How I Earned A Bachelor’s Degree For Under $13,000

I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2011, 7 years after I took my first college course.  I was fortunate enough that my parents paid for all of my college costs that were not covered by scholarships. The total net dollar cost for my college expenses was $12,782, far less than the $80,000 to $100,000 sticker price we often hear quoted for the cost of a four year degree. I couldn’t imagine paying $90,000 in college expenses for my 4 boys, that adds up to $360,000!  Thankfully several of the methods I used to save money on college expenses are still available and are not prohibitively difficult to pursue.

Earning My Associate’s Degree:

The first college course I took was through my high school’s dual enrollment program.  The high school covered the cost of the course and I took 1 college course instead of 2 high school classes in the second half of my senior year.  This saved a couple hundred bucks right off the bat.

During the time I was in high school Michigan had a scholarship program where any student who passed all three sections of the MEAP test with a satisfactory rating would receive a $2,500 scholarship.  I earned this scholarship and started taking courses at my community college.  The scholarship was payable for two years at $1,250 per year.  I started taking courses in the year I graduated high school to get ahead on my degree program.  From May of 2004 when I graduated until March of 2005 I lived at my parents house, which eliminated room and board. I also worked between 25 and 40 hours a week at KFC during this time period, which covered any incidental expenses I had.

I moved in to an apartment with my girlfriend and her son in March of 2005 and I continued at community college until the summer of 2006 when I graduated with my associate’s degree. The total cost for my associate’s degree after the scholarship, dual enrollment payment, CLEP exam savings, and tax credit was $3,102.50, including books. I had to estimate my book cost because I did not keep records of what I paid for books.  I would always sell my books at the end of the semester on and would try to buy my books used from there as well. There were many semesters where I was able to get enough from the previous semesters books to pay for the current semesters books. If anything $1,000 could be on the high side for the total cost of the approximately 20 courses I needed to earn my Associate’s degree.

College Costs


Taking A Break:

In the fall of 2006 I was burned out. I had been working full time hours, going to school full time, and raising a kid for the past 18 months.  When the fall came we had just bought a house and I had a chance to go back to work at the nuclear plant for a much longer duration than my first outage job.  I skipped going back to school for the entire year, then in the summer 2007 I took the one pre-requisite course that Siena Heights University required to start their bachelors’ degree program. Siena Heights University offered degree completion through their satellite campus in Benton Harbor, MI and this was the lowest cost and most convenient route for me to take to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Going For My Bachelor’s Degree:

I started taking course through Siena Heights in the summer of 2008 and their tuition and fee cost was around 3X the cost of Lake Michigan College. Once again, my parents covered my college expenses. At this point in time I was still working nuclear plant outages and Mrs. C. and I had been homeowners for two years. A year into going back to school our son was born, taking us to two kids total.

While working towards my bachelor’s degree I wasn’t nearly as focused on reducing college costs as I had been in the past (or would be now). My parents weren’t too worried about the costs, they just wanted me to finish my degree. They were in a strong financial position, my sister had long been done with school, and I think stretching out my college education made it easier for them to cash flow it as well.  I took the tax credits that were available and at the end of my tenure I took a CLEP exam in order to graduate in 2011, otherwise I would have had to take two more courses and with an extremely busy outage season coming up, it would have taken me another year to earn those credits without CLEP.

College Costs 2


Breakdown Of The Savings:

The total cost for a 4 year undergrad degree from Western Michigan University while staying in a double occupancy dorm and having a silver level meal plan is $85,245.  I arrived at this number using WMU’s Cost Estimator tool.  This does not include books, which I have found estimates of $1,200 to be the average costs per year.  This brings the total of a four year in state degree to $90,000.

Room and Board: I never lived at college. I spent 1 year living at home with my parents, then I moved out and started my adult life. I rented for 18 months, then Mrs. C. and I bought our first home.  Half the cost of going to college is room and board. I chose to not have college be the main activity in my life, and thus what I paid in housing shouldn’t count towards room and board.  Even though it took me 7 years total to graduate, I will only count my savings against 4 years of school: Total Savings $2,382 per semester for a double occupancy room X 8 semesters equals $19,058. I also saved a ton of money by eating normal groceries and left over KFC food. A normal silver meal plan at WMU costs $2,123 a semester, that’s another $17,000 in cost over 4 years. During that time period for a family of 3 it was rare for our grocery bill to be over $150 for 2 weeks, or $300 for a month, that puts my food cost at $100 per month, or around $400 for a semester.  my savings of $1,700 per semester in food adds up to $13,600 for a total room and board savings of $32,658. I did not count my food costs into my college expenses because I was going to eat anyways and my cost of food was not inflated by having to live in a dorm room.

Community College: Going to community college usually mean you will be saving on room and board costs by staying with parents. Community college also costs 2 -3 times less per credit hour than in state 4 year schools. Currently Lake Michigan College charges $138 to Western Michigan Universities $349 per credit hour. 60 credit hours adds up to a savings of $12,660

CLEP Exam: CLEP exams are incredibly inexpensive at around $100 a pop, plus $15 to $20 if you choose to purchase a study guide.  CLEP exams can vary from 3 credits to 12 credits. Always look into how many CLEP exams your school will accept, as well as how many any school you transfer to will accept.  Different schools also offer different credit amounts for different tests.  I took two CLEP exam at $100 a piece. The first one was at community college and was worth 3 credits, saving me around $200. The second CLEP exam I took was at Siena Heights University and was worth 6 credits, saving me $2,165! Combined I saved around $2,365 by taking CLEP exams.

