The One and a Half Year Bachelor’s Degree for Less Than Free
I recently earned a Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology. To simplify the story, it took me nine years to start the degree and a little less than two years to finish it. Even though my work did not pay for any of it, I still managed to come out a few hundred dollars ahead. I got paid to get my degree. It took eleven years to get to this point. During those first nine years, I questioned the value of a degree, wondered how I would even pay for it, and hated the thought of having to spend years doing college crap. I faced these three issues and after personally having this conversation three times in a week, I wanted to put these thoughts together and dispel some myths.
In this post, we are going to tackle the three issues of value, money, and time. We will start with the assumption that college is expensive and that it will take many years to finish. By the end of this guide, the cost will be little less than free and the degree will take eighteen months to complete! Most of what I discuss applies to anyone in the U.S. though some tips might be specific to your job, income or situation. Let’s get started!
You Should Get (or Finish) that Degree
As you probably know, I work in education. I have seen people with doctorates that could not turn on a computer. I would laugh to myself and be grateful that I did not waste all that money and time going to get a piece of paper. In my mind, IT was completely different – I did not need a degree to prove my worth. Things like awesome project, certifications or experience were all that counted.
And I started running into closed doors (figuratively – I don’t run).
Several years ago, I applied for a job at Microsoft as Premier Field Engineer with a slew of certifications and experience. I wasn’t even interviewed.
I did receive a very helpful email from the manager of that job. She commended me for what I’ve accomplished so far, told me to pursue a 4-year degree, and to apply again after that. With only the arrogance that a 21-year-old can muster, I promptly ignored that advice.
Of course, I kept running into closed doors or not even getting to see the door in the first place. My refusal to acknowledge the value that others place on a college degree prevented me from pursuing opportunities or even being offered the chance in the first place.
It took me a long time to see that a degree is a means to an end (or a new beginning). Now that I am done with my therapy session, let’s talk about why you should value a college degree. There are five reasons:
1. It opens opportunities in the good and the bad days. You may see a posting for a dream job that you would be a perfect fit for – but they require a bachelor’s degree. Or that dream job may not need a 4-year degree, but you lose out on the position to someone who does have a degree. Likewise, there hasn’t arguably been a better time to be in IT since the late 90’s. Salaries are at all-time highs, and we are in an employee’s market. Of course, the late 90’s was followed by the dot-com bust. There will eventually be another recession; that is the nature of economics. When jobs are hard to find, a degree can make you more employable.
2. You will learn core and soft skills that will be valuable throughout your career. The paper writing that you will do in college sucks. However, it will make you a better writer. No matter how good of a writer you are right now, you will get better. How useful do you think learning Java is? Sitting in class, I thought it was worthless as I wanted to learn cutting-edge stuff. I now realize that Java taught me how to think logically. Because it is object-oriented, picking up PowerShell was simpler as I had the foundation that was required.
3. Some classes are just plain fun! Classes, like ethical hacking or network security, are exciting! These classes provide a structure that helps to broaden your skill set or to introduce you to entirely new fields.
4. Group Projects and public speaking practice. As an introvert, these are my nightmares. You will likely do some group projects and public speaking. This is excellent practice with almost no risk! Introverts don’t get the opportunities of extroverts. If you are an introvert, being able to act like an extrovert is an insanely valuable skill at times.
5. Networking – the people kind. These are peers that could offer a recommendation for a job or introduce you to a new opportunity. This may be the most understated benefit of the whole list.
Paid to go to College; Finish in Record Time
You will face two constraints when getting your degree: time and money. Both are intertwined so we will jump between them in this section.
How much will a degree cost you? The median annual cost for a college degree is almost $19,000. If it took the full four years, the total cost would be $76,000. Unless you are graduating into a very high paying field, that is a stupid amount to pay. Let’s bring that number way down! This is a multi-step process; some of which may not apply to you. Do not jump around; read through all the steps in this process.
Step 1 – List the Cheapest Colleges that You Could Attend
The Department of Education has an excellent website named CollegeScoreCard. Here is that website showing colleges offering four-year IT degrees sorted by price. Residents of Texas, North Carolina, California, the Dakotas, and more can get a degree for a fraction of the average cost listed above.
