One second you’re learning the ropes of high school—where to sit, where not to sit and the fastest route from the parking lot to your first class. Now, you’re suddenly staring at the real world in all its glory. After graduation, you’ll face a fork in the road: Will you take the fast track into the work force, or will you press on and continue your education?
Maybe you’ve already been accepted into the university of your dreams, or maybe you haven’t made a decision to go to any institution. When it comes to your time, your money and your career, the final decision can seem overwhelming. At any stage, knowledge is power when it comes to making decisions about the future of your education after graduation. Here are some things to consider if you’re still on the fence.
Community College Vs. State Universities
If you’re having trouble figuring out what kind of institution is right for you, weigh the pros and cons! Community colleges aren’t what they used to be and can actually be a better option for some people. Several community colleges even offer select four-year programs so that some students won’t have to transfer to a university after they’ve earned their associate degree. For example, the College of Central Florida now offers eight baccalaureate programs to make earning your bachelor’s degree that much easier.
If a community college doesn’t offer the program you desire, they may still be able to offer you an advantage into outside programs. For example, CF has several university “partners” that can streamline your CF credits into their regular or satellite programs. Some of these satellite programs are even offered on the CF campus allowing students to avoid long commutes and stay close to home.
Round 1: Money Matters
One of the biggest pros of starting at a community college is the cost. The total cost of tuition, added fees and room and board are significantly lower than state universities. According to recent research conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, the cost for a full-time student to attend a four-year institution averaged $16,789 a year whereas the cost for a full-time student at a two-year institution averaged $8,561 a year—close to half of the cost!
Round 2: Flexibility
For those who plan to work throughout college, the flexibility of class scheduling may be a deciding factor. Find out the availability of night and online courses beforehand so you are able to easily work classes into your schedule. Community colleges tend to offer more options when it comes to night and online classes, but universities are starting to jump on the bandwagon, too! Meet with your perspective advisor to find out what scheduling options are available for the classes you need.
Round 3: Class Size
Would you rather sit in a class of 20 to 30 people or in an auditorium with hundreds? That’s a question you need to ask yourself before deciding on an institution. Community colleges tend to have smaller class sizes, which allow more one-on-one time with professors. However, class sizes at universities generally decrease when you begin taking classes that are specific to your major instead of general education courses.
Round 4: Transferring Or Starting At A University
After you’ve finished your general education courses and you’ve earned your associate degree, you’ll probably want to be admitted into your desired baccalaureate program. Universities tend to give current students priority over transfer students for admission into these programs.
However, there are a few that have direct links with specific community colleges, such as Valencia College and the University of Central Florida. Connections like these could actually guarantee acceptance or make it easier to get into your desired program. Check ahead to see which route would give you the best possibility of entering the program you desire. Although requirements tend to change, always ask for a list of the current pre-requisites for your perspective program so you aren’t surprised when it’s time to apply.
Some freshmen thrive in the up-tempo university scene. Universities tend to have more of a student life than community colleges and can offer a plethora of amenities, such as state-of-the-art gyms, “free” student concerts and activities galore. However, if you aren’t on a scholarship, keep in mind that you are the one paying for these extras. Are they worth it?
Choosing to start at a university has other benefits as well. Although the transition from high school to a university may be a little rough, you won’t have to transition from a community college lifestyle to the university scene later on (if that’s the path you choose). Nonetheless, being accepted into an excellent university can be a dream come true for those who have worked hard to get there, and the experience alone can be worth it for many.
What About Private Colleges And Technical Institutions?
Community colleges and big universities aren’t your only options. There are plenty of private colleges to choose from, too, but be aware that they usually come with a hefty price tag. The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2013-2014 school year for private colleges came to a whopping $30,094, according to the College Board. Their advantage lies in the accessibility of programs and smaller class sizes. Although there may be waitlists for high-demand programs, such as nursing or criminal justice in public colleges, there are usually never waitlists for these programs at private colleges; plus the classes usually have a smaller student-to-professor ratio. Locally, Rasmussen College is one private option.
So maybe a degree isn’t what you’re shooting for. Technical institutions, like Community Technical & Adult Education (CTAE) in Ocala, offer programs that will give you the education needed for certifications and licenses for specific careers. From veterinarian assisting and cosmetology to electrical apprenticeship and massage therapy, these programs are designed to train you for specific careers—fast. The cost varies from program to program, but they are usually much cheaper and faster than getting a college degree.
Technical schools are also an excellent option for people who eventually want to get a college degree but aren’t sold on the field they want to pursue. For example, you can earn your nursing assistant certification at a technical institution, work in the field for a little while to gain hands-on nursing experience and then decide if you want to pursue a nursing degree. Even if a technical institution serves as a stepping stone in your education, it’s an excellent way to network with local professionals in your desired field. Keep in mind that those connections and experiences may come in handy when it comes time to find a job.
