College Strategies

By Tim Isbell, 9/27/2012

Updated the financial parts, 4/27/2013

If you or someone you know is considering their college options, this web page is a good read. It is a pragmatic look at college options for under-resourced students living in west San Jose (California), though the thinking is adaptable to most any American college setting. 

First, we consider the financial trade-offs between 4 alternatives: spanning community colleges to public and private universities, and living at home to living away. Then we move on to several associated questions to help you sort through the options. I'm not an expert in this field. But we do have a team that coaches math among some under-resourced students from families with no university experience, modest employment options, and often limited familiarity with American culture. So I occasionally find myself trying to help a high school student think through options. This page is my advice.

At the bottom of this page is an invitation to give us some feedback; it's also a place for you to give some advice to prospective college students. Please join in the conversation.

Four college strategies

Our setting is west San Jose (California), where students can live at home and commute to several good community colleges, one California State University (San Jose State University), and a few private universities (such as Santa Clara University). We are not within easy commute range of a University of California campus (UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz are about an hour away).  

For a student to live away from home requires quite a bit of money for room/board. I know that it isn't really free to live at home, but the under-resourced families we work with often live in subsidized apartments so the added expense for a student to live at college is on the order of $10,000 per year. Also, depending on how far away the school is they will also incur travel expenses.

In the four strategies below I don't include books and fees, which depend on the school. For Santa Clara University, they run about $2,000 per year, though state schools should be much lower.   

Here's a summary of the real costs of tuition plus room & board for four options. The costs are "list prices." I'll address financial aid in the following section.

Strategy 1: 2 years at a community college + 2 years at a 4-year institution... $17,600 (living at home)

West San Jose students have several community college options; the nearest ones are DeAnza, Foothill, and West Valley. Tuition runs about $800/yr. Most of these have programs which, if successfully followed, assure students entry into the 3rd year of a California State University school. In some cases, assurance extends to the University of California system (including UC Berkeley). 

Community colleges do not require students to take college entrance tests, such as the ACT or SAT. And neither do students need these tests to transfer into a 4-year institution. The fact that they've successfully completed the first 2 years at the community college is enough.

Since a west San Jose student has access to good community colleges AND San Jose State University, they can live at home and commute through a full 4-year degree program. Here's the cost if they stay at home:

  • $1,600 for 2 years at DeAnza College
  • $16,000 for 2 years at San Jose State University
  • $17,600 Total

Most students want to live away for college, and this is what our local high schools encourage. There are many California State Universities, from San Diego State in the south to Humboldt State in the north. So, if a student can find an extra $10,000 per year - great. They can consider 2 years living at home and the last 2 years living at one of the California State Universities. This would cost about $37,600.

It's also possible to live at home and attend a community college for 2 years and then transfer into a private university. This is more expensive but, in some circumstances, is worth the expense.

Strategy 2: 4 years at a state university... $32,000 (living at home)

This option also assumes that the student lives at home and commutes all 4 years to San Jose State University, where tuition runs about $8,000 per year. To attend this same level of a 4-year university somewhere else in California adds about $10,000 per year in room and board for a total of $72,000.

Strategy 3: 4 years at a University of California system... $92,000 (living away from home)

UC is the highly regarded network of University of California schools (such as UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Davis, and so on). Tuition at UC schools is about $13,000 per year for a total of $52,000 for four years. The nearest UC schools are Berkeley and Santa Cruz; both are a bit too far to commute. So to live at these schools, a student needs an additional $40,000 over 4 years. So the total bill is about $92,000.

Strategy 4: Private University... $180,000 (living away from home)

The typical private university tuition is about $35,000 per year, plus $10,000 for room and board. So a 4-year education costs about $180,000. 

Private university tuition varies widely. So let's consider 2 real examples. At Santa Clara University (California) the tuition is about $40,000/year. This school is close enough for west San Jose students to easily commute from home, so the price for a four-year education is around $160,000.

For a second example, consider Point Loma Nazarene University (a private Christian university in San Diego, CA). PLNU tuition is about $28,000 per year, lower than most private schools. Add room & board at about $10,000 per year. Over four years this totals to $152,000. So in this case a student lives independently at a private university for less than commuting to Santa Clara University. The educations are comparable.

Private schools are obviously an expensive option - impossible for an under-resourced student unless they receive large scholarships and/or grants. Private universities usually have very good financial aid offices that can help students find all the grants and scholarships available. So this option can work for the highly motivated student who finds enough scholarships and grants, working with a first-class financial aid department at a private university. Anyway, it's worth a shot.

Paying for a university education

Grants and scholarships

These can significantly reduce the cost of the more expensive options down to about the level of 4 years at a California State University, plus room & board if needed. Getting good grades in high school, excelling on the college entrance exams, building a strong resume of other activities during the high school years, and aggressively seeking scholarships and grants are all important.

