“Have you shared any tips from shopping for colleges with your oldest daughter? If not, will you be?”
“Hi Jill, will you please blog how you save money on college or university? Thank you!”
“It’s college time for our son, and we’re looking at more money than we’ve spent on anything in our lives other than our home. What are you doing with your daughter’s schooling?”
I’ve been receiving a few emails and messages asking about the path we chose for our daughter’s education. and I’d be happy to share some of the details with you.
For a little perspective on what led us to where we’re at today, I’ll share the deal my parents presented to me back in my senior year of high school:
- Mom and Dad will pay for two years of community college plus two years at a state university
- Continue to live at home during the community college years
- Do not take a gap year between high school and college, do not take a gap year between any years of college, and do not earn failing grades
- Take longer than four years to graduate, and the mom-and-dad-pay deal ends.
I took the deal — so did my sister. We both graduated on time in four years, both from our local community college and from state universities — Northern Illinois University for me, Illinois State for my sis. While it may not seem as glamorous or exciting as going away to school for four years, we both felt that we got excellent educations during our first two years at community college. All of our credits transferred to our universities, and we received the same bachelor’s degrees that we would have received had we gone all four years at our respective universities.
I’ve never regretted taking this path. In many ways, I found the years I spent at community college to be better and more enriching than the years I spent at NIU. For example, both the computer labs and photography lab were vastly superior at my community college than at Northern — we had brand-new equipment in both labs, and I remember being both surprised and disappointed at the quality of the older, well-worn computers, cameras and darkroom equipment once I got to NIU. I had so many personal growth opportunities within student leadership organizations in community college, and I felt that the smaller class sizes there were also beneficial to me.
Along the way, some of my friends dropped out of school between their second and third years. Had I decided to stop my education at the same point, I would at least have had my Associate’s degree completed, making it easier to transfer those credits to a university once I was ready to start again. Several of my friends, now adults, wish they had at least completed a two-year degree before quitting school.
As my husband and I have raised our children, we’ve saved money to pay for their schooling with the intent of steering them to a similar path. During our daughter’s senior year in high school, we presented her with the same option. Choose a local community college. Knock out all of those core classes everyone needs to take to graduate with a four-year degree. Then, choose a state college or an out-of-state university that will honor in-state tuition rates. We’ll pay for all school and living expenses (yes, you can move out for your final two years!) and again, you’ll graduate debt-free with two degrees.
Smart girl — she took the deal, just as I did years ago, and her years at community college have been filled with extracurricular experiences that rival those she might have enjoyed at a larger, more expensive school. Just like her mother did years ago, she’s pursuing a journalism degree (I swear, I did not push her into it!) and the past two years have been filled with all kinds of workshops in her field — shadowing Chicago Tribune reporters on the job for the day; numerous retreats to area universities for journalism camps, training sessions, and workshops. In two years, she went on at least six different overnight, multi-day trips through the journalism department. As student reporters, they even went down state to Springfield to cover the budget crisis. We paid for none of these trips — all expenses were covered by the department at school.
Last month, our daughter graduated community college with her Associate’s degree and set her sights on choosing a university where she would finish her education. In anticipation of this, she narrowed her choices down to two of the universities she’d visited on previous trips with the journalism department. Both universities have excellent journalism programs. She really liked both schools and had a chance to get to know the department heads at both, and she really could see herself attending either one: The University of Iowa and Eastern Illinois University. She applied to both, and she also applied to two other state schools as backups in case her first two choices didn’t work out. She was accepted to all four, so she then focused on U of I and EIU.
In the end, the decision was financial. Iowa initially said they would honor in-state tuition rates for her, but the school later had some trouble making that happen with her entering as a transfer student. This left Eastern, and we’re proud that when Fall 2016 rolls around, we’ll have a Panther on the loose at EIU!
Her community college path cost around $2000. She did graduate high school with several scholarships, which helped bring the costs down too, but community college is simply a bargain compared to other alternatives. Whether you go to a four-year university or a community college, your first two years are going to contain core requirements that you would have to take anywhere (English, math, and other gen ed courses.) Does it really matter where you take these? Transfer them to a four-year university, and you’ll graduate with the same Bachelor’s degree that everyone in your graduating class does.
I think the school/life balance is easier too when you’re going to school close to home, then reuniting with family for dinner and the general stability of family life at the end of each day. Homework can be done at the kitchen table, not at a desk in a cramped dorm room with a roommate who may or may not be supportive of your study habits. Your family’s still feeding you each night and doing your laundry.
I also believe that not all kids are ready to move out of the house the moment they turn 18. They may think they are, of course, but not everyone is.
Just today, our daughter shared with us that three of her friends who started at private universities the same time she did have dropped out. They’ve decided they are not going back to school in the fall. She said “Living in the city, they’re working too and just struggling to pay rent on their apartments.” Something had to give, and I was sad to hear that it was school.