Online Vs. In-classroom
Once you’ve talked to your advisor and determined which courses to enroll in, you may have the option to pick your mode of instruction. Many schools offer online, hybrid and traditional in-classroom courses. You may not even have to set foot on campus if you can find all the classes you need online.
Although online classes are undoubtedly convenient (think pajamas and hot cocoa), they aren’t for everyone. Online classes work best for those who are self-motivators, tech savvy and prepared to do a little extra work to understand the material. If online classes interest you, it might be good to start off with one online class to see what it entails before diving into the full-time cyber classroom.
Attending class in a physical classroom has its advantages, too. For one, you get direct access to your professor. If you have a question, you can ask it right then and there. If you have a concern, you can address it right then and there. Online classes require an email in those cases and extra time for your professor to respond to it. Physical classrooms also offer direct access to your peers. This makes it easier to form study groups or complete group assignments. If you are able to, give the classroom setting a try. You might find yourself preferring face-to-face instruction over the convenient face-to-screen mode.
Full time Vs. Part time
Your full-time or part-time status will be determined by the number of credit hours you enroll in per semester. A credit hour is the unit of measurement for college credit. A typical college course is worth three credit hours. Three credit hours usually means you will spend about three hours a week in a classroom for that particular class.
In order to be considered “part time” in undergraduate coursework, you must enroll in at least six credit hours per semester (usually at least two classes). To be considered a “full-time” undergraduate, you must enroll in at least 12 credit hours per semester (usually four classes). Graduate classes differ from undergraduate courses because the workload is more rigorous. A graduate student usually only needs nine credit hours, or about three courses, to be considered a full-time student.
Your status as a part-time or full-time student can have implications on student loans, scholarships, grants, Veterans Affairs benefits and more, so always make sure you know the requirements for each. Your choice to go full time or part time will also affect the amount of time it takes you to complete your degree. If you choose to go part time, remember that taking classes during the summer semesters will speed up the process.
The Scoop On Scholarships (And Grants)
What if I told you that there are groups out there that are willing to pay for your education? Well, there are, and it comes in the form of scholarships and grants. Scholarships and grants are cash awards that do not have to be repaid. Both scholarships and grants can come from private institutions, such as corporations and organizations. Some grants, however, come from federal funds. Two of the most popular federally funded grants, the Pell Grant and the Federal Supplement Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), are offered to undergraduates who come from low-income families. If you qualify for these federally funded grants, they’re awarded after completing your FAFSA application.
If you don’t qualify for a Pell or FSEOG grant, don’t worry. There are plenty of private grants and scholarships that aren’t awarded based on your financial situation. In fact, there’s potential school money out there for just about any student—regardless of financial need. All you have to do is take the time to apply. Private grants and scholarships are offered by corporations, organizations or individuals. The awards range from small to large sums of money, but every penny counts when it comes to tuition costs.
Requirements for these awards vary and can be merit based, need based or student specific. Competition for scholarships and grants can be brutal, so make sure to apply for as many as possible to increase your odds of winning one. If you are awarded a grant or scholarship that can renew each semester, make sure to reapply each semester and let them know how much the award has helped you previously.
You can find scholarships and grants in a variety of ways. One way to get information on available awards is by checking with the financial aid office at the college or institution you plan on attending. Check online for corporate-funded scholarships and grants, or contact community organizations and civic groups to see what they offer. If you are a veteran or are a dependent of a veteran, you may also be eligible for certain educational benefits, so make sure to check out the Veterans Affairs website at va.gov for more information. You can also visit studentaid.ed.gov to search for federal grants. Always make sure that the scholarship information and offers you receive are legitimate. You should never have to pay to find information or to apply for scholarships and grants.
The Lowdown On Loans
After applying for as many scholarships and outside grants as possible, you can use FAFSA to be “awarded” assistance with the remainder of your tuition costs based on your financial need. Be advised, however, that awards that are taken in the form of loans are just that—loans. Just like regular loans, federal student loans will accumulate interest and have to be repaid whether you earn a degree or not.
There are two different types of federal student loans that you may be awarded through FAFSA: direct subsidized loans and direct unsubsidized loans. In order to receive either type of loan, you have to be enrolled at least part-time at a participating school. For the most part, you must also be in a program that leads to either a degree or certificate. Knowing the main differences between the two will help you decide which awards to accept when they are offered to you.
Direct subsidized loans are only awarded to undergraduate students. The interest on this type of loan is paid by the government if you’re enrolled in school at least half-time (6 credit hours). The interest will continue to be paid for the first six months after you leave school. This is called the grace period. After that time, you will begin making monthly loan payments until the entire loan has been paid back. A loan deferment—a postponement of loan payments—can be set up through the financial institution providing the loan under certain circumstances. During a deferment, interest on the loan will be paid by the government.
