Think Outside the Box to Reduce College Costs

Alyssa Ruffa was halfway through college when she realized she’d need money. Her parents were no longer able to contribute as much, and she wanted to continue on to vet school.

She considered borrowing and working, but then found an option that would pay for school, give her a career boost and satisfy her strong sense of patriotism: The Reserve Officers Training Corps.

In exchange for her commitment to serve one weekend a month for eight years in the Army Reserves, Ruffa, now a senior majoring in biological sciences at the University of Georgia, receives tuition plus books and a living stipend through ROTC, for a total of some $14,000 per semester.

According to two 2016 reports from the College Board, college tuition and fees are rising at a faster rate than financial aid and family income – by about 3 percent yearly, compared with virtually no inflation in the rest of the economy. Including room and board, the average total cost of a year of college at a public university is now some $20,000 for in-state students and $35,000 for out-of-staters, and more than $45,000 at a private school.

That means there’s a greater need than ever for ways to lessen the pain. Here are some ways to do it.

 Public honors colleges: One way to gain the small liberal arts college experience at a discount is to choose an honors college at a public university.

These schools within schools are a more formal and comprehensive version of the university honors program, often with extra resources such as dedicated counselors and scholarship coordinators, specially designated residences and activities aimed at fostering a scholarly community – meetings with distinguished alumni, say, and discounted or free trips to the theater.

According to the National Collegiate Honors Council, which has identified 12 basic characteristics of an honors college, the curriculum should account for at least 20 percent of a student’s degree program, and an honors thesis or project should be required. Many colleges offer funding opportunities for the thesis, and students present their work at national conferences.

Public honors colleges offer small classes – South Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina boasts an average class size of 16, for example – and research opportunities with faculty that otherwise might be tough to get at a university.

Admission to these colleges is highly selective and often comes with scholarship aid. For example, City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College offers students a four-year tuition scholarship plus a laptop.

And there are other perks. At the University of Oregon’s Clark Honors College, among others, students are given priority registration so they get their pick of professors and time slots and don’t risk getting shut out of a class required for graduation. At the University of Nevada—Las Vegas, honors college students get prep for grad schooladmission – and pizza and bagels during exams.

• ROTC: The military’s ROTC scholarships are the country’s single largest source of scholarship money not based on need – about $1 billion each year. Unlike attending one of the service academies, where the education is free but cadets have highly regimented schedules, joining ROTC is a bit like having a part-time job or an extracurricular activity.

Cadets attend classes and pursue their major just like anyone else on campus does, but they also take one ROTC academic class per semester for which they earn elective credit. In these courses, they might learn about the principles of war and military operations and tactics, for example.

Cadets also may attend a basic training camp and typically have physical training during the semester, often three days a week at 6 a.m. There are also occasional weekend commitments, such as trips to a gun range or 12-mile hikes at a 15-minute-mile pace while carrying a 45-pound backpack.

“It doesn’t really impact my social life, because I’d be spending time at the gym anyway,” says Ruffa, who estimates her obligations consume 15 hours per week.

After graduation, the terms of service vary. The reserves are certainly a popular choice, though some cadets opt to fulfill their commitment with active service in their chosen branch of the military. Commitments are shorter with active service – often four years as opposed to an eight-year commitment in the reserves.

• Other options: Keep in mind that it pays to do your research; opportunities to save are always cropping up. Florida State University offers a “First Year Abroad” program through which out-of-staters study abroad freshman year and pay in-state tuition rates for the next three years.

New York lawmakers recently approved a free tuition program for state residents who qualify. The program, dubbed the Excelsior Scholarship, pays tuition costs for public institutions in New York State after other sources of financial aid have been applied.

It covers families with incomes of up to $100,000 – ultimately this will be $125,000. Recipients must live and work in New York for the same number of years they receive the award.

Finally, the College Board points out one money-saving no-brainer: Finish college in four years. About a third of students take longer.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2018” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.

The Biggest Misconception About Today’s College Students

You might think the typical college student lives in a state of bliss, spending each day moving among classes, parties and extracurricular activities. But the reality is that an increasingly small population of undergraduates enjoys that kind of life.

Of the country’s nearly 18 million undergraduates, more than 40 percent go to community college, and of those, only 62 percent can afford to go to college full-time. By contrast, a mere 0.4 percent of students in the United States attend one of the Ivies.

The typical student is not the one burnishing a fancy résumé with numerous unpaid internships. It’s just the opposite: Over half of all undergraduates live at home to make their degrees more affordable, and a shocking 40 percent of students work at least 30 hours a week. About 25 percent work full-time and go to school full-time.

The typical college student is also not fresh out of high school. A quarter of undergraduates are older than 25, and about the same number are single parents.

These students work extremely hard to make ends meet and simultaneously get the education they need to be more stable: A two-year degree can earn students nearly 20 percent more annually than just a high school diploma.

And yet, these students are often the most shortchanged.

As open-access institutions, community colleges educate the majority of our country’s low-income, first-generation students. But public funding for community colleges is significantly less than for four-year colleges, sometimes because of explicit state policies. This means the amount that community colleges can spend on each student — to pay for faculty, support services, tutoring and facilities — is far less as well.

