Frugal Ways to Get a College Degree

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Mrs. Groovy and I are old. So we love hearing from millennials about their adventures in personal finance. One millennial we are particularly fond of is Lila (Jaime) Donovan. Lila is a college student/artist who blogs over at Artsy Finance. If you get a chance, please visit her sites. I think you’ll enjoy her unique perspective on life, art, and being a millennial college student. I reached out to Lila recently and asked if she would mind sharing her thoughts about college expenses. And Lila, being the good sport that she is, readily agreed. Here, then, is Lila’s contribution to our groovy blog. Enjoy.


Achieving a higher education degree is insanely expensive. As Americans we debate about this issue a lot, but in the end Corporate America wants degrees.

Unless you go into a very specialized field like medicine, law, engineering, accounting, finance, or architecture, they really don’t care what you studied. My friend Jessica studied sociology and now works in insurance. She really likes her company and is very much a people person.

I live in Omaha, NE, and it is very competitive here. I went to a job interview once where the HR manager liked that I was in college, and told me, “We like people that educate themselves. We have people that have studied photography, graphic design, and psychology. We really don’t care, we just like that the people we hire educated themselves.”

At another job interview, the owner of the company told me, “I believe that people that go to college learn faster and it’s good to hear you are in college.” The bias is there in favor of those that are educated. That’s just reality.

There are some people that say we should skip college, self-educate, and start businesses, or put together a portfolio and try to get hired. I think this is a very sweet idea. It’s just not reality.

Corporate America has given HR managers standards, and unless those HR managers want to get fired, they have to hire people that are college graduates.

Also a lot of people that go to college want to work with other college educated people.

They just do. Starting a business in the 21st Century is not as easy as people make it out to be. There is a lot that goes into running a business.

You have to get a business license, maybe a patent, you have to get protected from liability, set up a website, develop your products and services, figure out how to get vendors and distributors, advertise, etc. A high school graduate is not going to have the knowledge for all of this.

They can learn in due time but a lot of times when teens run companies, it’s the parents doing a lot of the funding and work behind the scenes to help their child. Also working your way up from minimum wage to a CEO is impossible.

Corporate America doesn’t like to promote people without degrees. My step-dad worked his way from the bottom to a marketing executive but he started working for companies in the 50’s.

There is still hope on getting that college degree without having to mortgage your entire future.

Begin with the end in mind

It helps to think about what you want out of your college experience. Do you want to go to college because you want a degree or to find yourself? Don’t go to college if you want to find yourself. College is too pricey to find ourselves there.

If you want to find yourself then spend time reading, surfing the internet, taking an affordable class that is offered either online or in your city, job shadowing or even volunteering for a company to see what you like.

Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) Early

In a lot of community colleges, and private and public universities, you are now required to fill out the FAFSA before you get any scholarships, free government grants, and student loans. Do it early because in this case it’s first come first served.

It was a pain in the neck filling one out. My parents attended and graduated from a university in Russia, so I was the first generation in the U.S. that had to figure out how to fill it out.

It can be very intimidating, however a lot of community colleges and universities now hold free FAFSA sessions where they talk about how to fill it out, and you can also ask questions.

This is what I had to do. I encourage families to go together. If you don’t fill out your FAFSA correctly then the financial aid office will let you know, and you can call the financial aid office and ask questions. You basically want to fill out the FAFSA to know what kind of financial help you are getting and what money you have to work with.

Credit by Examination

Advanced Placement Tests: This is actually for high schoolers. Teens take AP courses that are basically the equivalent of entry-level college classes. At the end of each AP course, they have to take an exam and if they pass it they receive college credit for that class.

The AP tests are well-known and accepted at many colleges and universities. To learn more about them please visit the College Board’s AP section.

Placement Tests

In a lot of community colleges and universities you are now required to take English, math, and science placement tests before you take any general education classes.

This is a way of measuring your strengths and weaknesses. If you were good at math in high school then there’s no point in wasting time taking remedial math classes.

You may be able to go straight into college algebra. Sometimes colleges have specific placement tests for certain subjects. At my university we have language placement tests for people that have previously spoken Spanish and French.

So if you want to major or minor in Spanish or French at my university, and want to skip the beginner classes then you can do that if you pass the placement exams.

Try to use any previous knowledge and test out the things you already know. However even if you don’t have any knowledge, you can still use placement tests for your own benefit.

Let’s say that you went straight to work after high school graduation, and want to get a college education. You can still rent textbooks from Amazon, study on your own time and then take your tests and place higher so that you can avoid the beginner classes.

