First Day of Class

I will have to admit, the first day of class in an online classroom is much different from that of a brick-and-mortar. For one thing, you have to talk to other people. Some brick-and-mortar classes do require a stand-up introduction, but most of them limit it to name, major, and why you’re in the class. (The answers to the last are usually: I have to.) In both classes, one of which is an introduction-to-being-online class, there was a mandatory introductory post. Some people kept it short, but others… let me just say that for once I didn’t feel like the long-winded buffoon I usually do in an online situation. Most other posts were roughly the same length as mine. My classmates include everything from an awesome karate guy who wants to teach self-defense, to a woman I’m guessing around my mother’s age who’s been in the military for fifteen years. With five kids.

People from all walks of life, for most of whom this definitely wasn’t their first university. I was glad to find out that there ARE other people out there who’ve attended others. One person had attended five — makes my three look pitiful, actually.

I had been so excited for classes to start that I had sort of read two chapters of one of my books (the online college introductory course). It turns out that my reading for that class is well up-to-date and I am actually finished with the work for the week. There are two large-ish assignments due next week, though, that I’m going to go ahead and work on — once I’m finished with this week’s work for the other class, of course.

The other class I’m taking is World Literature through the Renaissance. To tell you the truth even an English major like me has to use a convention to spell that word correctly. (I say REN-NAI-Dubba-SS-ANCE in my head.) This is the only class through January (the furthest out that I can register) that is sixteen weeks. The reading assignments for this week are “Gilgamesh,” the oldest written epic poem discovered to date, and cherry-picked pieces of Homer’s “Odyssey.” Each week, I am required to write a journal entry on a chosen topic (I have six different prompts to choose from), based on the reading.

And I think I’ll write again later today on my OB-GYN appointment and second sonogram, since that is why I am up a four o’clock in the morning writing this for ya’ll. =)

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.

The College Crisis and My Student Odyssey

Anyone who reads the news knows that on top of the Great Recession, there are ballooning costs of just about everything imaginable. This includes the price of a college education, which tends to be one of the few ways to make your way out of debt — or, as some point out, into it.

Recently, there have been two notable articles written on Yahoo! Finance, “Placing the Blame as Students are Buried in Debt” and “The Dangers of Paying for Your Kid’s College.” As a student caught up in the drama of student debt and ballooning college costs, allow me to illuminate some of the problems I’ve encountered over the years.

Colleges love students. They love to keep students. Unfortunately, there are often reasons students cannot continue their education at a particular institute. I stopped attending my first community college because I did not want to pay five grand a year to live on campus, nor the cost to commute the hour and fifteen minutes there. I lived at home with my parents and transferred to my local university in-city.

Then I became convinced that I could make it as a computer animator and moved out to a college where tuition alone was 18 grand a year. Warning bells should have gone off when I found out the school’s credits did not transfer, especially since I was young, naive, and knew I was prone to making decisions on a whim. But I went, I enjoyed, and for two quarters, prospered. Then I met my first ex, moved out of the student housing, and found out just how much it cost to live in Florida on a part-time Wal-Mart paycheck with a bum who didn’t work. I managed to still pass my classes with flying colors for another quarter before moving back home to save up to try again the next year.

Needless to say, I somehow managed to make several more mistakes involving finances, including trying to support two of my friends on top of my own financial woes. With 18 classes remaining (a year and a half worth of full-time classes, or 24 grand in tuition alone), I moved back home and went back to my local university. The bottom line of nontransferable credits? I only had two years of education to show for a whopping 42 grand of debt. That was as of 2008. So why am I still in school as of 2010, with a year remaining?

That’s where the college bureaucracy comes in. You see, in order to obtain a teaching certificate from this school, you must go through their program. In order to go through their program, you have to take concurrent classes at the same time, pass them all with a B or better, and still take your general educations courses, too. I had no problems with the B – my current GPA is a 3.6. I did, however, have trouble taking concurrent classes when they were not offered at the same time, or when they’re offered only at certain times of the year. So as of fall 08, I could not start the teacher education program at my local university until fall 09. So I waited and began taking just general education classes. I’d learned my lesson about dating and focus, too — I stayed out of the dating scene for a year and a half before even considering a date with my fiance.

After another series of unfortunate college bureaucracy issues in the fall and this past spring, however, I found myself once again with a full three years before I could obtain a teaching certificate. Incredibly frustrating, considering that the time I’d spent in school I could have obtained a Master’s degree and taught at the very school I was attending! And now I found out that I’m pregnant (surprise, surprise for the woman who was told she was barren).

So once again, I began seeking another school, hoping that I could find another route. I found it with American Public University Systems, which is both regionally and nationally accredited, meaning they accepted some of the credits I’d taken in Florida, along with the normal coursework I’d taken at the community college and the local university. With only a single year to obtain a BA in English, I transferred in. Hopefully this time next year, I will be telling you all about my intensive summer training to begin teaching in a public school.

So what does this all mean to you?

If you have kids, encourage them to get a job and set aside money for school. I’m talking enough to pay for tuition, fees, books, and room and board for at least a year. Start setting aside money for them, too, and explore your local community colleges first. They tend to be cheaper, the classes easier, and you can get the every-college-student-requirements courses out of the way first. College Algebra, English 1 and 2, that sort of thing. It also gives them a chance to think about what they’re going to do with their degree. Follow every conceivable avenue for free money – there’s a ton of it out there, believe it or not. Take advantage of the Pell Grant, and your state grants.

Start all this when they’re a JUNIOR in high school, or sooner.

If you are a student gearing up for college, please, please, please don’t make the same mistakes I did. Cherry-pick introductory courses if you don’t know what you want to do with a degree yet. Take the meteorology class, the anthropology, the studio art classes. Really study yourself, figure out what you’re good at. And if you know what you want to do, find the cheapest effective route. Community colleges are great because you leave with an associates degree, so even if you don’t finish that BA, you have something. Don’t let your relationships with others drive your decisions. Yeah, it’d be awesome to live with your boyfriend or even just your best friend, but if you don’t have the money to do it, don’t.

Government loans are there to supplement what you and your parents put into your education. Only take out what you need. Don’t try to live on loans, it never works and you’ll end up with a pile of debt you can’t hope to pay off. Private loans should only be a last resort. And DO NOT touch that credit card unless your life depends on it. Student debt, you can always get help on. Credit cards leech the life from you unless you only have about 20% of a balance and you pay it off every month. That’s called building credit. Maxing out all of your cards? Not so much.

So what if your parents are living paycheck to paycheck and they ask you to move out? Move into a two bedroom place with three other people and split the bills. Everyone needs to work and pull their fair share. Don’t use loans to pay for this stuff unless it’s absolutely necessary. A new pair of shoes every month is not a necessity. Neither is a new car that you pay on every month. Find an old car with good gas mileage and get in good with a decent mechanic. I’ve found that Geo Prizms from the early nineties are really good (about 28-36 mpg, easily repaired, low breakdown record). Being frugal now is what will allow you to have all those nice things later.