Six Years, Four Colleges

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve attended four different colleges over the past six years. I began right out of high school in fall of 04. So, how did all of these schools stack up against one another? Were any of them better or worse, than the others? What were the advantages of attending one over another?

I’ll attempt to answer these questions.

All four schools had this in common: First you applied, usually online. Then you would receive either an acceptance or rejection letter, of which I’ve never received the latter. They would then begin the financial aid process, which always includes filling out a FAFSA form. This is where similarity ceased.

The first school I attended was a private, two-year community college. Most brick-and-mortar schools these days require first-year students to live on campus unless they live with a parent. This school was no exception and they went far out of their way to make incoming freshman feel welcome. When I attended, this school charged 18 grand per year. Why did I choose such an expensive school? Well, to be perfectly honest, I’d earned a scholarship to this particular one that allowed me only to owe roughly five grand, which was the exact same amount that the local university would have taken.

I wanted to live on campus because I wanted that experience. However, my parents had nicely agreed to pay for my first two years of school and my mother preferred me home.

So how easy was it to get into this school? It was simple. The application for admissions was mail-only at the time, but has since been adjusted for online too. There was a small fee (15 dollars), plus you had to send your High School transcript, ACT or SAT scores, and two references unrelated to you (I used HS teachers).

The financial aid process was routine: FAFSA, entrance quiz (about financial aid), and signing a MPN (Master Promissary Note). At that time, you chose a lender, but as of this year the gov’t does direct loans themselves.

Then you were required to do a freshman orientation, which all colleges require in some form or fashion for entering freshman with no transfer credits. At this school, I had a private tour of campus, a visit to the dorms (which were posh and highly organized), and a free meal in the cafeteria. I will say that this school by far had the best food. I then spoke to an advisor, who took care of everything from helping me choose my classes to administering the entrance quiz for financial aid.

This school was absolutely perfect, except for the price tag. If you can afford it, I highly recommend using a private, two-year college before heading off anywhere else. You’ll get a great experience and the classes are much more relaxed and small. Plus, you’ll have that AA or AS to show for it.

My younger brother actually attended a traditional local community college, the kind that cost less. If you don’t want the price tag of the private two-year college, go the public route. You’ll get a similar experience, but with some loss of quality. You won’t find it in your education, though. His school costs: three grand per year.

The second college I attended was a local state university, Wichita State University. The cost was still down for a resident Kansan (roughly 5000 a year with books and materials), but I found so was the quality of the education. Several of my classes had 300-500 students crammed into an amphitheatre. So how hard was it to get in? Apparently more than I thought, because my brother received a rejection because he hadn’t taken specific classes in high school.

For me, though, it was a very similar process to the previous school: FAFSA, orientation (I didn’t need to attend because I had 24 credit hours to transfer), and advisor meetings. However, enrolling at WSU was a bit more of a pain in the neck. There was a very long paper trail and obtaining each piece required going to specific buildings. WSU’s campus is pretty big and finding the Financial Aid office (Jardine Hall) alone for a new student was aggravating. They’ve streamlined some of the process since, but there is still a lot of paperwork to go through that a new student may find at the least annoying. I know this because I recently assisted Brian’s brother with enrollment at this school.

For WSU, I did not require references, though they still needed my ACT score, and that seemed to be the same with Brian’s brother. There are certain courses that you need to have taken either at a previous institution or in high school to get in.

The local four-year university is great for the veteran student who’s already taken classes like Psychology 111 at a previous school, but not so much for someone to go straight into. It is still relatively inexpensive (if you consider fully paying for your education out-of-pocket at roughly 20 grand inexpensive) and there are a lot of grants and scholarships available for in-state students.

The third school I attended was possibly the most ridiculous of all the schools I’ve attended. It was an art school geared toward getting you straight onto a specific career path post-graduation. In order to get in, you must have a portfolio of work to present, reference letters, and an interview. They are actually very strict about accepting only students who have the skills and the drive to get through the program; they were a little bit wishy-washy about helping those students pay off a 60 grand debt (or more) after graduation.

Obviously I had the skills, motivation, and drive to go there or I never would have been accepted. Unfortunately, no one anticipated the Great Recession beginning in 08, which prevented me from obtaining the horrendously large sums of money from private lenders that would have allowed me to complete that education.

So what else was there to the process? I will say it was much easier to go through their process of financial aid and their classes were straightforward, with the attitude that the assignments were actually your job. With a required internship at an approved location, you were at least guaranteed three months of actual work experience on top of your degree. Some of the places that internships were held at — Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Blue Sky, Blizzard — were extremely good and most students who did graduate had jobs within a few months of graduation. I believe those numbers were in the 90 percent range.

Unfortunately, you either have to be very rich or your parents have to be very good with their credit score to complete that education.

So now I’m attending an online college. Thus far, everything has been very simple — 50 dollar transfer documents, and a walkthrough of every single detail. They have an advisor who will get back to you with any questions you have within 24 hours (unless it’s the weekend, of course). Everything else? Simple. The price for each 3-credit-hour class is 750 dollars (250 per credit hour) and the academic plan is set before you ever start, so there is no confusion over what classes you need to take or what qualifies. I will keep everyone posted.

Oh, and with American Public University Systems? The books are free for undergraduates. So it really is just 250 per credit hour. I like that. Now let’s see what the classes are going to be like and I’ll revisit this subject then.

The bottom line still comes down to cost and how well you can keep up with the courseload. None of the schools were really “better” than the others, though the art school probably should never have come under my lower-middle-class radar without decent scholarships. If you need more attention, go the two-year school route first, then complete at a four-year college. Don’t go to a trade school unless you know for certain that’s what you want to be paying off for the next ten to thirty years.

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