Direct unsubsidized loans can be awarded to undergraduate and graduate students. The interest on this type of loan is not paid by the government. If you choose not to pay the interest while you are enrolled in school, during grace periods or during a deferment, the interest will accumulate and will be added to the principal amount of your loan. Paying at least the interest on a direct unsubsidized loan during enrollment and other periods can save you from paying hundreds of dollars more for the same loan.
For Direct Unsubsidized Loans, remember:
Your school will determine how much you can borrow based on your cost of attendance and other financial aid awards.
You aren’t required to demonstrate financial need.
You’re responsible for paying the interest during all periods.
Unpaid interest will accrue and be capitalized, costing you more in the long run.
Find Out More
Learn more about federal loans at studentaid.ed.gov/ types/loans.
Federal Work-Study Programs
FAFSA can also direct you to Federal Work-Study programs. These programs are offered to undergraduate and graduate students with financial need. They provide qualified students with part-time jobs to help earn money for education expenses. It’s available to full-time or part-time students and is administered by participating schools. You can find out if your school participates by contacting the financial aid office.
You’ll quickly find out that textbooks are outrageously expensive, but there’s ways of getting out of paying big bucks for books that you’ll probably only use for one semester. Here’s three easy ways to save money on your materials:
Rent, don’t buy. Unless you know that a specific textbook will benefit you far after its use in that seemingly pointless gen. ed. class, don’t waste your money on buying it. Rentals usually only cost a small portion of what it would cost to buy it—used or not.
Chegg it out. Chegg.com is a great resource for renting, buying or selling books. Other websites like Amazon also offer competitive prices that will usually blow away your school’s bookstore price, but don’t tell them we told you that.
New edition? Ask your professor if the edition he or she is using can be substituted for an earlier version of the same textbook. This can save you tons of money if the professor says it’s OK first. Be aware that the page numbers may be a little different though.
Be advised that if you are using financial aid to purchase textbooks, you may have to go through your school’s bookstore. Also, any professor-created workbooks or materials will probably only be sold through your school’s bookstore. Other than those exceptions, happy savings!
Student Budgets 101
So you’re on your own, or semi on your own, and you’re tasked with all the expenses that come with it. Those luxuries like the endless buffet of home-cooked meals and the revolving dry cleaner that was your mom have now dissipated and you’re left with expense after expense. If there’s one time you wish you paid attention in math class, it’s now, because “budgeting” has become a harsh reality. Phew… now that your anxiety level is through the roof, check out these tips on how to start a basic student budget from the U.S. Department of Education’s Financial Aid Office:
Determine a time span for your budget. You can create a month-to-month budget, a yearly budget or a budget for each academic term. Your expenses and income may vary from month to month or from semester to semester, so keep that in mind when you select your time span.
Pick a tool to help you manage your budget. You can use something as simple as a pen and paper or embrace the technological advances of our day and download a budget app (such as the free Level Money app). Your bank may also offer online budgeting tools, so you may want to check that out, too!
Estimate your monthly income. Make note of any sources of income, including pay from work, financial help from family members or financial aid. Include any financial aid that is left over after it’s applied toward tuition and other fees. Divide any income that you normally only get once a year, like a tax refund, by 12.
Identify and group your expenses. Start by recording everything you spend money on in a month so that you know where your money is going. Gather your bank and credit card statements, and note the expenses that may be automatically paid. Make note of other college costs such as books, supplies, travel expenses and equipment. Add those expenses to your list of more obvious college costs such as tuition and fees.
After you identify your expenses, group them into two categories. One category should be for fixed expenses. These are the expenses that stay pretty much the same each month and might include items such as rent or car payments. Fixed expenses are normally nonnegotiable. Variable expenses are those that can be controlled or adjusted and can vary each month. They may include groceries, clothing and entertainment.
Find ways to adjust your variable expenses to match your budget. It’s easy to save money here and there when you know what you’re blowing your money on. Try eating out less throughout the month or limiting the number of times you go clothes shopping. It’s also a great idea to put the extra money you save at the end of the month in an “emergency fund” in case something unexpected comes up.
Need Additional Tips?
You can find more budgeting information and helpful tools at studentaid.ed.gov/prepare-for-college.
Yes, all of this can seem like a lot of information to take in and you might feel a little worried or anxious about your next chapter in life. Just remember that this moment, as hectic as it is, will be an experience that you’ll look back on for the rest of your life. Enjoy your accomplishments now, and know that there are many more accomplishments to come in life, whether you choose to further your education now or not.