Learn a trade
For many of us, college is a defining experience. It’s where we expand our thinking, make lifelong friends and learn how to live on our own.
It’s also where we get a leg up in launching our careers. College graduates have better access to full-time jobs, and the median annual earnings for full-time working adults ages 25–34 with a bachelor's degree is $46,900, compared with $30,000 for those with a high school diploma.
No wonder undergrad enrollment at U.S. universities is projected to swell from 17.7 million to 20.2 million by 2023. But college doesn’t always work as well as it could. In this sputtering economy, a college degree doesn’t guarantee a job. Critics complain that lower-level courses encourage the regurgitation of facts over true learning. And many students graduate with piles of crushing debt.
So we set out to find smart ways to improve students’ higher-ed experience -- to “hack” college, as tech-fluent types might say. We sought advice from admissions experts, young entrepreneurs, professors and institutions that are innovating how to measure academic achievement.
What we found was encouraging: exclusive scholarships and inexpensive credits; options beyond the four-year college treadmill such as apprenticeships and digital badging; even resources for planning classes more effectively and picking better roommates.
We also found new tools for choosing the right school, studying smarter and lowering the steep costs of a college education.
So here are 10 ideas for making college work more effectively for you. May we present the CNN 10: Hacking College.
Technology puts more information than ever at college applicants’ fingertips. But experts say the best advice for tackling the application process and getting into a top university is about as old-fashioned as it comes: Do your homework.
"You will actually improve your odds of admission if you're applying to a school for the right reasons," says college consultant Michele Hernandez.
That means doing research to find out schools' strengths, and also getting to know their weaknesses, says Hernandez, who was an assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College before starting a college counseling firm.
If a school is known for its cutting-edge science program, for example, a student with a humanities background actually might have a better shot at getting in, she says.
"You can only have so many computer scientists and engineers in a school," Hernandez says.
The nation's top universities get more selective every year, but that doesn't mean you're out of luck, says John Katzman, founder of The Princeton Review, Noodle Education and 2U. The total number of slots at top schools have increased, he says.
"Any one great school is wildly harder to get into than it used to be, but it's wildly easier than it used to be to get into one of the great schools," Katzman told an audience last year at a TEDx talk in Boston.
Katzman advises students to come up with a strong list of 14 colleges they'd want to attend rather than setting their sights on just one dream school.
"If you think about this process smart," he says, "you change the game."
But experts warn that there's a flip side to how simple it is to send out applications to a long list of colleges, particularly when using the Common Application, the online form that more than 500 schools use as part of their admissions process.
"There's something called being a ‘phantom’ applicant, where the school has never heard of you until you've submitted an application. That's a really dangerous place to be," says Mandee Heller Adler, founder of South Florida-based International College Counselors.
Visit college campuses, reach out to admissions officers and if a representative from the admissions office comes to your school, show up, says Adler, co-author of "From Public School to the Ivy League: How to Get into a Top School Without Top Dollar Resources."
Then tailor applications to show you know about the school, and why it's the right match for your skills and interests.
"Colleges are really concerned about fit ... because it's really easy to apply to a range of schools," Adler says. "I would want to go out of my way to make sure they know that I'm not just clicking the button."
How’s this for exclusive? In fall 2013, universities like Yale, Stanford, Harvard and Princeton all had an acceptance rate of less than 8%, according to U.S. News & World Report.
If you pick a college that’s amenable to your skills and talents, it’s easier to get in, but the application process is never a cakewalk. (See our hacking admissions entry for more on that.)
As college admissions get more competitive, parents are tapping outsourcers known as private admissions or education consultants to help their children along in the tedious application, scholarship and financial aid process.
Bay Area consultant Irena Smith helps students and their families navigate college selection, standardized test preparation, course selection, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities and essays.
“My primary emphasis in working with students is helping them develop critical thinking and writing skills,” Smith says. “All the test scores and AP classes in the world can't make up for a lack of curiosity and imagination, so I urge all my students to read, read, read.”
Parents and students might find these services advantageous because such consultants tend to have smaller caseloads than guidance counselors and are available after-hours and before senior year to get a jump-start on essays, etc., Smith says.
They should also have previous experience in college admissions, adds Smith, who worked in admissions at Stanford University for four years.
The cost of consultation services varies by provider but is dependent on the breadth of help given, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association. Single sessions can start at $125, while consultants might charge a flat fee for services throughout a student’s high school career. The cost can reach upward of $20,000, Smith says.
As with any service industry, there are self-styled counselors out to make a quick buck with essay rewrites and impossible admissions guarantees, according to the association, which along with the National Association for College Admission Counseling, has outlined ethical guidelines for consultants.
“An independent education consultant doesn’t get you admitted -- they help you to demonstrate why you deserve to be admitted,” the Independent Educational Consultants Association says in its brochure.
