Keeping Your Back to School Costs Low

“Sherrill is now working toward her fifth Ph.D. and appears to have her goals set as a career grad student.”  Or at least that’s what the Student Prophecy section of the Crimson Log, my high school yearbook, had predicted for me for 2002.  Well, it’s now 2009, and I’ve only gone back to school twice, neither time for a Ph.D.  So there!  I guess I’m not as big a geek as they thought.

But even going back to school only twice can add up to a whole lot of tuition and book money.  So I thought I’d share how I kept my education costs to a minimum.

The first time I went back was about 8 years after undergrad.  At that point, the only career direction I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to be the engineer my undergrad degree qualified me to be, and I’d already made the shift to engineering manager at a small company in Marlborough, MA.  (Any Viewlogic alum out there??)  I was curious to learn more about management but not sure I’d like it enough to take on the financial risks (i.e. no cash in, lots of cash out) that going back to get an MBA full-time would entail.

Fortunately, my company offered tuition reimbursement, and Clark University offered classes at a satellite campus only 15 minutes away.  So I went part-time, and found I kept wanting to go back for more.  It was an absolutely ideal arrangement… for the first few years, until I realized that by the time I finished the degree, I would be eligible for Social Security.

sherrill_clarkgrad1In the equation “time = money”, sometimes there comes a point when time equals more than money, and I had reached it.  So I applied to finish full-time, Clark generously offered some scholarship money, and I was out of there — degree in hand — about a year later and not that much poorer.  Honestly, I don’t even remember what the whole thing cost, but I can tell you it wasn’t even 1/10th of what I might have paid if I’d gone full-time and footed the entire bill.  Best of all, I didn’t end up with any student loans that would be sure to dog me long after I’d forgotten how to use the Black-Scholes model.  (Don’t ask.)

The moral(s) of the story:

  • If you’re not sure what you want to do when you grow up, find a way to test drive your interests before committing to an expensive education program.
  • Look around to see who else might have a stake in you learning.  In my case, my company benefited for several years as I was attending Clark and applying my newfound knowledge (”So that’s what they mean by profit!”) back at the office.
  • Don’t assume schools won’t help an older student.  If you have the characteristics they’re looking for, you might be just get a nice $urprise.

Now, if you’re any good at math, you’ve probably already figured out that this all happened more than a decade ago.  Since then, college costs have gotten exponentially higher as purse strings at companies and colleges have gotten tighter.   But I know from talking to friends, family, clients, and our “go to” college planning expert Todd Weaver that opportunities to get smarter for less still exist.  With costs as forbidding as they are today, it’s likely to be worth your while to do a little digging to find them.

(Next up:  Student prophecy II, The Sequel — Back to school again, this time to learn what a financial planner needs to know.)

About the author

Sherrill St. Germain, CFP®

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