Scholarships: I earned the MEAP scholarship worth $1,250 per year for two years ($2,500 Total). I also earned a $2,500 transfer scholarship, but failed to cash it in, leaving my total realized scholarship savings at $2,500.

Tax Credits: The tax credits make a big difference. The total saved between tax credits and deduction was $6,544. This was a combination of the Hope Tax Credit/American Opportunity Tax Credit and the tuition and fees deduction. During my time in college the American Opportunity tax credit was expanded, so the average student can now save up to $10,000 using it over 4 tax years.

Books: I just came across this article stating that the average cost for books per year for students is $1,200.  I spent an estimated $500 per year by buying used books and selling my books each semester. I also would occasionally buy an older edition of the book required to get by.  There were times when edition 9 cost $6 and edition 10, which was required cost $120. The subtle differences between the two was rarely an issue.  I didn’t keep accurate records of what I spent on books, but my estimates put my total savings at around $2,800.

Opportunity Cost: I worked full time while going to school and scheduled the course I needed to take around my work schedule. This meant taking a lot of summer courses and night courses, and stretching out my degree for a few years. This kept my opportunity costs down substantially.  Going to school did not prohibit me from buying a house or starting my career.

When adding everything up, my total savings adds up to $59,527. The $17,000 difference in my savings and what I paid for college against the current cost of a 4 year degree at WMU can be attributed to adding back in the food cost I didn’t count in my college costs and the differences in rates between 2004 – 2011 and current rates.  Western Michigan University also charges a few large one time fees and has a slightly higher contact hour fee than Siena Heights University.

What Could I Have Done Better:

Scholarships: When I was in high school I didn’t apply for any scholarships besides the MEAP scholarship, which was given to anyone who passed the test.  I am a fairly decent writer and during my time in high school I was capable of generating quality essays in a short amount of time.  I have no doubt that if I had applied myself I could have earned a few scholarships.

I actually received a $2,500 transfer scholarship to Western Michigan University when I graduated from LMC.  This scholarship was for students who achieved a certain GPA, I believe 3.5 or higher.  Unfortunately this was a use it or lose it deal and since I did not go to school in the fall of 2006 I lost this scholarship.  Had I gone that year my total college costs would have been just over $10,000.

CLEP Exams: I only took two CLEP exams and I had no idea while I was going to school just how beneficial these could be.  The second CLEP exam I took was worth 6 credits and only cost $100 to take, compared to the tuition and fees I was being charged at the time of $377.50 per credit hour.  This one test saved me  $2,165! I had no idea that I could have substituted my elective classes with CLEP exams, and the university would accept up to 36 CLEP credits total. Taking a couple more CLEP exams could have saved me another couple thousand dollars.

Tax Credits: The Hope Scholarship Tax Credit was originally only available for two years. I took it in 2006 and for 2008 I decided it was better to take the tuition and fees deduction, because in 2009 I would have higher college costs. Congress renamed the tax credit the American Opportunity Tax Credit and expanded the credit in 2009 to cover 4 years instead of 2 years. I then took the credit in 2009 and 2010. By looking over my numbers now I could have taken the credit in 2008 or in 2011 and cut my total expenses by another $2,000. With the American Opportunity Tax Credit and taking a few CLEP exams it is possible to earn an Associate’s degree for free.

Financial Aid: I would not have qualified for financial aid based on my parents income when I started going to college. At age 24 or upon getting married students are no longer considered dependents and thus parental income does not get taken into the equation for financial aid.  I turned 24 in 2010 which means for the Fall of 2010 and all of 2011 I would have qualified as an independent student.  Actually, Mrs. C. and I got married in the summer of 2009, so I would have qualified as an independent student at that point in time.   We could have (and should have) gotten married years prior to this.   Based on our 2009 situation we would have received around $1,200 per year in pell grants according to this calculator, savings us another $3,600 over three years.


I graduated from college debt free in 2011. I am very thankful that my parents were able to and chose to pay for my college expenses. I hope plan to be able to do the same for my kids.  Although some of the ways I saved money on college don’t exist anymore (MEAP scholarship) there are other new options to save money on college expenses that didn’t exist when I was going.  Textbook rental services exist that can drastically reduce the price of books, tax credits have been expanded, and there are more promise zones.  The school my kids go to falls within a promise zone, which means that all tuition and fees for the first two years at community college in excess of pell grants they receive will be covered by the promise zone.

 How much did your college experience cost?  What other options have you taken to save money when going to school?

John C. started Action Economics in 2013 as a way to gain more knowledge on personal financial planning and to share that knowledge with others. Action Economics focuses on paying off the house, reducing taxes, and building wealth. John is the author of the book For My Children's Children: A Practical Guide For Building Generational Wealth.

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