Part III: Pay for Your Education Without Sacrificing Your Future
One of my younger friends once told me a staggering truth while recovering from the party to celebrate his graduation from the University of Texas. “Yesterday, I knew who I was,” he began. “I was a college student with a 3.7 GPA. I lived in a dorm and had a meal plan. This morning I’m homeless and unemployed.”
Being homeless, unemployed, and facing a mountain of debt with no real hope of ever paying it off is not an uncommon situation in this country.
Unless you are born to wealth, there are only a few options to obtain a degree without also acquiring ridiculous amounts of debt. The most obvious way is to work and pay as you go. That’s what I did. I graduated with honors from both my undergraduate and graduate programs without debt by working full-time while being a part-time student.
Here’s How I Did It
At the beginning of each semester, I would sign up for two or three classes in my degree plan and put the tuition on my credit card. During adds-and-drops, I would get the syllabus for the classes and determine the difficulty (and time requirement) of each class. If I judged I could successfully complete the courses without endangering my job or family life, I would buy the books (also on my credit card) and do the work—both the class work and the jobby job work.
If the task of working and schooling appeared too daunting, I would determine which class (or classes) to drop to ensure my academic success, hopefully before the university started assessing a fee for partial completion. I always made this decision before the deadline to withdraw passing.
As the semester progressed, I would pay off the credit card. This strategy is one of the only times I would consider credit card debt to be “good debt.”
If something came up at work (like getting sent to Panamá for ten weeks) I would cope the best I could. Sometimes, I would have to withdraw (passing) from a course. If it turned out I had misjudged the difficulty of the course or courses I was pursuing, I would have to decide it I could slug it out or if I would have to drop a course. Sometimes this decision was overshadowed by how often the course was offered and the competition to even get in. I only took electives that really interested me and would advance my career.
At the end of the semester, I would check off the course(s) successfully completed on my degree plan and start planning the next semester. Sometimes, I would not have been able to pay off my credit card, which would limit or eliminate the number of courses I could attempt the next semester. Sometimes, my employer would reimburse or partially reimburse my expenses for courses that directly applied to my jobby job.
Employer educational benefits are the secret advantage of working while you pursue your degree: your employers want you to succeed and most will help you do so financially! After all, a better-educated, better-qualified employee is in your employer’s best interest.
All It Takes Is Time
This approach was not without cost. It took me ten years to get by bachelor’s degree (normally a four-year degree) and four years to get my master’s (normally a two-year degree). This meant that any degree-related career advancement was also deferred. And neither could I benefit from many of the social aspects of university life because I had to run home to family and jobby job. [But, honestly, I am a hermit. The social aspects of university life never appealed to me.]
On the other hand, I graduated with real-life experience that increased my value in the work place and ensured I could work in the field I had chosen to study. My initial plan to be a psychologist was derailed by the economic realities of that profession just as much as my plans to be a professional musician. And keeping grounded in the working world kept me from the horrors I’ve seen of hopelessly lost academics who charged straight through to a doctorate with no grounding in how the world actually works.
What Matters to You?
Like all the “advice” I give, my version of the pay-as-you-go approach to education worked for me. It may not work for you.
Only you can decide if graduating without a significant debt load is more important than the future value of the overall university experience. No decision is without sacrifice. No plan is right for everyone.Hermann says please like and share!