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The guerrilla approach to college education

If you’ve never heard the term before, the basic concept behind guerrilla warfare is the adoption of tactics that enhance the efficacy of a small force against a large force, allowing it to compete without engaging in head-on battle that would be certain to favor the larger combatant.

As frequently happens, good concepts get incorporated into the business world. Guerrilla marketing was introduced to the mainstream in the early 1980s as a grassroots way for small businesses to market against the industry’s giants with massive advertising budgets, but it really exploded in both awareness and use with the advent of the Internet.

I’ve never seen or heard the term “guerrilla educating” before, but it seems to me to be just another evolution of the concept. How can middle-class parents provide a quality higher education experience for their children without sacrificing their retirement or incurring heaps of debt? Tuition costs rise faster than the summer temperatures in Texas. Most middle-class families don’t make enough money to adequately fund educational savings accounts yet make too much to qualify for grants.

While it can seem hopeless, there is a way. It begins with a paradigm shift from the mainstream approach. Remember that the goal is to get a degree, not an experience.

This fundamental is so basic that it is also so frequently overlooked. Modern marketing encourages us, even compels us, to provide the “experience” for our children rather than to truly focus on the goal, which should be to complete the education with the intended degree and the requisite knowledge.

The experience can include things that seem routine, such as on-campus housing, the meal plan, parking stickers, the activity fee, the readily available entertainment (sports, music, art), and the rate of post-graduate job placement. Depending on where you attend, there can be value in some or all of these items, but don’t be lulled into believing any single one of them is necessary to earn a degree.

Perhaps the most dangerous of these concepts is the prestige of the university or college, for which you can expect to pay a healthy premium. Almost all private universities fall into this category, along with a handful of public institutions. And research shows that there is no widespread correlation between graduating from a prestigious university and income potential.

By shifting your paradigm to avoid these marketing traps and simply remember that the goal is to get enough credits to graduate, you will be able to uncover some more cost-effective ways to approach college.

  1. Be a good student. This is the most basic of concepts, but likely also the most important. By being a good student, you not only qualify for various scholarships, but you also pass your classes and graduate on time, avoiding prolonged expenses.

  2. Invest in the test. Use a tutor or study package specializing in ACT/SAT prep. Consider the following research. Sexton Test Prep, a private tutoring company, notes that “a standard package of 12-16 tutoring hours usually yields 3-5 points of improvement on the ACT.” A similar company, Granite Test Prep, did the research and determined that a single-point increase in the ACT score was worth an average of $8,451 in tuition savings. Imagine you hire a tutor charging $50/hour and spend $800 for the above standard package, yielding a four-point improvement on your test score. Your $800 investment could be worth roughly $34,000 in scholarships. That’s a pretty good rate of return.

  3. Consider dual-credit classes. Just like being a good student, this one pays dividends on two fronts. First, the cost of dual-credit classes are typically substantially less expensive than paying for the credit hours as an undergraduate, by perhaps as much as $2000 per class. Second, by racking up credit hours before enrolling as an undergraduate, the student usually takes less time to achieve a degree.

  4. Community colleges are still colleges. While education is certainly not a commodity, the core requirements to graduate from university to university are largely similar. However, the national average difference in a year’s tuition between universities and community colleges is a staggering $17,000. That means that an average student comes out $34,000 ahead by attending community college for two years to get the same diploma.

  5. Avoid state boundaries. The Heath Resource Center identifies an average difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition of roughly $9000 per year. That skews even larger when the comparison is limited to four-year universities. If you must go out-of-state, look for options to establish residency as soon as possible.

  6. Stay in the nest. Combined with using in-state and local community colleges, students can hit the trifecta by continuing to live with their parents. Avoiding room and board costs associated with college can save more than half of the projected expense.

  7. Pay cash. While it can be enticing to plan to pay for college AFTER you get the degree, countless studies show that the fees and interest costs for student loans can add as much as 40 percent to the total cost, and that’s for the responsible borrower who repays the loan within 10 years. From a cost perspective, that’s the equivalent of attending for three more semesters. Taking those semesters off of school and working to earn the tuition in advance is a better plan.

  8. Spend more time on scholarship applications. This is perhaps the easiest but least utilized method on the list. Forbes estimates that $100 million in scholarship money goes unclaimed each year, and it’s because most students simply give up on the application process. But imagine you applied for 10 scholarships, spent two hours on each application, and in the end received a single $500 award. You just averaged $25/hour, well in excess of what the typical highschool student earns in the marketplace. In most cases, students will be better rewarded systematizing the scholarship application process and investing time into it rather than mowing lawns and mopping floors.

The true aim of guerrilla tactics is to employ all of the various methods in which you have a slight edge. A student who adopts all of these techniques could end up earning the exact same diploma at a quarter of the cost that the typical family spends. That’s a pretty valuable paradigm shift.


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