex issues plaguing higher education in the US, but students can achieve their career ambitions without paying an arm and a leg for the education to get there.
First and foremost, the college search begins with knowing yourself, your goals, strengths and weaknesses. Understanding your own preferences and lifestyle can help you choose both the right college and the right course of study. Going to college should be treated like any other major life decision; you need to understand why you want to do it, how you will adjust to the change, and how college will help you achieve your career goals. Even if you don’t know exactly what your major will be, if you understand your unique characteristics, you will make the right decisions for yourself. Understanding yourself will help you choose a college and avoid having to transfer. Knowing a general direction of study will help you focus your study right away in your freshman year instead of wandering academically and financially. US News published a remarkably thorough College Personality quiz covering ten factors in choosing a college, a great place to start for the overwhelmed high school student thinking about higher education.
College could be much more affordable if a future college student could take college course equivalents in high school or show the college what he or she already knows and skip ahead. Fortunately, there are options for students that provide exactly that opportunity. For a student who took advanced courses in high school or for homeschooled students, the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) measures a student’s knowledge of material covered in introductory level college courses. Thirty-three different tests are offered in topics such as American Government, Business Law, Chemistry, Calculus and level 1 and 2 French, German and Spanish. Each test lasts 90 minutes, about half the length of the ACT. Each one costs $77 and can earn up to 12 credits, depending on your score and each college’s requirements. Most schools publish the required scores for earning credit on their website, or you can contact the school to find out the minimum score for each test you plan to take.
Nearly 3,000 colleges and universities grant credit for CLEP, but the details of the credit earned may vary. They may apply toward general requirements, cover electives, or translate to specific courses. For some institutions you may be exempted from a course but not receive credit, or you may be required to complete an advanced course in the subject area before you receive credit for the introductory level. Before registering for the exam, know whether your top choice schools will require the optional free-response portion and what you may need to do after the exam to receive credit.
A similar option for students is Advanced Placement (AP) Program. Many schools offer courses during the academic year to prepare for an AP exam, but the class is not required to take the test. Most four-year colleges grant credit and/or allow placement into a more advanced course in the subject area. The College Board offers AP exams for 34 subjects. Each exam has a fee of $87 with fee reductions available for those with financial need. There is no limit on the number of exams you may take during your high school years. Credit and class placement depends on each college’s policy.
If your hometown has a college nearby, joint enrollment in high school and college offers expanded opportunities for advanced studies. You can become familiar with the workload of a college course and get a head start on earning your degree.
If you have no idea (or a thousand ideas) of what you want to study, taking a year off might be beneficial to you. A gap gives you more time to think about what you really want to do instead of paying for general courses until you decide on a major. You may be able to get a job in a field you are considering in order to get experience in the workplace and decide if it is right for you. Even if your job is just for the paycheck and not for the experience, living at home can enable you to save more of that paycheck and have more of the most-desired commodity in college: money in the bank.
For many students, half of the challenge of going to college is learning to live independently, just taking care of details like housekeeping, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, paying bills, and many other tasks. They may seem small individually, but for many students they seem overwhelming when they combine with academic worries, adjusting to a new city, meeting new people and possibly homesickness as well. Now is an ideal time to take on more responsibility in your household to help you prepare for dorm or apartment living. If you’ve never done your own laundry, paid a bill or shopped for groceries, now is the perfect time to start. Your parents are still available to help, but more likely you will find that you really can handle most of the changes that would come with living alone or with roommates your own age.
The financial state of the average student is failing. Two-thirds of students graduating from four-year universities have debt averaging over $23,000. The total US student debt exceeds credit card debt. As a general rule, students who take on more debt than their first year’s salary are most likely to have difficulty paying it back. Don’t be average. Take steps to secure your educational and financial future and rise to the top of the class.