Column: To cut college cost, finish on time

With students busy finalizing their fall college plans, parents would do well to talk to their seniors this spring about ways to hold down the cost of a college degree. The higher education price tag continues to soar. It is more important than ever to find ways to contain costs.

How can students help? Full-time, traditional-aged freshmen matriculating at four-year institutions should spend no more than eight semesters in college. Why? Every extra day a student is in school multiplies expenses and adds debt.

Although the importance of this message is unmistakable, schools rarely communicate it to students. Beyond providing degree requirements and academic advisers to explain them, most institutions lack resources to systematically monitor students' four-year trajectories. Thus, students make decisions that may prolong their college career to five or more years. They (and their families) then shoulder the added costs.

What can parents do? Tell students how tuition and other bills will be met. If a student will work during the summers to help pay for college, it may be easier for him or her to stay on course due to being personally invested. If parents cover the costs through savings, home equity loans, prepaid tuition plans, etc., or if taxpayer-funded grants, lottery-based awards or scholarships do so, students may feel their education is "free." When something feels "free," it may be taken less seriously.

Consider saying, "We worked hard for your tuition because we wanted to give you the best chance at a good life that we could possibly afford. We expect you to do what it takes to graduate in four years." Or, "taxpayers will provide a portion of the money for you to go to college. It is important to make the most of these funds and to finish on time."

Next, show students how to calculate the cost of a course at their university. Understanding how expensive college is motivates students to stay on track. Base this sum on cost per credit hour multiplied by number of credits associated with each class. Remind students that the amount a course costs is also the amount wasted if they fail it or withdraw. While failing is less common, students drop classes all the time, and often for poor reasons.

Young adults who have never paid bills will find college cost conversations too abstract to be meaningful unless parents provide real-life equivalencies. To help students understand how much a college class is worth, try: "It took two years of monthly installments to pay for your braces; one college course costs roughly the same amount." If a student will attend a lesser-priced community college, say: "Each of your courses will cost about the same amount as your cell phone bill for one year."

Help students who borrow to finance college to calculate a probable monthly payment based on amount borrowed over four years. For a reality check, recalculate based on six years of college, and emphasize that the two extra years as a student also "costs" the loss of two years of entry-level salary and retirement contributions — possibly $80,000 or more. Advise full-time students to borrow only enough to support a basic existence.

Encourage students to make solid scheduling decisions in order to avoid oversights that postpone graduation and run up costs. An important message includes coaching students to choose a major early on and to stick to it. Classes that apply to one major rarely apply to another. Students should use their general education requirements to responsibly experiment until they find the right major. Taking random courses until a discipline finally "feels right" is irresponsible and costly.

Lastly, students should stay put. Today's students frequently transfer among institutions — sometimes two and three times. Transfer students almost always lose credits because individual schools require different curricula. A student may believe that all of his or her courses will transfer, but later learn that many count as electives rather than as specific degree requirements.

If parents start these conversations now, students will become experts on timely graduation by the time they enroll in the fall. They will be much more likely to meet the four-year graduation mark, and to move forward having accrued only the minimum amount of debt necessary to obtain a degree. What a positive note on which to begin one's young adulthood.

Catherine Chastain-Elliott is an associate dean of the baccalaureate experience at the University of Tampa. She is co-author, with Karen Bendersky, professor of psychology at Georgia College, of the newly published handbook "College Orientation." She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: To cut college cost, finish on time 05/15/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 6:34pm]

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