High School guidance counselors generally have lots of resources to help students find grants and scholarships. The Financial Aid offices of private universities know a LOT about how to find money. Here are some websites that will get you to the point where you are ready to talk with counselors and university financial aid offices: 

  • FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is the basic application that opens the door for most of the financial aid for under-resourced students. It is the form that determines how much a family should be able to contribute to their student's college education. And, it's the form that tells the financial aid people how much they will need to find in scholarships, grants, loans for the student to afford the rest.
  • Cal Grant is from the taxpayers of California. Usable at a wide range of universities, but only within the state.
  • Pell Grant is from the taxpayers of the United States. Usable at a wide range of universities within the United States.
  • Blue + Gold Opportunity Plan offers substantial additional support particularly for under-resourced students who get admitted to a University of California school.
  • Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) offers substantial additional support particularly for under-resourced students who get admitted to a Cal State school. 
  • And there are many other scholarships and grants available through the financial aid offices of the different schools. And there are other privately funded sources.

The bottom line is that if an under-resourced student gets accepted into a UC school, they can combine a Cal Grant, Pell Grant, the Blue + Gold Opportunity Plan, etc to finance their education without incurring too much debt. 

Similarly, if an under-resourced student gets accepted into a Cal State University school, they can combine a Cal Grant, Pell Grant, and the University Opportunity Program to finance their education without incurring too much debt.

I (Tim) benefited from financial aid to get a BS in Electrical Engineering in the 1960s. At the time, I had 2 options: commute to Toledo University (a state university in Toledo, Ohio) or attend Akron University (a similar state university across the state). Fortunately, Akron University gave me an academic scholarship that covered my tuition. So I lived away from home for about the same price as to live at home and commute. 

Three additional factors helped me graduate without college debt. My parents were able to help me cover living expenses during the first two years; I worked as much as possible during every school break (but treated my education as a full-time job during school). Secondly, Akron University operated a co-op program for engineering students. Co-op was a program where it took me 5 years to get a 4 year degree, but the university placed me in paid engineering jobs to get work experience for a full year (spread over the last 3 years I was in school). So when I graduated I had a 4-year degree plus 1 year of credible work experience. I'm not sure how many schools offer co-op programs today, or in what fields, but these are absolutely wonderful for under-resourced students! I suspect that paid internships are more common today. For STEM students, these can pay quite a bit. In any event, they sure beat working in a fast food restaurant (or as a dock worker at a trucking company, which was my side job during my first 2 years of college).

So, when you research schools, look for any kinds of available work-study programs.

Borrowing money

Since I was in school from 1964-69 the price of a college education has increased far faster than the rate of inflation. Unfortunately, today's under-resourced students almost certainly must borrow some money for college, even if they pursue the lowest cost option. Fortunately, borrowed money is available. But how much borrowing makes sense? My advice is: figure out how long it will reasonably take to pay off the debt after college while working in your chosen degree field. If you believe you can eliminate the debt within 5 years, it's a wise debt to take on. Ten years is probably acceptable. But if you conclude that you'd have to work in that field more than 10 years to pay off the price of its education - it's a bad debt (or a bad major). Consider one of the community college options. Each student must decide for himself/herself how long they are willing to work to pay for their particular degree.

Note that the debt problem grows quickly when a student changes majors, requires an extra year or two to graduate, or gets married (especially) to another student! And notice how difficult things become if the student chooses a field that has few career opportunities or which requires a graduate degree just to get started! If you're not passionate about your career direction when you graduation from high school, seriously consider experimenting at a community college where the cost per credit hour is much less than at a 4-year university. And the first two year quality of education is close to the same. Be wise when you choose a major and diligent when you pursue it.

Here are a couple of helpful tools. The first is an example of a repayment calculator to help you figure out how long it will take you to pay off your loans. The second is a link to PayScale, which helps you estimate expected salaries in certain careers for various geographic locations.  

Other considerations

Is it safe to "follow my heart" in choosing a degree field?

It is not safe for a student who is under-resourced to just "follow their heart" unless their heart longs for a career where prospects are strong and it's possible to gain entry with only an undergraduate degree. Well-resourced students can study things that require a graduate degree (such as a Masters degree) to get their first job, or study things that are interesting but don't have a clear or early path to a career. But under-resourced students need an undergraduate degree that gets them started in a field where they can "leverage up." For example, many undergraduate degrees that heavily use math and science enable you to get started in a high paying career. And many companies that employ these graduates will pay their tuition in graduate school part-time. This was true in each of the three technology companies I worked for as an electrical engineer (General Electric, National Semiconductor, Cadence Design Systems). I understand that it's also true in the medical profession for employers such as hospitals. But if these sorts of science and math intensive degrees are not for you, then you need to look even closer at the lower cost strategies.

What if I don't know what career to pursue?

Many students are in this situation. The first two years of college are pretty broad and you don't really need to commit to an exact major until near the end of the second year. If you feel it's likely that you'll end up in some segment of business, education, health care, or another field then go see a guidance counselor for help in tailoring your classes in the first two years.

