It’s no surprise that college is expensive, but today, prospective learners are increasingly skeptical of the price tag. Seventy percent of 18- to 34-year-olds who do not have college degrees — and 49% who do — said in a recent survey that college is a “questionable investment.”
For me, the value of the investment wasn’t an issue. I knew I wanted to go to college. But the price tag was: My family couldn’t afford to help me pay for it, and I was terrified of taking out loans after watching my parents stress about finances while my mom pursued her education and career later in life. So I found another way to get a college degree.
It was a daunting plan that I wasn’t always sure I could pull off. But through careful planning, hard work and a detailed spreadsheet laying out my degree plan and budget, I earned a bachelor’s degree in business in under three years, paying entirely out of pocket. And it cost me just $8,200, which is less than $1,400 per semester.
Often lost in discussions around rising tuition prices, mounting student debt and loan forgiveness are the concrete steps students themselves can take to reduce the immense costs of going to college. Here’s how I hacked a college degree — and how you can, too.
Seek out advice
Whether from a trusted mentor, a school counselor, or a knowledgeable friend or family member, it’s important to learn as much as you can about your options. Going to college is an intimidating process, especially when you lack the financial resources to easily pay for it. The good news is that the answers to your questions are out there if you know where to look.
I was the first of my siblings to go to college. I had few sources who I could turn to for help navigating my way to a traditional four-year degree. Through Google searches related to alternative college credit, I went down a rabbit hole that led me to a video about low-cost options and an online community of learners like me through a website called InstantCert Degree Forum. We leaned on one another to find the most affordable and efficient pathways to and through college. It was on this forum that I started to piece together my plan for going to college without taking on student loans. I began assembling a spreadsheet of what courses I would need to take and, importantly, where I could take them at a more affordable price.
Get credit from low-cost, flexible alternatives
There are an ever-growing number of online programs and other learning options that provide a more affordable path to a degree. In high school, you can take AP courses or dual enrollment courses for college credit. You can also earn credits through College-Level Examination Program, or CLEP, exams run by the College Board. Community college, too, can be a great way to find cheaper courses you can transfer into a four-year program. I earned 15 credits at my local community college, putting six toward my degree.
But there are also newer non-college options that can still count for college credit, while allowing you the flexibility to take courses on your schedule. I amassed a wide range of credits from online providers such as StraighterLine, satisfying course requirements in accounting, economics and business law at my own pace. I earned 51 credits from StraighterLine courses alone — more than 40% of the courses required for my program. (A three-credit course through StraighterLine starts at $59, with a $99 monthly subscription.)
It took all of the above for me to ultimately earn my degree. It’s important to do your research and identify programs that fit your learning style and desired price point. For example, I originally planned on taking more CLEP exams, but the nearest testing site was an hour away. I worked full time during much of this journey, so StraighterLine’s online courses and flexible schedule, as well as the free eTextbooks it provided, were a better fit.
Find a school that welcomes transfer credits
To actually finish your degree, these credits need to go somewhere. From the outset, it’s important to find a college or university with an accommodating policy toward transfer credit. While most four-year schools welcome transfer credits to an extent, it can be a complex system, with state policies, articulation agreements, and other factors determining what courses they will or will not accept. It’s not uncommon for students to lose credits when they go through the transfer process — a recent study found that 30% of learners who transfer lose at least a quarter of their accumulated academic credit.
But some colleges and universities go above and beyond, simplifying the transfer process to make it easier for nontraditional learners to finish their degrees. I completed my education online at Thomas Edison State University, which has one of the most flexible transfer credit policies in the country. But many schools, such as the University of Maine at Presque Isle and Charter Oak State College, offer similar flexibility. Always look for those that accept the most transfer credits for your program.
I now have a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration, with a concentration in general management. Since earning my degree in December 2020, I have been promoted at my company, from program coordinator to account manager. There’s no question that the knowledge and skills I obtained during my (perhaps) unusual academic journey are opening up new professional opportunities for me. As my overflowing, color-coded, three-tab spreadsheet of course costs and transfer rules demonstrates, this was not an easy undertaking. But my story shows that it is possible to get a bachelor’s degree and set yourself up for career success without taking on any student debt.
Kara Prado lives in Lodi, California, where she works full-time as an account manager for a staffing company and part-time at a design agency as a UX designer. She is passionate about sharing her story to help more people see that it’s possible to go to college on the cheap.