We’ve saved so much money over the past two years that sending our daughter off to EIU in the fall won’t break the bank. Tuition at EIU is a little over $11,000 each year. After considering the additional numbers for housing at EIU ($9176/year for the dorm, which includes 12 meals/week) we also believe it is going to cost less for her to live in an apartment versus the dorm.
In March, we visited EIU for an orientation day and some apartment-hunting, and we returned to campus in April to tour more apartments and see our daughter sign her first lease. Off-campus apartments are surprisingly reasonable at EIU. She chose a $350/month apartment about a block from campus. Her rent includes some utilities, and together we’ve been working on a monthly budget for food, remaining utilities and expenses that we will cover. She’s also received scholarships for EIU, and each of those will help bring her tuition down.
It’s been somewhat eye-opening for me to discuss college choices with other friends and acquaintances. One friend felt they had to eliminate considering any public Illinois universities from their daughter’s college search due to the current budget crisis, and admittedly, this is a strong concern of mine as well. I do hope that our state can continue to fund its state universities and educate the next generation of students coming through. Eastern has recently assured students and parents that it will remain open despite the budget impasse.
Another friend told me that there was no way she could consider a public university for their son. “State universities simply accept too many people. What good is a degree from there?” (I, of course, cheerfully replied that I was an NIU grad, and I think I’ve done well for myself since college!) The friend said, “Well, you know, I went to [insert well-known private university a few states away.] I want him to go there too. It’s expensive, but he’ll deal with it.”
I knew the university she named costs $39,000/year.
I agreed that it’s a great school, but something that pricey is simply out of the budget for us. The friend said it was completely out of their budget too, “so, he’ll just get loans. It’s worth it.”
I said, “For me, having her graduate debt-free has always been one of our goals. I would rather see her graduate from a state college that we can afford so she can start her life as an adult with no debt,” adding that four years at the university she named would cost $156,000.
The other mother shrugged her shoulders and said “Debt is a part of life. He’ll just have to deal with that. I still haven’t finished paying for my student loans.”
Everyone’s perspectives are different. Graduating debt-free allowed me so much freedom to start my own life, buy a home, start a business, raise a family. I’m grateful for that, and I want our daughter to have the same freedom. I don’t feel I’ve personally been hindered in any way by graduating from a public university versus a private one. I also don’t believe all jobs require a college degree, though many employers make a college degree a job requirement.
I was talking recently with another friend. She’s got family friends where the husband recently lost his longtime job, and he simply can’t find another one in his field that will interview him without a college degree. His 15+ years of working in his industry, while valuable experience, isn’t opening the doors that a college degree would. The jobs he’s applying for aren’t requiring that he have attended an Ivy League school — they simply want to see that he completed college somewhere.
I graduated NIU with a journalism degree, which, honestly, has become all but irrelevant in the current digital age. I graduated at a time when the internet was something people had at work or school — IF you were lucky. Few people had it at home, and there were mere hints of the essential form of daily communication that it would later become. Getting a job in journalism meant that you were likely going to work at a newspaper, which I did do for a few years. Then, the World Wide Web exploded, I taught myself to program and write code, and I set my degree aside for over a decade to pursue a career in web development. (My parents were delighted that I returned to writing for print in 2008 when my column became syndicated — “You’re finally using that degree!”)
While my background in journalism has undoubtedly shaped the writer and blogger I’ve become, it didn’t prepare me for the media-rich world I work in today. It couldn’t — how could it have? This job and this media space simply didn’t exist yet. The US Department of Labor has said that 65 percent of the kids in school right now will ultimately be employed in jobs that don’t yet exist. We do our best to help educate them for the workforce, but the demands of the workforce are constantly shifting too.
As part of our daughter’s orientation at EIU, we took a campus tour, enjoyed a welcome orientation assembly with the school’s president, and had lunch with our daughter’s future EIU classmates and their families. Then, something wonderful happened: The new students were broken into smaller groups based on majors and were instructed to head to their various departments. We entered a journalism classroom and met two of her soon-to-be professors. The students were instructed to sit in front, and for the next hour, the professors dug right in to a discussion of journalism ethics, new media, blogging and the responsibilities of reporting bias-free news.
Watching my daughter enthusiastically engage with her new classmates and instructors over an ethics-filled discussion of the famous Boston fire escape collapse photograph excited me. Was it irresponsible journalism to run a photograph of two people falling to their deaths? What reasons could justify running such an image? Sitting in her class listening to her professors, who clearly love the subjects they teach, reawakened my longtime love for investigative journalism and the people who pursue it.
In that moment, I knew she was in the right place to continue her education. She’s surrounded by some of the best in her field (Eastern is consistently one of the top-rated colleges for journalism) and in addition to the traditional print and broadcast journalism her mama studied, she’ll also study public relations, blogging, radio, digital video, graphic design and much more.
She’s going to Eastern, and we couldn’t be prouder.
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