How to get a Cheap or Free Education – Part III (the real free education)
Last week I wrote about how you could get a free education at a top university if you are economically challenged and exceptionally gifted and a relatively cheap education by going to a top public university and working a part time job and having no social life. But let’s be honest: no one wants to have no social life. A lot of you will want to go to college not only to get an education, but also to party; and, of course, if you’re studying by day and working by night to pay the tuition not covered by your scholarship (FAFSA), you will have no energy left for homework, much less socializing. Allow me, then, to share with you what I did for my undergraduate degree – a strategy that I feel is the best option for those who come from low income families.
It’s very likely that somewhere near your house there is a University system campus, a State University campus, or a City University campus (in the case of Texas, examples would be UT Dallas, Texas State University at San Marcus, and University of Houston – there should be similar institutions in your state). Tuition for these universities range from $4,000 to $6,000 per year. This means that you will be able to cover 100% of your tuition costs with the federal student aid scholarship (just google FAFSA). Because these universities are (or should be) close to where you reside, you will not need to stay on campus, although you certainly have the option of getting a PT on campus job and use that to pay for on campus housing if you really feel the need to “be cool”. So, in short, for your undergraduate degree, go to your local “small” campus. You will, in all likelihood, get a more thorough education, as professors usually pay more attention to students in these institutions than in the larger ones, and you will be able to evade thousands of dollars of debt once you finish your undergraduate degree.
The only real benefits of going to a large institution is networking, but it’s up to you to decide if going to USC (one of the best institutions in the US as far as networking goes) is worth the extra $35,000 a year in debt that you will incur if you choose to go to that institution instead of Cal State.
Now, I just suggested that you go to your local campus for your undergraduate degree (B.A., B. Sc., B.Ed., Ll.B., etc) so that you could avoid huge debt. There is an even cheaper alternative – one that my nephew (you might remember him from my previous Portal and Narrative post) is taking.
Several local campuses and state universities (tuition roughly $5,000 a year) have arrangements with even smaller community colleges, where students who take the general studies classes can go on to the university with all of the courses accepted. This means that you could go to your local community college, take humanities, composition, math, and social sciences (or whatever counts as ‘general education courses’ in your schools) and move on to the university for the last two years to focus on engineering, math, or literature.
Now, before you go ahead and say “wow I’m going to save a lot of money this way”, let me fill you in on the pros and cons of doing this. The obvious pro is that tuition for courses at your local community college are probably around $150 per course. This means that you could take 21 credits each semester (that’s 7 classes per semester, the maximum allowed in most institutions), not have to pay a dime (because the FAFSA can also be used for community colleges), and have around $1,200 left over from that scholarship. When you have left over funds from a scholarship you will receive a check for whatever amount it may be. You can use that money towards books, but if you’re smart you’ll want to save them for “emergencies” when you transfer to your local university campus. If you play your cards right, you will spend 2 years in your local community college, transfer into your local university campus with a $3,500 savings account, and spend two years in your local university. That is the upside. The downside is that in your local community college you’ll likely get instruction that is very dedicated and student-focused, but a bit outdated. I might be generalizing a bit based on my experience, but I am aware that in Puerto Rico, Texas, California, and New York a lot of instructors who teach at university campuses also teach in community colleges. They might teach the same course, at least theoretically, but the content that they have to teach changes. Allow me to use composition as an example.
In every single university I have been to, composition courses focus around rhetorical approaches where students learn to write real life argumentative and research papers the likes of which you could find in the Journal of Popular Culture and the Journal of Applied Physics. In these courses students get to analyze rhetorical devices used by writers in their field, understand debate from a community point of view, engage with audience, and a bunch of other cool stuff. The same instructor teaching this at the university level would then go to the community college and teach the five paragraph form, modes, and other outdated stuff. The reason for this is that while universities allow departments to come up with their own curriculum, community colleges often have their curriculum dictated from a central office who decides what to teach based on what can be standardized the most, so that everyone is teaching the same thing. Now, this does not mean that your instructor won’t pay attention to you – a dedicated instructor is a dedicated instructor anywhere – and it doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the case in all community colleges. I myself used to work at a community college setting (CEM) and even though the central administration gave the final word on the course content, they relied mostly on faculty and current trends to guide their philosophy and content choice (in the case of my former institution, I was once told in a conference that CEM had a really solid English department, even better than some universities, and I would agree). However, I have also spoken with instructors who work at both university and community college level and who complain because the administration doesn’t “let them teach real writing”. In the end, it’s up to you if you’re willing to sacrifice a more updated education (perhaps by 10 or 20 years) for a couple of thousand dollars.
Now here’s the recap. For you to finish your undergraduate degree without any sort of debt, you want to:
a) be all kinds of smarts and amazing and low income to get a free ride at Harvard
b) go to a big public research university flagship campus and work and have no social life
c) go to your local university campus
d) go to your local community college and save up and then go to your local university campus
Whatever you decide, make sure that you get straight As in all your classes and, if you can, publish or present something in a journal or conference. It will help you with the next step.
I hope this has helped you some, whoever you are. Tomorrow I’ll tackle what you want to do to get a graduate degree (Masters level) without having to go into debt.