Another wise strategy is to go to a community college where you can experiment in the first year or two without spending a lot of money (or incurring a lot of debt). Once you have a better idea of your direction you can transfer into a 4-year school, maybe even a private university, and have a better chance of maxing out the scholarships and grants.

Do private universities and the UC schools offer better academic education?

At the graduate school level: probably. But there's not much difference at the undergraduate level. A school like San Jose State University is plenty strong enough to get you into a career and/or into a good grad school. The process of getting an undergraduate degree from a UC or a private university may give you more connections into career fields, but not much better of a pure education. Save your money for grad school.

Why even consider a private university?

Private universities have smaller class sizes and closer relationships between students and faculty. This provides more opportunities for students than just sitting in class and doing the prescribed work. In many cases, private university professors are willing and more available to mentor students. And many professors have strong outside business connections which not only help them keep up with the best research in their field, but also enable them to introduce students to business opportunities and internships - during their school years. They also sometimes help students find that first job after graduation, and on into the future. Such faculty-student relationships are more common around private universities.

Private schools tend to have very strong financial aid departments that work hard to find money for under-resourced students who can do the academic work. On their websites, private schools almost always describe their costs and potential financial aid. For an example of this, take a look at this web page from Point Loma Nazarene University. Still, be sure to assess the debt you will have at graduation. That's a lot more important than how many dollars worth of scholarships and grants the private school can find for you. 

Some private universities have exceptional records of acceptance into specific careers. For example, Point Loma Nazarene University has an unusually strong record of getting students into medical school. If you are interested in a specific career path like medical or law, do some research to find private schools that particularly target your field. If your interest and aptitude are high, their financial aid department will work hard to help you find money. 

Most private universities exist to provide a particular sort of culture; it's how they differentiate themselves from the public schools. For example, there are many private Christian colleges with very strong academics and where the ambiance is built around Christian religious faith. At Christian private universities, especially, you will find professors who authentically love and pray for their students - which means a lot! Point Loma Nazarene University is one of these, with its roots deep into the Wesleyan Holiness Christian tradition. Santa Clara University is also a Christian school with roots deep into the Jesuit Catholic tradition. These environments are great for students wanting to further their faith experience as they progress through school, and for those who want a larger than average Christian dating pool, and for those who want to pursue a career in some sort of ministry. 

There is another advantage to the small class sizes and closer connection with professors: graduation rates are significantly higher. See the next section.

Are graduation rates different for private versus public universities?

Yes. Graduation rates are generally higher at private universities than at other colleges. The average private university graduation rate is 50%. For the two private schools I've referenced in this web page, the graduation rates are even higher. Santa Clara University is 78% and Point Loma Nazarene University is 64%. Compare these numbers to San Jose State University where the graduation rate is much lower. Among public universities, UC Berkeley's 70% is right at the top, but, in general, public university graduation rates are around 30%. While these differences are striking, they are not all due to the quality of the private university. The fact that a student (and their family) has so much money invested in their education motivates the student to stay on track.

Here are a couple of good articles from reputable sources regarding graduation rates: Kiplinger and the Washington Post.

The message is that if you're highly motivated to succeed and get your degree, you can get a good one at a school like San Jose State. But if you are not so motivated, it's much easier to fall off-track at the lower priced options. If you can get enough grants and scholarships to afford a more expensive public or private institution - do it! 

Can I actually graduate in 4 years?

Graduating in 4 years is a challenge for many students, and for various reasons that don't depend on the school. But one consideration that does depend on the school is whether or not a student can get into in the right mix of classes to actually graduate in 4 years. Many state schools are struggling with finances so they cannot offer enough classes of the right mix.  

A student's likelihood of graduating in 4 years has been higher in private institutions. However, this may not continue. Private schools have depended heavily on their financial aid departments' ability to get grants from both the state and federal governments, as well as from other sources. In the current economy, some of these government sources are drying up, which may impact private schools' ability to retain this advantage (and, for that matter, their smaller class sizes).

Note that there is an economic dimension to how long it takes you to finish your undergraduate degree. If a student can reasonably expect to graduate from a private school in 4 years, then the student gets into the workforce a year earlier and incurs fewer school expenses! So to some extent, at least, students can afford to spend more money for a private university education if they can really get through in 4 years.

What about the differences in dating pools?

This might sound like a silly item but it's actually important. Students often marry someone they meet during their university years. A solid and loving marriage is a huge factor in a fulfilling life and also in career success. So it is valid to factor this into your thinking. For example, it is okay to factor the demographic of the dating pool into your choice of a university. While many people today marry outside their own cultural or religious group, many also will find more dating options at a university with at least a "critical mass" of people in their religious and cultural group.


I received extremely valuable input for this web page from Pastor Jeffrey Purganan (also a part-time employee in Point Loma Nazarene University's Financial Aid department), and Karen Yang (a recent Pepperdine University graduate who is now in graduate school at Eden Theological Seminary in Washington University, St. Louis).