Don’t see a school listed for your state? I didn’t either. Instead, I ended up enrolling in Western Governors (WGU). The annual tuition and fee cost is about $6300. A full Bachelor’s of Science should take you three years with summer classes (this assumes zero college credit). At WGU, this will set you back $21,000. Still stupid expensive; see step 2.
Step 2 – Get the Degree in Less Time
Every class that you take has a tuition cost. The more classes that you can get out of taking, the lower your cost will be. As a side benefit, you can earn your degree faster.
Cutting Out Core Classes
To get your degree, you will probably have to take some core classes. Typically, these classes represent two years of the four-year degree. These might include Algebra, Biology, Economics, and Literature. All fun topics but topics that you might not be interested right now (or topics that you already know about). Enter CLEP tests.
The College Board has a series of standardized exams designed to prove a sufficient level of proficiency in a core topic. Currently, 33 exams can provide college credit for about 40 total classes. In my opinion, these exams are an easier version of the Advanced Placement (AP) exams that The College Board offers to high school students.
Note: If you are a high school student, take these AP classes and ask your guidance department about college dual enrollment. It is possible for you to get your first two years done before graduating high school and have an Associate’s degree for free! Might as well do it, you are stuck in class anyways.
A CLEP exam and a study guide will set you back $98 (versus $700 for a single class). Passing a single exam can give you up to 12 credit hours toward your degree. A four-year degree is typically 120 credit hours. For an IT degree, roughly half will be core classes and half will be program related/tech classes. These classes compromise your Major/Concentration and related electives. Many colleges will allow you to substitute CLEP credit for up to 50% of your degree. Typically, credit is given for any test score that is a 62% or above. Your score does not have any effect on your GPA. There are many online resources to help you study. I can personally recommend Khan Academy as an excellent free resource.
In the first step, you made a list of affordable colleges that you would like to attend. Now, take that list and look up the classes that each would require for graduation. Compare each school against their CLEP policy. You may see that one school will give you eight credit hours for Biology while another may only give you four credit hours. The school that offers eight biology credit hours should rank higher on your list now.
Your final list should show a college that can allow you to substitute a large number of classes through CLEP tests. In fact, you might be able to get the vast majority of the first two years completed through this process. It might also be advantageous to ask your college about other core class substitution methods (for example, they might accept DSST exam credits).
Even if you can only get a year and a half of the four-year degree exempted, you will have still saved a ton of time and money! At this point, you can probably apply to your college and have a transcript evaluation done. Some colleges, like Western Governors, partner with different competency programs to fill in any missing classes that you might need to start. One of the more popular ones is StraighterLine.
Cutting Out Major and Elective Classes
Your major and elective classes roughly represent the other half of the four-year degree. Getting preemptive credit for these classes is a bit trickier. If credit is given, it is generally done for past degrees or certifications. Be wary of colleges that promise credit for past life experiences.
Find out if your college has a substitution policy or substitutions listed for each class. You might already have this list from the Cutting Core Classes step. The screenshot below shows some of WGU’s substitution list for a Bachelor’s of Information Technology degree. Because I had an MCSA in Windows Server 2012, I could exempt out of the Operating Systems 1 and 2 courses. If I had a Security +, I would have been able to exempt the Network and Security – Applications course. No matter what, I had to take Organizational behavior and Leadership course as there was no substitute listed.
There are a few other general guidelines and rules for substituting your major and elective classes.
1. Most of the time, you can only substitute half of your major and elective classes as well. If all of the core classes and 50% of your major classes are substituted, you would only need to take a year’s worth of classes to graduate!
2. Find out when substitutions can be applied. Some colleges will not allow credit substitutions after you begin enrollment in the program; others will allow you to provide substitutions up to the point that a specific class begins.
3. If you are already enrolled, check with your mentor or the head of your degree program (especially if you are attending a smaller school). You may be able to substitute in a certificate program that you did recently.
