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Not even bad eyesight could keep Brandon Hong from realizing his boyhood dream of flying airplanes. The 22-year-old native of San Jose, Calif., graduated from Boston University in May, and now he’s stationed at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas for pilot training. Hong won an ROTC scholarship out of high school that, together with additional aid from BU, covered almost all of his college costs. After his sophomore year of college, Hong had corrective eye surgery, and he now boasts 20-15 vision. He majored in aerospace engineering and, upon graduation, was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.

The road wasn’t easy, Hong says. “It’s really tough to do school and ROTC. ROTC is kind of like a full-time job on top of classes. But you learn how to manage your time.” And it definitely helped that BU is “really, really supportive of the ROTC program,” Hong says. He considered other colleges with ROTC programs—including the University of California at San Diego and George Washington University, in D.C.—but their financial-aid packages weren’t as generous. Attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., was another option Hong weighed, but ultimately he felt the application process was too burdensome—and he wanted a more typical college experience.

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Cadet Ian Kemp from Norwich University’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 867 walks through the marsh (U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Jeff Cooper)

Hong doesn’t yet know whether he’ll be flying fighter jets, helicopters or cargo planes—that’s determined by his performance in pilot training—but this much is clear: He’ll spend at least the next decade fulfilling his commitment to the Air Force. It’s a significant obligation, but Hong is quick to see the upsides: Not only did he avoid going out-of-pocket much for college, but he also avoided writing a resume and job-hunting his senior year.

Starting out at community college

For most people, going to college is expensive. But not going to college can be an even costlier proposition, with the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau showing that a four-year college graduate earns about 87 percent more, on average, than someone who only has a high-school diploma. At the same time, tuition increases have outpaced inflation for decades. The College Board reports that in 2010-11, after adjusting for inflation, tuition and fees at public four-year universities were 3.59 times what they were in 1980-81.

Cutting college costs has thus become a priority across the socioeconomic spectrum. The good news is there are countless ways to save money on college. The sticker price at most colleges—like the advertised price of new cars in swanky showrooms—isn’t what the vast majority of consumers actually pay. Financial aid, both need-based and merit-based, can dramatically reduce costs for many students. But that’s just the beginning of the potential savings. For some, like 2nd Lt. Hong, ROTC is the preferred route.

Another option—increasingly popular in an era where the average student graduates more than $25,000 in debt—is to attend a local community college for a year or two before transferring to a four-year institution. Tuition tends to be much cheaper at community colleges—in California, it’s $864 a year for those attending full time, compared to about $5,200 a year at a California State University campus or $12,150 within the University of California system—and students can also save on room and board by living at home.

There are other advantages to starting out at a community college, including the fact that community-college students often have a leg up on the competition when it comes time to transfer to a four-year school. For instance, roughly two-thirds of transfer students accepted by Amherst College in Massachusetts come from community colleges. At the University of Virginia, the figure is about 30 percent. And UVA goes a step further, guaranteeing admission to transfer students from the state’s community-college system if they’ve earned their associate degree within the previous two years and have a grade-point average of at least 3.4.

Earlier this year, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell said it will provide up to four semesters of free tuition toward a bachelor’s degree for students who’ve earned associate degrees (with at least a 3.0 GPA) at one of the state’s 15 community colleges. Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo offers scholarships of $6,500 over two years to transfer students from the state’s community-college system who’ve earned associate degrees with at least a 3.75 GPA.

Such opportunities were once rather rare. Students attending community college used to face a stigma, at least from the perspective of four-year institutions evaluating transfer candidates. But now admissions officers realize that such students often have shown great perseverance in overcoming adversity, and—even more importantly in the eyes of admissions officers—they’ve already proven they can thrive in higher education.