Placement tests administered by colleges are often free. You can retake placement tests but there are limits on how many times you can retake them and there are also waiting periods between retakes.

CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) & DSST

These next tests aren’t as well-known and that’s because they’re often buried in the middle of college catalogs, usually in the “testing services” portion of the catalog. If it’s not in that section, then search for it, or go to your college’s website and type it into their search system.

A lot of people don’t know about these exams because colleges don’t really advertise them. Remember they want you to pay the sticker price.

CLEP: This test was started by the College Board, the company behind the AP and SAT exams. These are for anyone from current college students, home schoolers, high school graduates, military, and any adult learners that want to get a degree to get ahead in the workplace.

CLEPs are mostly for general education classes. You take the test and if you pass it then you get credit for that class. It costs $80 and an administration fee by the testing center. Military members, spouses, and civilian employees may be able to take them for free.

So $80 doesn’t sound cheap but it’s cheaper than paying for the class, getting the textbook, a parking permit, and paying for any other additional supplies you might need for that class.

The College Board sells individual examination guides for $10 to help students study for them.

Some people like to go out and rent textbooks from the library or Amazon and that’s fine too. You will still come out ahead even if you have to rent textbooks. Many colleges and universities have limits on CLEP exams. You really have to do your homework to find out what is acceptable for your college and degree.

To find out more about CLEP go here.

DSST (formerly DANTES): These are available for both entry-level and advanced classes. They’re paid for military personnel but if you need to retest then you’re on your own. For everyone else it costs $80 just like the CLEP and an administration fee by your college.

Some people like to combine CLEP with DSST to get credits faster. Originally this was developed for military personnel but they’re open for everyone.

For those taking the science tests—you may test out of the science classes with either the DSST or CLEP, or both, but you are still required to take a science lab as most degrees require at least one science lab credit.

A lot of lab classes are worth one credit so that’s not too bad. That’s pretty affordable. To find out more about DSST go here.

Challenge exams: These are similar to the CLEP & DSST except each university has their own version of how they administer them, what content they contain, and set their own prices.

These are mostly for older students and a lot of times it’s the final exam of a class. My university is pretty free about this but I’ve seen other universities that have a lot of restrictions about challenge exams and some colleges don’t even offer them.

An objection to credit by examination

People say that by testing out of the general education classes that you’re not getting a full college or university experience. It’s true you are making a trade off, but when you are being financially pinched you need to do what works for you in the moment.

I admit that I’m not having the most traditional university experience but you know what? It’s okay. I just care about graduating with zero debt right now. I want to build financial freedom for myself and establish a legacy for my family so that my kids (if I have them) will be able to go to college and have their beautiful college experience.

Anyone that has wanted to improve their branch of the family tree has had to make choices and sometimes those choices are not fun! They kind of suck. I’d rather do this than be a puppet of debt.

Testing out is really an affordable way to cut financial corners and I can actually see people using them that don’t enjoy school but still need a degree. This could be a faster way for certain people to get their degrees.

Do your homework

A lot of schools place limits on credit by examination. Overall at my school, we can only have 30 credits of credit by examination and they have to include everything AP, CLEP, DSST, etc. The exception to that rule are the placement tests.

Our school considers placement tests a measure of skills you already have, but why not use them to further your college career? If you find another opportunity then use that toward your favor. I encourage you to do your homework and see what your school has available.

What next?

After you tested out then start going to community college and transfer to a 4 year school afterwards. A lot of articles on websites focus on community college first but I want to encourage you to start attending community college after you’ve considered all the other options first.

I wanted to go beyond the usual advice that’s given out to students: get scholarships, join the military, go to a work college, join an accelerated program, work for a company that offers tuition reimbursement, live at home, go to summer school, see your adviser each semester, get your degree checklist and stay on it, go in-state, see if you qualify for a special tuition waiver like the Hazlewood Act, etc.

I encourage you to research your state’s colleges and universities to see what their options are and what you may qualify for that may be unique to your own situation. You really may not have to pay the full sticker price after all.

Graduation

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20 Comments

    • Happy to have helped out! A lot of times in full courses, all you’re doing there is sitting, listening to a lecture, and looking at slides. Then everyone leaves at the end of the hour. University isn’t what you see in the movies.

      Most are not interactive, there’s often little debate, and in most classes you have homework but don’t have to turn it in, the homework is just for your benefit, and the teachers have about 4-5 tests each semester for all classes that they base your final grade on.

