An Educated Approach to Earning a College Education

What you need to know

  • This article is written for those concerned with earning a 4 year (Bachelor’s) degree. This is not for graduate school students.
  • This article is not written for exceptional students who will secure significant grant or scholarship offers.
  • This article is written with the perceived maturity of the student in mind. Different maturity levels require different approaches.
  • With few exceptions, no one cares where a student earns their Bachelor’s degree.
  • With the exception of graduate school ambitions, the student’s college passing GPA is irrelevant.
  • College graduates, on average, earn $1.3 million more during their lifetime than those having only a high school diploma.
  • Accumulating college loan debt can hamper post-college financial conditions leading to years of financial hardship.
  • Chosen field of work is more important to lifetime earning potential than where student attends college.

Now that we understand the items listed above, let’s get to the subject at hand. I have been enrolled in various college programs ranging from entry level to doctoral level since 1995. This totals roughly 20 years of college experience gained as an actively enrolled student spanning the broad spectrum of educational possibilities. My educational experience coupled with nearly 20 years of professional experience hiring, firing, mentoring and working with new college graduates gives me a keen understanding of the college experience and a very strong understanding of the most effective and productive ways to approach gaining a 4 year college degree.

My recommended approach to the 4 year college educational process.

Student’s Educational and Personal Maturity Level
When to Graduate High School
College Entry Level
Main Reasons for this Approach
Low Typical 4 years in high school Community College This person lacks maturity and needs to gain that by engaging with students and teachers in a high school setting. Their focus is not on excelling in their school work and high school is challenging for them educationally, or personally, possibly in both areas. Focus should be on gaining maturity both personally and educationally.
Average Get GED after 3 years of high school Community College This person has average personal and educational maturity and functions just fine in the high school setting, but could be outclassed in a college atmosphere. Allow time to mature but consider leaving high school for a close-to-home community college after 3 years of high school. This will allow their life to be essentially the same as when they were in high school, but will place them in a position to earn a college degree a year earlier than they would have done otherwise. The typical high school experience is not that much different from the first year of coursework in most community colleges. This could be an easy transition for a rather well adjusted person who has gone to high school for three years.
 High Get GED after 2 years of high school Community College This person is much more mature than most of their classmates. The coursework in high school isn’t very challenging, they don’t have a lot in common with many students their age and they have ambitions that are more concrete than most other students. They need to be allowed to live at home while furthering their education in order to further develop their maturity, while also gaining the ability to have two years of early access to professional work experience post-college. This person is ideal for this type of arrangement. By the time they are 19 or 20 they will have a 4 year degree and will be working in their field of choice, increasing their lifelong earnings and their potential professional impact tremendously.

Why Graduate High School Early

High school in the United States tends to lack academic rigor and does not challenge mature, motivated students.

High school in the United States tends to lack academic rigor and does not challenge much of the student body who could otherwise use their time to gain professional advantage in life.

Because most high schools suck. And most high school students are wasting time playing video games and doing other silliness while they wait for high school to end so they can get on with life. Because most students in modern society are more socially plugged-in than they were in generations past. Because public high schools have lost the academic rigor that used to exist in American public schools necessitating the invention of community colleges to help these students gain 4 year college access which have also lost their academic rigor in many cases. Because mature, well adjusted high school students are fully capable of going to college. Because high school and community colleges exist in the same towns and operate on roughly similar schedules. Because community college offers a bridge that could pay off big time should a student decide to take control of their academic process. Just look at the the online presence and the body of information today’s young people have available to them at all times and you’ll see that there really isn’t much about society in their cities and towns that they are shielded from. They already get it! There’s no need to waste their time and youth sitting bored in a high school classroom if they’re able to accept the community college challenge. While a student’s maturity level may be measured in many different ways, it is safe to say that the level of maturity needed of a high school junior or senior student who is already anticipating college entry is not that much different than a live-at-home community college student. In both cases, these students probably drive a car, typically wake up in their family’s home each day, go to class, do homework and work to pass tests in school before going to bed in the same one they’ve slept in for years. There really is not much difference in the two situations when all other factors in the student’s life are virtually unchanged. The major difference is the desired outcome and the tremendous positive possibilities early college entry and graduation presents. If you doubt my point, look to the recent trend of many high schools across the United States. A wide range of college courses are being offered to students while they are still in high school. In fact, some students have graduated with their community college Associate’s Degree (don’t stop here, get the Bachelor’s) before they’ve graduated high school. If high schools are seeing this shift in the educational system, you should pay attention too. My point is, why have a young person spend their last year or two in high school taking those classes which don’t apply to their future college plans, if they could begin making strides toward their future career during that valuable time? It makes plenty of sense to me.