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Statue of Robert Frost on the Amherst College campus (Photo by Justin Snider)

Amherst’s dean of admissions, Thomas Parker, says that reaching out to community-college transfer applicants is “another way that Amherst can make itself accessible and affordable to a non-traditional population.” The transfer students accepted by Amherst, according to Parker, are “much more likely to have had really serious life experiences, either positive or negative,” than students entering straight from high school. They tend to do well academically and get good jobs upon graduation—though Parker notes that “Amherst is a big leap” for many first-year students and transfers alike.

Monirath Siv made a similar leap in moving from a community college in Southern California to Washington University in St. Louis. He came to the U.S. from Cambodia in 2006 for his senior year of high school. Despite a limited knowledge of English, Siv learned quickly and graduated a year later as valedictorian of David Starr Jordan High School in Long Beach, Calif. His dad couldn’t afford to send him to a four-year university, so he lived at home and went to nearby Cerritos College. Two years later, Siv’s near-perfect GPA had landed him six scholarships, including one from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation that will allow him to graduate debt-free from Wash. U. in 2012.

He’s majoring in biology, with a minor in public health and an ultimate goal of earning a Ph.D. in biology from a U.S. university. In the near future, though, Siv sees himself teaching high-school biology, perhaps through Teach For America. This past summer he returned home to lead biology labs at International University in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

Siv is a strong believer in the nation’s community colleges, which he sees as a vital stepping stone to four-year schools for students like himself. Two years ago, he found himself defending community colleges in the comments section of a U.S. News & World Report article, “Which High School Students Are Most Likely to Graduate From College?” The article, by Kim Clark, reported on a new book about college completion co-authored by a former president of Princeton University, William Bowen. According to Bowen and his co-authors, students who start at community colleges are 36 percent less likely to earn bachelor’s degrees than similarly qualified students who start at four-year colleges.

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Monirath Siv

Siv, then, is something of a statistical anomaly. He commented online that “Without community college, I might not be who I am and where I am today.” Siv also urged fellow readers to remember the second sentence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a classic he’d read on his own while at Cerritos College: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

Deals for out-of-state students

Historically, going to a public university as an out-of-state student has meant paying double, or even triple, the tuition that in-state students pay. At the University of Michigan’s flagship campus in Ann Arbor, for instance, in-state tuition for full-time freshmen in 2011-12 is $12,634, compared to $37,782 for out-of-state students. At the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, the difference is similarly large: $7,008 for residents versus $26,834 for nonresidents. States are able to justify such discrepancies because their tax dollars are the main source of support for public universities; it doesn’t strike many state politicians and policymakers—not to mention taxpayers—as fair to subsidize the cost of out-of-state students studying at their institutions, especially if those students are unlikely to stay beyond graduation and contribute to the local economy.

But some states, particularly in the less densely populated Midwest, have forged reciprocal agreements that give out-of-state students a break on tuition. The Midwest Student Exchange Program allows residents of nine states—Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wisconsin—to study at participating public institutions in any of the program’s member states for no more than 150 percent the cost of in-state tuition. Some private institutions are also part of the program, giving students a 10 percent discount on tuition. Over 100 institutions, from community colleges through research universities offering doctoral degrees, participate.

Miriah Anderson, now a senior at Missouri University of Science and Technology, will save $8,280 on tuition this year alone as part of the Midwest Student Exchange Program. A native of Olathe, Kan., which is about a four-hour drive from her school, Anderson said, “I was looking for a smaller university that still had a very good engineering program.” She found it in Missouri S&T, which is home to 7,000 students—about three-quarters of them undergraduates—on a 284-acre campus in the small town of Rolla. A mechanical engineering major, Anderson served last year as president of the university’s robotics competition team, which participates in the annual Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition. Anderson said she probably would have gone to Missouri S&T even without the tuition discount, but “it was definitely an added bonus.”

Graduating early

The most surefire way to cut college costs is probably to spend fewer semesters in college. Nationally, just over a quarter of students at public universities manage to graduate in four years, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. At private institutions, the figure is about 50 percent. But earning a bachelor’s degree in under four years is also possible. A handful of schools offer formal three-year bachelor’s degrees, while many more grant credit for high scores on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.

