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College is expected. Now how can I afford it?

December 16, 2016

By Jonah Rice, Ph.D., Southeastern Illinois College President

Would you or can you buy a brand new car every year?  I’m not talking used or economy, I’m talking a brand new, loaded SUV or heavy-duty truck.  Imagine spending that amount of money two or even four years in a row.  That’s about the cost of sending one student to a university.

As many of us have children approaching college age, we love to think about what great potential our children have and the bright future careers they have ahead of them.  But what we don’t enjoy contemplating is the cost associated with sending them to college and the debt that either we or they could incur as a result. 

We don’t want to see our kids struggle with debt after college.  Yet, we don’t want to see our retirement coffers drained or have a second mortgage on a house that pushes back our own retirement years.  But when we hear things like, “Student-loan debt has surpassed credit card debt in the US,” and, “The average university graduate owes on average close to $40,000 in student loans,” we start to cringe.  Just how are we going to afford this?

So many parents are going into debt to keep up with the Jones’.  That’s a really unfortunate social dilemma that translates into real bankruptcy, older retirement age, or empty savings.

Some of us may be in denial.  Our student will earn scholarships because they are academic achievers or terrific athletes.  However, even though a $5,000 or even $10,000 scholarship may seem like a lot, and that university acceptance letter is exciting, the cold hard fact is that the overall cost of attending is $13,500-$31,000 plus room and board per year with an in-state university, and that scholarship may be spread out over four years.  It’s a drop in the bucket, and sadly debt will follow.

In addition, the amenities race at universities is getting carried away.  In some cases, you’ll find lazy rivers and climbing walls – is it a school or an amusement park?  Others tout plush and spacious dorms as well as sushi bars.  Those amenities aren't free.  Students pay for them over the next 15 years – living within much lower standards than they did in college.

What better way could we help our children, and ourselves, to save money on college, than by sending them to a quality community college to get their general education credits.  Full-time enrollment, summer classes, dual enrollment, and dual credit are all ways students can get credit at SIC before they transfer, if they are on the four-year track.  We educate more than 50 percent of the college bound students in our district.  More than 70 percent of our students receive some form of financial aid or scholarships to help them with the cost.  And the majority of our students live at home, eliminating extra housing costs and bills associated with being on their own.

Students get more attention and smaller classes from real professors with doctorate and master’s degrees instead of university graduate students instructing the entry-level classes.  Studies show that those who attend community college first are better prepared and maintain higher GPAs than those who go straight to universities.  Not to mention, the distractions of being on one’s own for the first time at age 18.

And then we get back to the cost.  Southeastern Illinois College, for example, has the state’s fourth lowest tuition rate.  Transfer students have gone from SIC to the College of William and Mary, University of Illinois, Bradley, University of Texas-Austin, Southern Illinois University, University of Southern Indiana, and so many other fine institutions.  And they have saved tens of thousands of dollars by attending community college first.