It takes a little pluck and some ingenuity, but it’s possible to work the Washington state college system to shave thousands off the cost of a degree or boost a career without drowning in debt.
So say recent and soon-to-be college grads who have used new state programs, or taken full advance of existing ones, to finish their college careers.
Some of the programs are not well known; others are familiar, yet few students take full advantage of them.
A few who have:
• Joseph Nutting ran a small business in Vancouver, Wash., while completing his bachelor’s degree at Washington State University, and it didn’t require a move to Pullman – he was able to do all the work online.
• Heather Shute had a college degree but, worried about the shaky economy and uncertain job prospects in her field, did a career pivot and went to community college to study aircraft maintenance – and got a job at Boeing even before she graduated.
• Elaine Melnik sped her way through college by earning college credits in high school, then signing up for a new Central Washington University program that allowed her to complete all but one course for her bachelor’s degree for about $20,000.
Melnik’s friends ask:How are you done with your bachelor’s already – is that even possible? “I say, ‘Yes, it is,’” said Melnik, who’s starting her next degree, a master’s, while working full time as an IT analyst for a law firm.
Some strategies come with trade-offs. Finishing a bachelor’s degree in fewer than four years means less time spent absorbing the rich intellectual environment of a college campus. Some academics worry that a focus on career skills means shorting students on the type of well-rounded education that allows people to adapt and grow as jobs change.
But equally worrisome is the rising cost of going to college. More than half of Washington’s college students borrow money to pay for college, and in 2011, they graduated with an average debt of about $22,244, according to the Project on Student Debt.
Depending on the terms, a loan of that size would require 10 years of monthly payments ranging between $220 and $255 a month.
Joseph Nutting’s degree in business administration from Washington State University is every bit like the one students earn after four years in Pullman.
But Nutting didn’t have to sell the business he’d purchased with a partner – a failing cafe that had started to turn around – or move across the state.
Nutting, 26, completed his WSU degree entirely online, taking classes at night, on the weekends or anytime he could. The degree costs about the same as one earned on campus, but because Nutting could stay put in Vancouver, “the cost savings is just amazing,” he said.
Can technical training from a community college earn you a higher wage than a bachelor’s degree? Absolutely.
Two years ago, Heather Shute swapped her keyboard for a mechanic’s hand tools and began working on a license in aircraft maintenance at South Seattle Community College.
Shute already had her bachelor’s from Pacific Lutheran University and seven years of work experience in print and broadcast journalism, but she was worried about low pay in her profession. “With the changing economy, I wanted a highly technical skill in my back pocket,” she said.
For Shute, who is 32, going back to college was not easy. She started classes at 7 a.m., then went to work in the afternoon, studying over her lunch hour and at odd moments of the day.
But because she had some money saved and also earned scholarships, Shute will finish the $15,000 program this spring debt-free. A mechanic with her licenses can earn between $45,000 and $80,000 a year.
Angie Weiss knocked a year off the cost of going to college by taking advantage of a program that’s nearly free and is widely available, but seldom used to its full potential.
She enrolled in Running Start, a 23-year-old state program that allows high-school students to earn both high-school and college credit by taking classes at state community colleges.
Like Weiss, Elaine Melnik used a dual-credit strategy to get a jump-start on college.
She spent her junior and senior years of high school at the public Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, in a free program similar to Running Start that allowed her to graduate at 18 with both her high-school diploma and an associate degree.
Then she took advantage of another program – a new one offered by Central Washington University that allowed her to apply her earlier technical classes toward a bachelor’s degree.
In about eight quarters, or two full years, transfer students can earn a bachelor’s for about $24,000. The classes can be taken entirely online.
Melnik also worked full time while in school and was able to pay for the degree without any loans.