      It’s pretty much that way whether you go to a state or private university or college. I’ve talked to a lot of people about their university experience and have friends in different states. Your kids might as well test out then if that is what higher education is like anyway.

      A lot of students like the social aspect of being on campus and I understand that, but these days the social aspect is just too expensive to pay for too many families.

  1. Hey, Brian. I never heard of these tests either. Definitely something for parents and children to be aware of. They can save a future college student a lot of money. Thank you, Jaime!

  2. I’m definitely familiar with CLEP and DSST exams. One of the many benefits of active duty service is the ability to take them for free … at least they were free when I was active duty in the Army. While I wasn’t able to apply all of them, I earned about 150 hours with them. Combine that benefit with tuition assistance (75%) and the Montgomery G.I. Bill – and now Post 9-11 G.I. Bill – and I was able to complete my undergraduate work (dual major), one Masters and most of a second for essentially free.

    Unfortunately, too many people casually dismiss military service for a variety of reasons. Of course I’m slightly biased, but I’m hard pressed to think of a better deal: health benefits, education benefits, access to both a defined benefit plan and defined contribution plan, and real world training in pretty much every imaginable field/discipline.

    • Yes the military will pay for most of those tests for many branches of the military, but if you fail then they won’t pay for re-tests. The military has a lot of great options. I also wish that most people wouldn’t dismiss it because they have helped a lot of people move up in life.

  3. I think by far the biggest problem with our college education system is that college is not treated as a financial decision. A large majority of high school juniors/seniors end up treating it as an emotional decision, and dang it those recruitment offices have the money to keep it that way! With that being said, these are really good tips so kudos for sharing them.

    • Yes you nailed it DC! I wish families and students would treat it as a financial decision. I feel that if more families did this, then there would be a lot less financial pain for so many Americans and we would have more choices in life. Thank you for visiting and commenting 🙂

  4. One thing to look into is if your school distract has an early college program. It allows high school students to take classes at a local college for 11th and 12 grade instead of high school classes. I’ve heard that it can be tough for students but it also shaves 2 years of tuition off of a 4 year degree.

      • Mrs. Groovy

        Yes, that’s really good information, Emily. Not only would it be hard, I imagine it’s probably awkward, socially. It takes a kid who’s driven in a particular way to want to take college courses rather than going to high school, but I think it’s a great opportunity.

    • Mr. Groovy

      I love this idea. Bright, academically engaged 16- and 17-year-olds are more than ready for college.

  5. I love the information about CLEP. It is an interesting approach to college. If you are not there for networking purposes and growth purposes (your brain is still developing during the traditional aged college experience), pursuing the cheapest and fastest path forward makes sense.

  6. Fantastic post, Jamie! I am very impressed to see that you are financially savvy at this young age and are researching your options thoroughly.

    Also, glad you have a good perspective on corporate America.

    You are on the right track. Aim high, set lofty goals for yourself. It will help you step up your game.

    –Michael

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Michael. Totally agree with your assessment of Jaime. That’s why Mrs. Groovy and I are big fans of her. She gives us hope that America’s best days are far from over. Thanks for sharing. Hope to hear from you again.

  7. Mr. & Mrs. Groovy,
    I love the idea of using credit by examination to earn college credit. I wrote a post on how a student could earn an accredited college degree in 12 months using CLEP and DSST exams…all for about $7,500. We plan on using this method with our son, and then we’ll send him off to graduate school if he still wants more higher ed.

    Could you imagine being 18 with a college degree in hand without any student loans? At a minimum credit-by-exam can streamline a student’s path to a college degree. It seems to me that high school and the first two years are highly redundant; credit-by-exam could be used as a way to “bank” education in a much more efficient manner. I hate student loans! Just my 2 cents.

    Ed

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Ed. Thanks to Jaime, this is the first time I ever heard of CLEP and DSST exams (I’m so out of the loop). What a great way for people to reduce the cost of college. And, no, I can’t imagine being 18 with a college degree and no student loans. I have a sneaking suspicion your son is going to do well in life. I love your game plan. I hate student loans as well. In fact, I hate the whole higher-ed business model. But that’s a rant for another time. Hopefully more and more people will follow your lead and will refuse to accept debt-slavery as the price to pay for a decent credential. Always a pleasure hearing from you, Ed. Cheers.

  8. My wife earned her degree strictly from taking CLEP & DSST and even wrote a book about it! I’m glad to see more people talking about it.

    It’s an unconventional concept so many people look at us like we have 3 eyes when we talk about!

    Even if somebody only takes on Clep or DSST, it’s worth it!