Finally, you may see a course that you are dreading to take. Classes like Computers for Cavemen or Programming in Pascal probably are not relevant. Find courses that are offered in similar programs and see if any interesting ones stand out. If your concentration is in the general Information Technology track, check out the courses offered in the IT Security track or the IT networking track as you might be able to take a more interesting class. If you are paying for it, it should be at least a little fun! Speaking of paying for college…
Step 3 – Managing the Cost of College
Knocking out many of the core and concentration classes will make the most significant difference in the total cost that you will pay. If you have a year or two left and are enrolled at WGU, you will pay between $6300 and $9500. This number depends on how fast you can finish. In my case, I paid $6300 up front.
Tuition and Fees
To get that number lower, find out how tuition and fees are calculated. At WGU, tuition and fees are lumped into a single six-month bill. During those six months, you can take as many classes as you want. The cost of taking three classes or six classes in a semester is the same. Obviously, you will pay a lot less overall by taking more classes in a single semester.
Most other colleges charge by the credit hour. One credit hour class might cost $233; a three-credit hour class might cost $700. And remember, you generally need 120 credit hours to graduate. The less full classes that you have to take, the cheaper the degree is. Although you can change the cost of required classes, you can minimize fees. Colleges love to tack on fees! To name a few, they have technology fees, campus fees, library fees, athletics fees, or cafeteria fees. Many of these fees apply even if you never physically visit the campus. Plan your class schedule for your entire degree and ensure that you aren’t taking just 1 or 2 classes in your final semester. Fees are charged by the semester. By enrolling in fewer semesters overall, you could save $500 – $1000 in fees.
Have Someone Else Pay for Your College; Seriously!
Did you know that there are people who want to pay for your college degree? It is true, I tell you! Three main groups want to pay for your degree.
- Your Work
- Uncle Sam
One of the groups above will almost certainly give you $8000 – $10,000!
Scholarships can knock out a sizable chunk of your tuition cost, and some can be easy to earn. Check out local scholarships first. If you have a community or local college, their financial aid office should have a list available. While you are at it, look for a list on your local High School webpage. These are typically listed under the Guidance Department. Some are just for High School students, but many apply to any person attending college in your town. Finally, look up any prominent community organizations or large local businesses. They will often have a small scholarship program. In our area, there are scholarships available from a local credit union, a local telephone company, a rural power company, several law offices, and several insurance offices.
Check out scholarship aggregate websites. I have personally used Scholly. These websites typically have a monthly charge of a few dollars and are probably only worth their cost for a couple of months before you begin or a few months before the end of the year (many scholarships end on Dec 31st). After you sign up, you will fill out a short survey. This will be used to match you to specific scholarships. Some of these websites can auto-fill in common information or submit a common quick response or essay for you.
Your work might also be willing to pay for the cost of your college. If your employer has a tuition reimbursement program, you probably already know about it. It never hurts to send a friendly email to the company benefits manager and your supervisor. There may be a program that few know about. Due to tax benefits, many private employers are incentivized to offer around $5000 per year in tuition assistance.
Public employers might outright pay for your tuition. Georgia’s College and University TAP program comes to mind. They might also pay for it in a roundabout manner. My previous employer would not pay for tuition. However, they would reimburse me for certification study material and the cost of certification tests. Your employer may do the same thing. If these certifications can be used as substitutes for classes, your employer is essentially paying for your tuition in advance.
Uncle Sam is very interested in you finishing your degree. In fact, the Congress has passed several different educational tax benefits that you can use. When people think of education tax benefits (and do not immediately fall asleep), they probably think about student loan deductions. In my opinion, this is chump change as most of the benefit goes to student loan providers. The real benefit is in the American Opportunity Tax Credit.
American Opportunity Tax Credit is available to almost anybody paying for their college outright if you have not finished a four-year degree previously. You can get a $2500 credit each tax year for a maximum of four years. $2000 of the $2500 credit is a 100% cost match. The remaining $500 is matched at 25%. Let’s look at a few examples:
- If you paid $2000 in tuition, you could get a $2000 tax credit. As in, you suddenly owe Uncle Sam $2000 less on Tax Day! This is way better than a tax deduction!!
If you are single and make less than $73,500, that means you could essentially earn an extra $9000 in a year and pay zero extra dollars in Federal income tax – all because you went to college (and paid for it upfront).
