Do Lower-Cost College Options Pay Off?

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Alternatives to a four-year education may be right for you.

This past fall, projected figures predicted that approximately 3.7 million students between the ages of 18 and 19—along with 7.9 million over the age of 25—would venture off to college, a time-honored route to the American dream. And it’s often true that more education pays off.

In terms of lifetime median yearly salaries, a bachelor’s degree is worth almost twice as much as a high-school diploma—$62,000 versus $36,000—and about a quarter more than an associate's degree at $47,000.

But alternative routes to higher education can also lead to a good life at a lesser cost. A recent study found that 28% of people with associate's degrees and many workers with one-year certificates earn more than the average bachelor's degree holder§. And the explosion of online learning has created higher education opportunities for those who don’t have the resources to spend four years in traditional college or university classrooms.

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Start at a community college.

One of the most cost-effective ways to get a bachelor’s degree is to first obtain an associate's degree from a community college, where tuition is much less expensive. This type of degree can typically be completed in two years.

“Courses at many community colleges are designed to count toward a bachelor’s degree, particularly if you transfer them to a public four-year institution within the same state, since credit-transfer agreements often exist between those institutions,” says David M. Rosch, interim associate dean of academic programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign**.

And there is value in getting a two-year degree by itself. “About half of students who enroll in a traditional college or university won’t get a four-year degree,” says Martin Van Der Werf, associate director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce††.

“Employers view someone with a completed associate's degree as more valuable than a job candidate who attended college for two years but did not complete a degree.”

Professional Development

For people just starting their careers or for seasoned professionals who want to upgrade their skills, certificate programs provide short-term, narrowly focused, skills-based training.

If you are interested in IT, for example, a prospective employer may be more impressed by a certificate attesting to your ability to code in a particular computer language than a computer-science degree. You can find certificate programs at community colleges, universities, and for-profit companies.

Get credit for what you know.

Competency-based education programs are a growing area of higher education, often geared to individuals who have some career experience. Some universities and community colleges will award credit for knowledge you already have, enabling you to take a shortcut to an academic degree.

Some models charge a flat fee instead of tuition for each course, so motivated students with relevant skills can quickly move through a flexible curriculum and compress a bachelor’s degree in much less time—and for less money—than the traditional college student‡‡. You can learn more here.

Virtual Education

Ever-increasing numbers of college students are distance learners—15% of students take classes exclusively online and one-third of students incorporate at least one online class with traditional on-campus courses§§.

According to a survey by U.S. News & World Report, the average in-state tuition for surveyed public online colleges was about $305 per credit for the 2017–2018 school year—or $37,200 to get a degree. For the 10 least expensive online bachelor’s degree programs, in-state students paid an average of $3,690 for one year of tuition—less than half the average in-state tuition for traditional college***.

“Online programs can be a great way to get an inexpensive education in highly technical fields, such as computer science and accountancy,” says Rosch.

Of course, you want to make sure that the online school has a good reputation and accreditation. You can check accreditations here, and look at this article for more information.

On the Military’s Tab

For those interested in serving in the military, education assistance may be available. For example, enrolling in a ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) program—1,700 colleges and universities have them—pays tuition in exchange for a commitment to serve in the military as a commissioned officer for eight years after you graduate††. You can learn more about tuition assistance from the military here.

Related Content

National Center for Education Statistics. “Digest of Education Statistics.” (accessed on April 18, 2019).

Carnevale, Anthony P. and Cheah, Ban. “Five Rules of the College and Career Game.” McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University. SLIDE 3 (accessed on April 18, 2019).

§Carnevale, Anthony P. and Ban Cheah. “Five Rules of the College and Career Game.” McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University. SLIDE 6 (accessed on April 18, 2019).

**Interview with David Rosch.

††Interview with Martin Van Der Werf.

‡‡Brown, Jessie and Martin Kurzweil. “The Current Landscape of Alternatives.” American Academy of Arts & Sciences. (accessed on April 18, 2019).

§§Lederman, Doug. “Online Education Ascends.” Inside Higher Ed. (accessed on April 18, 2019).

***Powell, Farran. “10 Least Expensive Online Colleges for In-State Students.” U.S. News & World Report. (accessed on April 18, 2019).

†††Campbell, Erica. “Does the Military Pay for College.” Student Debt Relief. (accessed on April 18, 2019).

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