The University of California system—which serves over 220,000 students on 10 campuses throughout the Golden State—is considering whether to offer three-year bachelor’s degrees “with pathways that make full use of advanced placement credits and summer terms,” according to a November 2010 report by the U.C.’s “Commission on the Future.”

Though three-year bachelor’s degrees seem to some observers—especially U.S. students—almost too good to be true, they’re the standard in much of the world, including the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. And in the last decade, as Europe has reformed and standardized its higher-education system, three-year undergraduate degrees have been introduced across the continent. Previously, a master’s degree was the minimum qualification offered at many European universities.

Lamar Alexander—a former governor of Tennessee, and now that state’s senior U.S. Senator—has long championed three-year bachelor’s degrees, which he calls “the higher-education equivalent of a fuel-efficient car.” He concedes they aren’t for everybody but says they should be an “option for very prepared, serious students.” Alexander has asked schools interested in implementing three-year degrees whether there are any federal impediments to doing so, and his office reports that there are no such impediments known to date.

Bates College in Lewiston, Maine has offered a three-year bachelor’s degree since 1965. Its popularity has waned in recent years, with only one or two students typically taking advantage of the option, but it remains an appealing choice for some highly motivated and focused students.

Thomas Deegan, 21, graduated in three years from Bates this past May. The mathematics major from Weymouth, Mass., said that during his second year of college, “I just kind of sat down with the handbook and wrote down all of the requirements, and noticed that I didn’t have as much left as I expected.” To graduate early, Deegan took an extra class during each of his final three semesters—at no additional cost, because Bates charges tuition by year, not per course—and he also took two summer courses at Boston University while living at home. He got credit for scoring well on his AP Calculus exam in high school, too.

For Deegan, the biggest drawback to finishing in three years—which required him to “jam all of my more difficult courses into a shorter time-frame”—was forgoing his senior season on Bates’ basketball team. It was a tough decision, but one that definitely paid off, the shooting-guard said.

Deegan’s classmate, Catherine Lary, also graduated from Bates in three years. The Camden, Maine native hadn’t planned on doing so at the outset, but an illness in her first year forced her to take a yearlong medical leave of absence. Her desire to graduate with her original class, in 2011—and to save more than $50,000 in tuition, room and board—motivated Lary to complete her studies in three years. She got credit for two AP exams in high school and then took an extra 1.5 classes each semester (the half-credit was for jazz band). Majoring in women and gender studies, with a minor in music, Lary somehow found time to write a 149-page senior thesis, “Experiences and Perceptions of Women and Gender Studies at Bates and Beyond.”

Like 70 percent of Bates alumni, Deegan and Lary both plan on going to graduate school down the road—probably an MBA for him, and a master’s in nursing for her.

Getting credit for AP and IB exams

Even at schools that don’t formally offer three-year bachelor’s degrees, it is often possible to graduate a semester or year early on account of prior credits, by virtue of AP and IB exams or dual-enrollment courses taken in high school.

The AP and IB programs are widely recognized for providing a challenging pre-college experience, and high scores on their respective exams can earn students college credit.

But while the nation’s most selective institutions want to see AP and IB courses on applicants’ transcripts, they don’t always give credit for high scores—not least because doing so would mean forgoing tuition revenues. This often means the same institutions that weigh AP and IB exams most heavily in admissions decisions—and where matriculating students have typically taken a half-dozen or more of them—are also among those least likely to grant credit for them. Neither Amherst nor Williams College, for instance, gives credit for high scores on AP or IB exams. Both schools do allow students with superior scores to place out of introductory-level courses in some departments, but earning a degree requires eight semesters of full-time study.

