As a homeschooling mom with teens, I'd love to have a nickel for every time I've heard the question "Can your kids go to college?" Over the years, I've found that having a confident, knowledgeable answer has brought credibility to my homeschooling in the eyes of family, friends and strangers.
There are certainly homeschoolers who enter the college process just like any schooled student – they take SAT or ACT tests. They visit campuses. They fill out lots of applications for admission and financial aid. And once they have a couple of acceptance letters, they make their choice.
Obtaining a 4 Year College Degree without Debt
But there is another side to college choice: the financial side. Most parents see college as an investment in their child's future, and put a high value on making sure their child receives a college degree – at all costs. But there is a cost – a high cost. And more and more, college kids are financing their degree and coming out of school with enormous debt. After working so hard to give our kids the very best as homeschoolers, why allow them to start their adult lives at such a disadvantage due to huge debt loads?
Being the parent of 3 teens (and a 10 year old), I've been looking at the options I can give my kids for college. A priority for me was to be able to pay for college without having any of us take on college debt. I really wasn't sure if I was being reasonable. Then I stumbled upon the book Debt Free U by Zac Bissonnette (affiliate link). He put me on the road to charting a path through college that will meet my kids' needs AND my financial goals.
Homeschooling & Community College
The first step in this journey is to talk to your local community college. I have made a few phone calls, and then my husband and teens visited the campus open house. We have been nothing but impressed. Not only do we have access to the classes on our small, rural campus, but we also have access to many other local colleges through our community college. A large state school brings their nursing program to our campus – but instead of paying big school tuition ($25,000 a year to live on campus), the entire degree program costs $15,000 through our community college. What a difference!
Sure, I thought… that’s one program. But my son is into media and film…I’m sure they can’t help us with that. And I was wrong. A neighboring county college (as they are sometimes called where I live in NJ) has a television/film degree, and regularly sends kids to four year schools to finish their bachelors degree. And again, if we go through our own community college, we pay the lower rate - $99 per credit hour for those first two years.
So, for us, the first line of attack will be community college. To apply, my kids can take the SAT, or they can simply take placement tests when they enroll. And they can enroll as early as 16 years of age. We have already spent hours on the website, looking at majors they might choose, and reading course descriptions. I want them to start out with an idea of what options they have. Even my film/media son surprised me by expressing an interest in other majors. At one point, my older teens were high-fiving each other because one choice for a general requirement class was Greek Mythology – a topic they have always loved. How's that for being excited about college?
After community college, there are several choices. Our community college has admissions agreements with quite a few regional colleges and universities. Credits transfer to our state universities by law in NJ. But that is something worth asking about. In general, community colleges have done a huge amount of work to assure that their students will be able to continue their education after receiving their associate degree.
Homeschooling & Public Online College
Aside from spending two years at just any four year school, our family has locked onto one school that provides a great deal. Thomas Edison College is a public college in the state of New Jersey. Classes are taken online, and they charge a flat rate for each year…not semester. For in-state students, that yearly fee is right around $5,000. It's about $7,000 for out of state students. In my neck of the woods, that's a huge discount. With many options for a major and regional accreditation, it is an excellent option.
Homeschooling & CLEP Tests
To further reduce costs, another method to use is the CLEP tests. There are many websites now to assist you and your student in making use of these tests to gain college credits. "CLEPing" out of a class reduces your cost by at least 2/3…and that's compared to community college rates! The key is to communicate with the institutions where you plan on getting a degree, and making sure you only take the CLEP tests they allow. I was surprised that my students could use CLEP tests for English, but not for Math classes at our community college. Thomas Edison is more liberal in the CLEP tests they accept.
In all, our plan will allow each of our children to graduate from four years of college for less than $20,000….less than the cost of one year at any of our state public universities. By working while in school, they can make a portion of this money themselves.
If you are starting this journey towards college, or even if you are right at the door, I highly recommend you read Debt Free U for even more great ideas. You will find information about choosing a major, picking classes, and choosing a career. He also lays out a model for paying for college that could work even when mom and dad don't have much to contribute to the costs.
There are other sources, such as CollegePlus [now called Unbound], that will help you navigate these waters – walking you and your student through each step from preparing for college to choosing courses and CLEP tests to achieve the desired degree at a low cost. If you are unsure that you can go it alone, this might be a good option.
All in all, we should be encouraged as homeschoolers. We have already stepped out of the box to provide our children the best learning experience possible, and we have so many options after they finish high school. The best news is that some of them are actually affordable.
Julie Gibson is a homeschooling mother of four from New Jersey.