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Planning Ahead to Keep Costs Down

Thinking of going back to school to complete an undergraduate degree? You are not alone – there’s plenty of evidence confirming that education is the most effective pathway to career opportunities and advancement. National employment data clearly confirms that the earnings of people with college degrees are greater than those who did not complete their education.

While the benefits of completing an undergraduate degree are well established, the cost of returning to school to complete a degree can be challenging for many working adult students. Student loans can help, but individuals looking to return to school to complete an undergraduate degree can follow some additional steps to make returning to school more affordable.

Steps to Reduce the Number of College Courses Needed for Degree Completion

Earning an undergraduate degree typically requires the completion of 120 college credits. While most of these will be earned by completing college courses, there are ways to receive credit for other activities or accomplishments. Taking advantage of these opportunities can reduce the remaining credits necessary to complete a degree and reduce the additional costs.

  • Community College: The design of most undergraduate degree completion programs is based on an expectation that applicants will have already earned college credit at the community college level. A full Associate’s Degree issued by a community college is normally 60 credits in length. Many degree completion programs, however, allow applicants to transfer in up to 70 credits earned at the community college level. Given that the cost per credit at a community college is often lower than credits earned at the university or four-year college level, degree completion can be more affordable by maximizing the number of applicable community college level credits that you can transfer in.
  • College Level Examination Program (CLEP) from The College Board: The CLEP process allows learners to take examinations in 33 topics. If an individual successfully completes an examination, then many colleges will accept that result to award credit for a matching college course. Some people refer to this as “testing out” of a college course. Today, the cost to write an exam through CLEP is under $100 and, in some cases (e.g., active military), access to these exams is free. The College Board also offers study materials to help individuals prepare for each examination.
  • American Council on Education (ACE): This organization has reviewed over 35,000 training, apprenticeship, and certification programs offered by non-academic organizations (e.g., employers, military) and evaluated them to see if they can be considered as equivalent to a college-level credit course. If you have been through formal training or processes like these as part of your career, then it would certainly be worthwhile to verify if that formal process has been reviewed by ACE. Many colleges will accept training certified by ACE as credit towards undergraduate degree completion.  Aside from being granted college credit for formal job-related training or tests you have previously completed, it is also possible to enroll in ACE-certified courses in order to reduce the number of college courses necessary for degree completion. For example, organizations like StraighterLine offer general education courses that have been approved by ACE as equivalent to college-level courses. These courses are typically available at a substantially reduced cost when compared to college tuition.
  • Prior Learning Assessment (PLA): PLA is a pathway to college credit that many academic institutions offer. It is based on the observation that learning can take place outside of formal training programs. For example, applicants can assemble a portfolio of professional work to demonstrate competency in an area or discipline accumulated through their professional experience and earn credit if reviewed and approved. Similarly, an applicant can compose a submission to demonstrate competency related to a specific course. Often, professional licenses or certifications can be used to demonstrate this sort of competency as well. PLA process and policies vary across colleges, so it is important to investigate this thoroughly.
  • Advanced Placement (AP) High School Courses: AP courses are high school courses that colleges can choose to accept as credit towards an undergraduate degree. Of course, for adult learners considering completing a degree, high school is long past, so there are normally no additional opportunities to complete AP courses. It is useful, however, to make sure that any institution to which you are applying for degree completion is aware of any high school AP courses you completed in the past. Not all AP courses are accepted at all colleges, so if you completed an AP course in high school that was not previously accepted for credit at one institution, then it is worthwhile to check again if you are considering degree completion at a different school.

It is important to note that colleges have policies regarding transfer credits and awarding credit for any work done outside of their institution. In many cases, it is difficult to bring in credits from outside of the institution after you enroll (i.e., matriculate) in a program. One possible arrangement that would allow a student to simultaneously enroll in new college courses to work towards degree completion and pursue avenues such as CLEP and StraighterLine would be to take the college courses as an unmatriculated student. Many colleges allow individuals to take several credit-bearing courses before officially enrolling in a degree program.

When looking over the opportunities listed above, it is generally good advice to consider maximizing the credits potentially available in each pathway before enrolling in a degree completion program. Of course, you should always discuss this with the admissions officers at the institution you are thinking about joining. 

Steps to Reduce the Cost of Tuition

While it is wise to maximize the credits you can bring into a degree completion program, there may also be opportunities for reducing the cost of the remaining credits you have to earn. Unlike the steps discussed above, these opportunities can often be investigated both before and after enrolling in a degree completion program.

  • ScholarshipsIn order to address the specific challenges facing adult learners who wish to return to school for undergraduate degree completion, many colleges have created special scholarship funds for this purpose. In addition to those sorts of internal programs, admissions officers who are experienced with adult learners often know of external scholarship funds established with the same aims. Often, adult candidates think of scholarships as something available for traditional students only or connected with academic achievement exclusively. That is not the case, as many benefactors and organizations recognize the needs of non-traditional students as well.
  • Tuition Assistance (TA): Many employers offer an annual benefit to cover employee tuition costs. Current tax law allows employers to provide annual tuition assistance up to $5,250 without any tax implications for the employee. While some employers offer that maximum, the national average for employee TA programs is closer to $4,000 per year. Some employers place constraints on the availability of TA (e.g., courses must be pre-approved; courses should be on a job or organizational related topic; courses must carry college credit), but this rarely creates a significant hurdle for using this benefit towards courses in a degree completion program. Make sure to speak with the Human Resources department at your employer to research the TA program or policies available.
  • Corporate Discounts: In anticipation of employees’ interests in continuing education and degree completion, employers often negotiate blanket tuition rate reductions on behalf of their employees. It is worthwhile to check with your HR department to verify if these sorts of partnerships are in place between your employer and a college.
  • Negotiated Support: Tuition Assistance and corporate partnerships are general arrangements that are typically available to all employees within an organization. An additional form of support that may be worth investigating is a unique or customized support contract. Employers are often keen to develop specific employees for targeted roles within the organization and are willing to create customized packages to support their development. Sometimes these sorts of arrangements come with a contract that may specify a post-graduation minimum retention. If this sounds like a possibility, it may make sense to speak with your immediate superior or a senior manager rather than the HR department.

Planning Ahead

Going back to school to complete a degree is not inexpensive but there is ample evidence that it is worth it. To make this choice more accessible financially, don’t just think about the lowest cost per credit a school can offer; think about opportunities to lower the total cost (e.g., the number of credits) that have to be completed through traditional courses. Planning ahead and exploring all of these pathways can lead to making your degree completion pathway more affordable.