At a number of schools, including all eight Ivy League universities, enrolled students can apply for and receive “advanced standing,” which allows them to graduate a semester or year early. Harvard University grants advanced standing to entering students who have earned a 5—the highest possible score—on at least four yearlong AP courses. Harvard students can also graduate ahead of schedule by having earned the maximum score on three or more higher-level IB exams.

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Harvard University (Photo by Justin Snider)

Another option for Harvard students is to finish a bachelor’s degree in three years but then stick around to earn a master’s degree in certain fields during their fourth year.

Harvard doesn’t keep track of the number of incoming students who are eligible for advanced standing, according to communications officer Paul Massari. Only about three percent of Harvard students graduate in fewer than four years—a result, Massari says, of Harvard’s rigorous degree requirements as well as its generous financial aid.

Alex Western is among the handful of Harvard students who have graduated early. The 22-year-old Atlanta native needed just three years to earn his B.A., cum laude, in economics. He says “the stars were aligned” for him to finish fast—the recession and uncertainty about family finances, coupled with a job offer he was excited about, made graduating early very attractive. He’s now working in private equity, at the Audax Group in Boston, and he imagines himself going back to school one day for an MBA. “I feel like I got the most out of my academic experience, so if I could save $50,000 by graduating early, that was a good deal for me,” Western says.

But for others—especially those who don’t fret about college costs, either because they’re wealthy or their financial-aid package covers nearly everything—there isn’t much incentive to graduate early. Lukas Toth is a case in point. The Slovak native graduated from Harvard in 2009, though his perfect score on his IB diploma would have allowed him to graduate a year earlier. (In 2005, the year Toth received his IB diploma, only 67 students worldwide—out of 27,971—got a perfect score.) Ultimately, Toth opted not to use advanced standing and graduate early because his financial-aid package covered most of his costs for four years. For families with normal assets and combined annual incomes of $60,000 or less, Harvard doesn’t charge a cent.

Taking college classes in high school

“Dual enrollment” is another, if lesser known, way to save money on college. The basic idea is for high-school students to take college-level courses that can then count toward both their high-school diploma and, later, their college degree. Often, through agreements with local institutions, dual-enrollment courses are taught on high-school campuses by high-school teachers. The material, however, is meant to be on par with what’s taught at college.

Portland State University in Oregon has been offering dual-credit classes to high-school students for 35 years. About 1,000 students a year participate from 16 high schools in the Portland metropolitan area, according to the program’s director, Sally Hudson. Students pay about a third of the standard tuition rate—in 2010-11, it was $210 for a four-credit class, discounted from $637—but study the same materials and meet the same standards as other PSU students. Classes are taught by specially trained high-school teachers who typically have at least a master’s degree in their subject area.

Hudson surveys past students annually and says about 90 percent of respondents in recent years report having received college credit, especially if they’ve gone on to attend state schools. All seven institutions in the Oregon University System, as well as all of the state’s public community colleges, guarantee credit for dual-enrollment classes.

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Grant High School in Portland, Ore. (Photo by Travis Thurston)

Christian Dreyer has spent the last decade teaching dual-credit courses to his seniors at Grant High School in Portland. The South African native—who has a doctorate in English and applied linguistics—taught at the University of Pretoria before coming to the States in 1998. He sees dual-credit programs as “a powerful economic model” because they offer high-school students college-level coursework for pennies on the dollar. They also allow students to “experience in high school what real academic standards are,” he says.

Ellen Henderson, who graduated from Grant High School last June, took Dreyer’s dual-credit English class as well as another one in world history—both of which got her credit at American University in Washington, D.C., where she’s now a freshman. In deciding to take the dual-credit classes, Henderson told herself, “Maybe I should step up my skills and be prepared for college writing.” American University asked Henderson for copies of the course syllabi before awarding credit. She doesn’t have to take the standard college writing class, and she can place into a higher-level history course, too.

