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Tips on paying for college

By Elizabeth Harris

June is the month of a reality check for recent high school graduates. Those college admission letters that created such excitement — “I got in!” — have been tempered by the new knowledge of exactly how much parents and students will have to pay or borrow to make up the difference between what financial aid and scholarships will provide.

Tuition and room and board are not the only college costs. Textbooks, student fees, additional clothing for colder climates, meals that are not covered by the college plan, and transportation all add up and, in some cases, provide an unwelcome surprise at the actual cost of a year of college away from home. Some ways of paying for college, like joining the military, are common knowledge. But other ways to cut costs are not as widely known.

Most students and parents have at least considered the option of going to community college for a year or two to complete general education requirements. However, not everyone realizes just how much money this option can save. Community colleges across Virginia are instituting a new program this fall called “Guided Pathways.”

The goal is to ensure that every course a student at a community college takes will transfer as a degree requirement to the university of the student’s choice or help a student earn a career certificate in the most efficient way possible. Tidewater Community College has articulation agreements with almost every Virginia four-year university, and students can have guaranteed admission to the college of their choice if they take certain coursework and maintain the required GPA. Didn’t get in the first time? Come to TCC for a fresh start and gain entrance on the second attempt. Counselors help students match their course load at TCC to that of the four-year college student for a seamless transfer.

Another way students can cut college costs is to complete a career certificate at TCC so that they can get a better-paying job when finishing their four-year degree and also pay their expenses. Many career certificates can be completed in less than a year and lead to jobs that pay far more than minimum wage. A student might not want that job for a lifetime, but a higher-paying job would certainly enable a student to finish college in a chosen career field with far less student loan debt.

A third way to lower college costs significantly is by taking College Level Examination Program tests and earning college credit for what a student has already learned or is willing to study independently. A student can check if the college he or she is planning to attend will take CLEP credits, and in which subjects, by searching the name of the college and CLEP.

Although the most selective colleges may not accept CLEP credits, most colleges in Virginia do. CLEP tests are self-scheduled through local “open” testing centers. A student signs up for the test on a certain day and should review and prepare in advance for that test. Successfully passing CLEP tests can earn a student up to a year of college credits at very minimal cost.

Each test, which costs slightly more than $100, can result in at least three college credits earned, usually for a score of 50 or above. Compare that with the cost of a three-credit course, as well as a textbook, at any college or university. The tests are timed, multiple-choice and taken on the computer. Prep books are available from on-line sellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. There are many Internet sites like instantcert.com that prepare students to be successful.

Other tests for different subjects are available through the DSST (Dantes) testing program which was formerly for individuals in the military, but now is accessible to anyone. Colleges like Old Dominion, Norfolk State, Radford, VCU, Virginia Tech and George Mason, to name a few, accept CLEP and DSST credit for many courses. Community colleges also accept credit for most CLEP and DSST tests. All CLEP and DSST exams can be taken on a TCC campus, and credit will be transferred to a four-year university. Students need to verify the required score and if a particular test will be accepted at a four-year university before preparing to take one. Earning credit through CLEP and DSST testing can greatly reduce college costs. The summer is a great time for students to earn college credits by studying for and taking CLEP and DSST exams. More information can be found at clep.collegeboard.org and getcollegecredit.com.

Just remember that student loan debt is forever; it cannot be discharged, even in bankruptcy. Parents should not jeopardize their own financial futures by co-signing student loans. Students may enjoy the four years at “the college of my dreams,” but few realize they will be paying for those loans for the next 20 years when they will be trying to pay living expenses and establish themselves in careers, often with young families.

College is not a social decision — it is a business decision. Make wise choices. Maturity is delaying present gratification for future long-term benefits.

Elizabeth Harris is a recently retired high school teacher and long-time adjunct instructor in history and humanities at TCC. She welcomes questions about college planning and earning credit by examination through CLEP and DSST testing. You can reach her at etharris@tcc.edu.