Sure, it’s going to be an issue for a student to leave high school early. Their friends won’t understand, their parent’s friends will think it odd, but in the end, this student, with even a moderately mature mindset is going to leave college earlier than their high school classmates allowing them to have 1-2 years of professional work experience under their belts before their previous classmates even graduate college. Besides, most high school friendships don’t last through the college experience anyway so why not benefit yourself instead of waiting on people who you’ll barely even associate with in the future? I have seen this approach to college entry work many times over the years. The goal is to increase the number of years a person can build their professional earning potential before it peaks. Research shows that the biggest jump you’re likely to make in earnings will occur during the first 10 years of your professional life and that your earning will peak in your late 30s (female) or late 40s (male). So, reason would show that the sooner you begin your professional life, the longer you have to work within your chosen profession before you peak. 1-2 years of work added onto the start of a long career could mean a lot of money down the line.

Why Community College

A high school diploma holds no value for someone with a college degree. If you are going to gain a college degree, a GED is just a stepping stone to getting into and out of college sooner.

A high school diploma holds no professional value compared to a college degree. If you are going to gain a college degree, a GED is a quick stepping stone to getting into and out of college sooner.

Unless the high school student is able to secure a significant grant or scholarship that pays the vast majority of their 4 year college education, community college is the best place to begin. Many states offer community college for free to students with suitable high school GPA scores and even if you are paying for classes yourself, the prices at a community college pale in comparison to those of a 4 year institution. The classes, when all is said and done, are the same. With regard to credit counting toward graduation, Biology at Tulsa Community College is the same as Biology at The University of Florida. The exception is the cost. It has been my experience to find that college students who graduate with considerable student loan debt live at a much lower standard of living than do those who exit college owing very little. Using community college to keep expenses low will ensure less overall debt upon exiting a 4 year institution.

According to College Board a moderate college budget for an in-state public college for the 2014–2015 academic year averaged $18,943 for all fees including room and board which are typical when leaving home to attend a 4 year school. An average budget at a private college averaged $42,419 per academic year for all fees including room and board. Meanwhile, tuition and student fees at the average community college hover around $3,300 per year. Keep in mind that these community college students are younger than most and would otherwise be in high school so I am suggesting students remain at home with their families during their time spent in community college. This will keep their costs down and if they are living in a quality family environment, will allow these students to gain the support needed to make this transition from high school to college more seamlessly. Even if a student lives at home while attending a typical in-state 4 year institution straight out of high school, the expenses for tuition alone will tend to be more than triple that of a community college.

The variance in cost is so clear a complete moron could figure it out. Yet, there is still a silly stigma about community colleges that exists in some areas and young students are conditioned to believe that going straight from high school to a 4 year institution is a symbol to hold in esteem. This may be, but it just doesn’t pan out that way in reality. Four years attending a college or university straight out of high school not only forces parents and students to pay huge prices for virtually identical levels of education, they are also paying for room, board and recreational activities that students need to “enrich” their college experience while living away from home. Beyond this, students may look back on this process as unnecessarily taxing on their family’s finances when those student loan payments kick in 6 months into their first low paying out-of-college job.

After two well planned years of community college, a reasonably mature student will have all of their 4 year college core classes out of the way and should be able to transfer right into their major classes without delay or disruption. Since state universities and community college systems work together to promote a student’s educational process, an A or B grade in any community college course will typically transfer to the 4 years institution of your choosing.