Rebecca Harburg, one of Dreyer’s former students, praised his English course as excellent preparation for college even though her school—Colorado College, where she’s now a junior—didn’t give her any credit for it. Harburg said, “We had a writing portfolio due right off the bat [in college], but it was elementary for me” because of her experiences in Dreyer’s class.

Samuel Bendinelli, a classmate of Harburg’s now in his third year at Yale University, said that “dual-credit classes were valuable because they developed skills demanded by colleges but seldom taught in high schools”—such as how to write a compelling 20-page research paper, complete with credible sources and proper citations.

In Iowa, Des Moines Area Community College offers dual-credit classes at no cost to high-school students across the state. DMACC has agreements with Drake University, Grand View College, Iowa State University, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa to ensure the credits transfer. Jay Cochran, now a junior at Iowa State majoring in mechanical engineering, entered college with almost a year’s worth of credits from AP exams and dual-enrollment courses he took through DMACC.

Phil Caffrey, senior associate director of admissions at Iowa State, says a “clear majority of freshmen” at his school enter with some form of college credit, including dual-enrollment. But the credits don’t always cut the time to graduation, he says, because they often do not fit into students’ degree programs. Also, because of the difficulty of determining just how rigorous some dual-enrollment classes are, some colleges—especially smaller and private institutions—give no credit for them.

Nathan Skurnik, who graduated in 2010 from Jericho High School on New York’s Long Island, took dual-enrollment courses there in addition to seven AP classes. The 19-year-old, now a sophomore at Emory University in Atlanta, was able to get credit from Emory for scoring well on his AP exams in biology, psychology and English composition. However, Emory granted no credit for his dual-enrollment courses—jointly offered by Jericho and two nearby colleges—in creative writing and French.

Though Skurnik could use his AP credits to finish in fewer than eight semesters at Emory, he doesn’t anticipate doing so. “I’m in no rush to get out of college,” he says. Still, he’s happy his AP credits allowed him to skip introductory-level courses at Emory. “I can go further more quickly,” he said. “I can take more interesting, smaller classes.”

Skurnik’s experience is typical: Most colleges more readily offer credit for high scores on AP or IB exams than for dual-enrollment courses taken in high school. Students can avoid disappointment by looking into different colleges’ policies on dual-enrollment courses and by ensuring that any dual-credit program they’re considering is regionally or nationally accredited. The programs at Portland State and DMACC, for instance, are accredited by the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships—which increases the likelihood that colleges will grant credit for the dual-enrollment courses they offer.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

A variation on dual enrollment is being tried out in Indiana. Under a new plan proposed by Gov. Mitch Daniels, students can complete high school after 11th grade and then receive a $4,000 scholarship for further studies anywhere within the Hoosier State.

All things considered, many experts seem to agree that college is a worthwhile investment. Sen. Alexander—the son of educators, whose storied career has included stints as U.S. Secretary of Education and president of the University of Tennessee—believes that “going to college is still one of the best buys in the United States.”

He says, “You can go to a very good public university for $6,000-$8,000 per year. You can go to a very good community college for $2,000-$3,000 per year. While prices have gone up, it’s still a best buy.”

A version of this story appeared in the 2012 “Best Colleges” guide published by U.S. News & World Report on September 14, 2011.

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  1. Another avenue for cutting college costs is early college high school, which is generating significant tuition savings for more than 50,000 students nationwide. Targeted toward low-income students and other youths underrepresented in higher education, these innovative schools support students in earning significant college credits while in high school — up to two years or a full Associate’s degree — tuition-free. Out of early college graduates in 2009, 44 percent earned at least a year of transferrable college credit along with their high school diploma.

    Now, larger high schools and districts that serve low-income students are embracing the value of early college, and expanding its benefits to many more young people by partnering with colleges to enable all students to earn key college credits before graduation. This strategy saves money not only for students and families but for education systems and states — because students who succeed in college courses while in high school are better prepared for college and less likely to need remediation.

    Joel Vargas
    VP, High School Through College
    Jobs for the Future
    Boston, MA

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