- If you paid $3000 in tuition, you could get a $2250 tax credit ($2000 + ($1000*.25))
- If you paid $4000 in tuition, you could get the full $2500 tax credit ($2000 + ($2000*.25))
The biggest benefit is paying right at or very close to just $2000 in tuition each tax year. Because of this, carefully time when you enroll in college and when you make payments. Let’s say that you have a year left to finish your degree at WGU. The cost will be $3150 a semester ($6300 total).
- If you start in January and make both tuition payments in the same year, you could get the full $2500 tax credit for that year. Because the benefit only applies to the first $4000, you don’t receive this benefit on the remaining $2300 that you paid. After the tax benefits, your total college cost would be $3800.
Not bad but we can do better.
- If you start in August, you would pay for tuition across two tax years. You would get the 100% cost match for the first $2000 twice! In the first tax year (July- December semester), you would get a $2288 tax credit ($2000 + ($1150*.25)). You would receive the same credit in the second tax year (January – June semester) for a total tax credit of $4576. By staggering your semesters, Uncle Sam gave you an extra $2076! After those two tax years, your entire college cost would be just $1724. I’ve spent more than that on BBQ in a year before!
Depending on your timeline and the tuition costs, it might be beneficial to take a few classes each year as the Federal Government will 100% reimburse you $2000 a year for up to four years. Compare the tuition and fee cost for a semester against the tax benefit of waiting.
If you anticipate getting a large tax refund (either as par for the course or as part of the educational tax credits), it can make sense to lower your tax withholding. This can allow you to save up money for tuition sooner. You would need to talk with your finance department and increase your withholding exemptions on your W-4 form.
One final factor to consider is your income. Generally, this tax credit can be used if you make less than $90,000 (individually) or $180,000 (married). If you are over or near this threshold, it might be wise to put a little extra in a retirement account or a health savings account. This can bring you under the income limit. You can check your eligibility for the American Opportunity Tax Credit here.
Cashback, Rebates, and Discounts
We have taken the massively inflated cost of college down to less than $2000! Unfortunately, you may still have to front some of the full tuition cost now. In the WGU example that we have been using, we might have $6300 saved up to pay for tuition.
There are still a few ways to get that cost down and in some cases, down to zero or even to a negative balance. Yep, you could end up getting paid a few hundred dollars to finish your degree!
1. Put that money in a high yield savings account. Most people should be able to park that money in an account earning 5% or 6% interest. That is an extra $300 just for paying for college up front. Some banks have new account bonuses or college savings bonuses. A local bank in our area offered $500 if you deposited $2000 into an account with them for six months. That is a 50% annual interest rate!
2. Pay with a credit card: If the college does not charge a credit card processing fee, an additional 1.5% – 3% could be knocked off the tuition cost as cash back. If the college does charge a small fee (3% or less) or if you want to save some serious money, consider opening a credit card account for this purpose. Many banks will offer large signup bonuses. I did my first semester on one that gives $500 and my second semester on one that offers $800 in cash. Those links are referrals to my account. Of course, you should only do this if you already have the money to pay off the charges – don’t pay interest. For the WGU example, this would cut $900 out of the tuition cost!
3. Finally, take advantage of those student discounts after you are enrolled! It may seem silly, but as we say in the south, it’s all gravy now. This saying is probably unrelated to our obesity problem.
- Many places give reduced rates to college students! Museums, restaurants, and insurance discounts are common. My personal favorite was a free chicken biscuit from Chick-fil-A each Wednesday!
- Amazon provides a 50% discount to Prime for four years.
Keep your college ID with you or take a picture of it. I don’t care how old you are; you are now a student! You will be surprised how often you notice that student discount sign once you are enrolled.
So what are you waiting for?
Don’t worry; there is no homework with today’s post. Though, I hope that you have learned a lot! An affordable college degree can do so much for you. It does not have to take a multitude of years to complete or cost you very much at all! In fact, you could even come out a bit ahead. If you have any comments or questions, leave a note below or shoot me an email. I hope to see a few graduation announcements in a year or so!