Classic image on Virginia Tech campus

Classic image on Virginia Tech campus

For students like me, who just didn’t have the high school grades to get into the 4 year institution they want to attend, community college offers the best possible means for gaining admission. Spend a couple of semesters really knocking out high grades and just about any 4 year institution will accept your transfer. Universities are much more apt to accept a solid GPA from a transfer student than they will a first year student. First year application submissions are so numerous that many 4 year institutions have had to raise entry level requirements in order to get the best post-high school students they can to fill the spaces they have available for first-year students. I was a mediocre high school student and couldn’t get into Virginia Tech upon high school graduation. However, after a few semesters of performing well academically at a community college, I was accepted as a transfer student and immediately began taking major courses having already taken the basics which easily transferred into Virginia Tech. Little did I know at the time what a blessing this was. Other students who had been accepted straight out of high school graduated from Virginia Tech with $30,000, $40,000 and even $50,000+ in student loan debt whereas, I had less than $20,000 all the while doing my best to get as much money from the government as possible – silly me. And, if I had known then what I know now, that sum would have been much lower. In the end, at my current age of 38, many people I graduated with in 2001 are still struggling with student loan debt while mine is long gone!

Another benefit of transferring from community college to 4 year institution is that your GPA from a community college typically does not transfer with the course credits. You get the credit for taking the courses, but upon entering the 4 year school, your GPA starts from scratch. This is awesome for a student who is motivated! I entered Virginia Tech as a junior and started out fresh with no scores affecting my GPA! How cool is that? Meanwhile, everyone else who had been at the school since their first year, and had partied a little too much were having a really hard time pulling their GPA up to a suitable level. All I had to do was make B’s, C’s and D’s and I was sure to graduate! Of course I did my best, but the pressure was off because my GPA entering my third year of college as a transfer student was a clean slate.

It is important to note that any community college student working to gain entry into a 4 year institution should identify that 4 year school’s course requirements so that they can work to satisfy those while in community college without taking classes that will not transfer. Also, 4 year schools have a limit to the number of transfer credits they will accept. A community college student should do their due diligence and have knowledge of these conditions as they plan their community college course of study. Under no circumstances would I advise taking courses for any reason other than to satisfy a degree requirement. No minors, no dual majors and no “enrichment” courses! Required courses only! The goal is to graduate and get to work.

The Take Aways

  • Don't do it! It will never be worth it! Minimize debt on student loans at all costs.

    Don’t do it! It will never be worth it! Minimize debt on student loans at all costs.

    This educational path is not for everyone, but I’ve yet to find a person who has not benefited in the long run from this approach. I wish someone had told my parents about this when I was a junior in high school. It would have allowed me to gain at least one more year of professional experience while others my age were still sitting in a classroom.

  • If your aspirations are to attend a professional or graduate school, GPA and standardized test scores are of the most vital importance. You must work to achieve and maintain high scores. Many times you can still get into grad school to work toward a Master’s degree, but it may be challenging getting into the school you want. If your Bachelor degree GPA isn’t that high, look for “extension” campus schools that often pair with community colleges to use their facilities to bring Master’s degree programs to rural areas. Many times the acceptance criteria are more flexible in these programs and the degrees are legitimate.
  • Minimizing debt while gaining a college education is of paramount importance. You must honestly assess the degree-to-earnings possibilities and gauge your student loan requests based on that. If you want to teach math in a high school somewhere, please do not take out $70,000 in student loans to attend a prestigious school. You will never pay that debt off and the value of that diploma will never overcome the lifelong challenges you bring upon yourself by flooding yourself with debt. Only take on student loan debt that your education will most certainly allow you to pay off quickly.
  • Work throughout your time in college. This is vital! Try to secure a job, even a very part-time job, in an area related to what you expect to do when you graduate college. I worked as a personal trainer and a fitness coach at two different facilities as I worked to earn my undergraduate degree.  This allowed my resume to show that I had worked in two applicable jobs related to my degree. Consequently, I was offered the Fitness Coordinator management position at a state-of-the-art hospital based wellness center before I even completed my degree. If I had waited tables or delivered pizza during college, I would have graduated only to start out at the bottom of the totem pole. Get applicable job experience while in college and use available finances to pay for classes out-of-pocket if possible. Students who live at home with their families and attend community college are in the perfect position to attain applicable part-time work that directly compliments their field of study.

I hope you enjoyed the article and my unique way of seeing the process of working to attain a 4 year degree. If you are considering attending a 4 year institution, or if you have a child who may be nearing this stage of life, please consider having a talk with them about these options.

Until next time, be well my friends!

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