A version of this article appears in the September/October 2017 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine (www.mvmag.net).

To read and comment on this and other stories and perspectives on leadership, higher education, and going the extra mile, visit “Running the Campus” at http://president.necc.mass.edu.

 

Reading this entire article could save you $50,000 (or more).

I hope that got your attention, and you’re here with me until the last paragraph, especially if you, or someone you know, is making plans to go to college soon.

When I was young, I was a pretty smart kid—good grades, reasonably well behaved, and interested in someday going to college.

But I was a first generation college student, and my family didn’t have resources to help me on my way.

Dad was a career Marine and I knew something about military life, so I applied for the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC), filled out the paperwork, took the physical, and was ready to sign on the dotted line when a local bank came through with a scholarship for me at the nearby community college.

$150 a semester covered my tuition and fees as long as I kept my grades up, and I worked while taking classes to pay for books and living expenses.

Then I followed scholarships and teaching opportunities, and continued to work part-time, through three different state universities to earn my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees, not taking on any student loans until grad school.

It’s a lot harder to do that today, as public colleges receive much less funding from the cities and states that support them, and the cost of going to college for students has climbed much higher.

But for most people, it’s still worth it.

Generally speaking, even through deep economic recessions, the rate of unemployment for college graduates is about half the rate of those with just a high school diploma.

On top of that, over the course of a lifetime of work, college graduates can expect to earn about a million dollars more than those who only finish high school.

A college degree, for most people, is the ticket to the middle class in America, and overwhelmingly worth the investment—when it’s done right.

So how do you do it right?

Here is some practical advice, aimed particularly at residents of the Merrimack Valley here in our magnificent corner of New England, but most of it applies nearly everywhere in America (so feel free to pass it along):

Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be

For more than twenty years, I’ve advised students and families that which college they attend is far less important than that they attend, and complete a degree.

With very few exceptions, future employers are far more interested in reading your resume, noting that you have that degree (from just about anywhere), and seeing that you actually demonstrate some knowledge and skills, than they are in knowing that your sheepskin comes from a handful of highly selective Ivy League institutions.

As Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist and author of Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be notes, fewer than 6% of American college students attend one of these places, and in the end, most of them end up working alongside the rest of us at whatever jobs we do.

The Harvards, Stanfords, and Yales of the world are wonderful places, and if you get in and can afford the experience without putting yourself in debt for much of your adult life, fantastic.

But if not, don’t despair! There are many other ways to go.

Get a Jump on Early College

Northern Essex Community College, like many colleges around the state, regularly partners with area high schools to offer “Early College” experiences that allow students to earn college credits—even as much as an entire associate’s degree—while they are still in high school. Each Early College experience is different, but all of them offer significantly reduced costs to students and families, and credits earned are usually transferable to both public and private four-year colleges. Check with your local high school (or call us) for options.

Start at a Community College

Each year, half of Americans completing bachelor’s degrees (including me, back in the ‘80s) attended a community college first. Class sizes are smaller, there is more individual attention from professors, and the cost is typically a third or less than a four-year college. And when you transfer, your bachelor’s degree from wherever you go will look the same as someone who spent four years (and a lot more money) there.

Consider the “Commonwealth Commitment”

If you really want to lock in your savings by starting at a community college in Massachusetts, you have at least three ways to earn a thrifty quality education. Visit the state’s Department of Higher Education transfer web site at www.mass.edu/masstransfer to take advantage of the “Mass Transfer” General Education Foundation, and save 11%; the “Mass Transfer A2B Degree” to save 28%; or the “Commonwealth Commitment” to save freeze your tuition rate when you start, earn 10% end-of-semester rebate checks, and save 40% on your degree.

Through the “Commonwealth Commitment” most entire degrees will cost between $25,000-30,000—and that’s before any financial aid you might receive.

Get Creative with the “Communiversity”

Recognizing that most students today attend a college not too far from home, NECC, and other community colleges, have begun partnering with public and private four-year colleges to offer bachelor’s degree completion programs on their campuses, usually at reduced costs. For example, students can complete bachelor’s degrees in health careers with Regis College, or in Information Technology or Visual Communications with Lyndon State College, right on our Lawrence campus, saving time, travel, and quite a bit of money.

Net Price Calculators

Lastly, wherever you are thinking about going to college, show you’re a good student already and do your homework. One useful tool can be found on the web site for the U.S. Department of Education’s “Net Price Calculator.” Whether you are looking at NECC (and we hope you are), UMass-Amherst, Michigan State University (Go, Green!) or Notre Dame, the site will help you figure out the real cost of attendance, based on your circumstances.

A college education today is still a valuable investment—most good jobs require it. But if you’ve read this far, I hope you know that there are many ways to get that degree, have a meaningful experience, and save a lot along the way.