Tuition for low-income students can be covered by federal financial aid programs, but these students often have significant other costs — including housing, transportation, food and child care — that regularly pose obstacles to their education.

A recent Urban Institute study found that from 2011 to 2015, one in five students attending a two-year college lived in a food-insecure household. A study from the Wisconsin Hope Lab found that in 2016, 14 percent of community college students had been homeless at some point. At LaGuardia Community College in New York, where I am president, 77 percent of students live in households making less than $25,000 per year.

With financial pressures like these, studying full-time is not an option. It is not uncommon for a student to take between three and six years to graduate from a two-year associate degree program.

Even that can be a miraculous feat. At LaGuardia, many of our students start their days by taking their child to day care on the bus. Then they take the subway to college, then ride a different bus to their job, another bus to pick up their child and a final bus to go home. Once home, they still need to cook dinner, help their child with homework, tuck the child in, tidy up and complete their own college coursework.

Many of these students have jobs that are part-time and pay the minimum wage; their schedules can vary wildly, making the fragile balance of each day complex.

Being stretched so thin makes each day an ordeal. It’s no wonder that too many students drop out before graduation.

Community colleges need increased funding, and students need access to more flexible federal and state financial aid, enhanced paid internships and college work-study programs. Improved access to public supports, like food stamps and reduced public transportation fares, would also make a world of difference.

It’s not just that policy must change. Last year, more than $41 billion was given in charity to higher education, but about a quarter of that went to just 20 institutions. Community colleges, with almost half of all undergraduate students, received just a small fraction of this philanthropy. It is imperative that individuals, corporations and foundations spread their wealth and diversify where they donate their dollars.

Correcting society’s perception of who attends college in the United States is the first step toward helping these hard-working and ambitious students, eager to make a better life for themselves and their families.

It will take sustained commitment by our elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists to increase support for routinely underfunded community colleges. It’s time to put public and private money where more and more students are educated, and remove the real, but surmountable, obstacles that stand between them and a degree.


What to Ask Current College Students on a Campus Visit

One thing college applicants often overlook is speaking to students currently attending a college or university. By doing this, applicants can get honest, individualized perspectives about what it’s like to live, work and play at a college or university. Here a few good questions to get these conversations started below.

What’s the Average Class Size?

Admission offices are willing to put you in touch with someone who studies in a department or program that interests you. You also could try physically going to a department building and asking students questions between classes. Questions about class size will give you insight into how much individual attention students receive from their professors.

If a majority of freshman classes are large lectures, you’ll have to be prepared to take personal initiative with your studies. Depending on the type of student you are, class size could make a huge difference in your success throughout your time in college.

How Easy is it to Register for Classes?

Asking about class accessibility allows you to assess the overall size of the university and the way it accommodates students. At bigger colleges, it can be difficult for students to sign up for smaller, more intimate classes until their junior year. Ask a student if they had trouble getting into classes during and after their first year.

What was Your Freshman Year Like?

Most colleges require that you live in a dorm for your freshman year. Some require dorm living for all four years, while others allow you to live in an apartment or house on or off campus after the first two semesters. You might not plan on spending much time in your dorm, but you should feel comfortable with your living conditions while trying to make a smooth transition into college life. Ask how students enjoyed the experience, if they made friends in their hall and if they felt like dorms were open, inclusive spaces.

What are the Extracurriculars?

This question touches on a college’s student network and how involved the student body is in clubs, organizations and other extracurricular activities. If you’re interested in certain activities, find a student who is in clubs or groups related to those activities. Ask if these clubs require applications, how one becomes a leader and how much time each one demands of its participants.


Colleges Are Still Accepting Students for Fall 2017

Didn’t get into your dream school or finally decided that you want to go to college in the fall? There’s still a chance for you to go somewhere you will love! Something that not many people know is that college admissions reopen their application process in early May. Over 400 colleges have announced that they still have space for incoming freshman.

May 1st is National Decision Day but many colleges are still accepting applications because they didn’t fill up their freshman class by the traditional deadline. The National Association for College Admission Counseling posted the full list of colleges that are still accepting applications in the beginning of May.

College admissions suggest that if you want to go to any of these schools, you should contact the college and ask a few questions:

1) How do I apply? Applying to colleges this time around can be much easier than the first. If you already applied to college this year, you don’t need to fill out Common Application again. You just add the new school to your list on Common App and hit send. However, some schools still require extra essays and questions so make sure to check if the school you choose needs that!

2) Is there any financial aid still available? Some colleges have shared that those who apply late in the game may still qualify for the same grants and scholarships as those who apply earlier. However, some have said that most of their highest scholarships have early deadlines, so those that apply late could get less financial help, and have to pay higher prices.

3) Where will I be able to live? Some colleges and universities say that they have room for students in the incoming class but not in the dormitories. So make sure that you ask about housing options if you don’t plan on commuting.

You have hundreds of college options still, don’t give up on going to a college that you will love!