These organizations recommend skipping advisers who don’t have any formal admissions training, guarantee acceptance or scholarship money at a preferred school, accept “finder’s fees” from universities, offer to write or severely alter admissions essays and don’t include all fees in writing upfront, among other things.
In addition to admissions counselors, consultants geared toward financial aid continue to crop up as college costs rise. Even though the Office of Federal Student Aid recommends applicants fill out financial aid documents themselves, there seems to be a going market for assistance.
When outside help isn’t an option, there are also free online tools such as the U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center and the College Board’s Scholarship Search that make calculating costs and navigating parental and grant contributions easier to do on your own.
Yes, college has become insanely expensive. The average cost of a year at a private, four-year university is more than $40,000, and a record 40 million Americans now have at least one outstanding student loan.
Thankfully, there are also are a growing number of creative ways to bring college costs down.
Resourceful students can cobble together a full transcript of credits from a variety of less-expensive sources -- not just the college from which they graduate -- or enroll in flexible programs that let them graduate in less than four years.
The American Council on Education helps adults earn college credits through relevant life experiences such as apprenticeships, professional training and military service -- a process known as Prior Learning Assessment. To prove their proficiency, students must pass an exam or have their portfolio reviewed by a council-approved faculty member, then ask a university to accept their credits.
This month, the council announced an initiative, funded by a $1.8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to create a pool of low-cost or free general-education online courses in more than 20 subjects.
In turn, 40 colleges and universities have agreed to accept transfer credit for the courses and allow students to enroll with up to two years of credit toward a four-year degree.
"This generous investment will … promote a more flexible and cost-efficient way for more Americans to earn the high-quality postsecondary degrees and credentials needed in today's global economy," says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.
At the same time, more schools are embracing something called competency-based education, which allows students to advance toward college degrees in less than four years as they demonstrate mastery of subjects. By letting people learn skills at their own pace --regardless of traditional timetables -- these flexible programs can save students time and money.
Dan Fitch took advantage of such a program at the University of Wisconsin to complete 33 credits in a single three-month subscription period, saving an estimated $7,500 in tuition and about nine months’ time.
“I don’t even want to think about what that would cost me through another program,” Fitch says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this any other way. If I had to do it with normal online classes, this would take me more than five years.”
Then there are dual-enrollment programs, which let you earn college credit while still in high school. And classes from online providers such as Coursera can also yield transferrable college credits at a discount over on-campus courses.
“We’re all looking for new, lower-cost models,” says Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education.
She sees universities becoming increasingly open to new ways of helping students earning credits. “How students are learning is less important than are they learning?”
Sharing a dorm room with someone is a key part of the college experience, but incoming freshmen traditionally have had little say in choosing roommates.
Many universities paired roommates randomly for years in the belief that interacting with different types of people promoted students’ personal growth. Others sent incoming students a brief questionnaire (“Do you smoke? Are you a night owl or an early riser?”) and matched roommates based on a handful of responses.
But technology is changing all that. Colleges and students alike are increasingly turning to new digital tools that let freshmen-to-be scour online profiles to find better matches and select their own roommates.
“It’s very much in line with the rise of social media, especially Facebook,” says Robert Castellucci, co-founder and CEO of RoomSync, an app that helps students make their own living arrangements. “With social media, people expect more of a choice.”
The creators of Roomsurf, a similar service, got the idea to build the site after hearing stories about their friends’ horrible roommate experiences.
“One guy just sat in bed all day and night watching the Game Show Network,” says Dan Thibodeau, who co-founded Roomsurf with classmate Justin Gaither at the University of Miami. “The guy never left the room. His roommate had no privacy.”
Because most colleges allow students to request roommates mutually if they can identify each other, apps such as RoomSync, Roomsurf and Compatibility work by applying online-dating principles to roommate selection. After students fill out profiles and answer surveys about their study habits and lifestyles, the apps generate potential matches.
RoomSync now partners with housing offices at 60 universities, including the universities of Florida, Maryland and Wisconsin. Roomsurf’s 560,000 users find matches on their own, then submit roommate requests to the college they’ll be attending. It’s then up to the university to make the final call.
“Students like the idea of knowing who they’re going to room with before they arrive on campus,” says Mark D’Arienzo, a senior associate director of university housing at Northwestern University, which has used RoomSync for three years. “It makes them feel comfortable, and it makes the transition to college life easier.”
Research has shown a bad roommate can affect a student’s academic performance. More than 5% of undergraduates said roommate problems hampered their studies, according to a 2013 report by the American College Health Association. And a 2011 study by Michigan State University determined that roommate conflicts were a top reason why students drop out of school.
Northwestern’s D’Arienzo says apps like RoomSync have eased the burden on college housing offices to match compatible roommates and reduced the rate of room-transfer requests.
“We want to make the process transparent and let the technology do the work for you,” he says. “It’s worked well (so far). There’s been a real paradigm shift.”
Before ever taking a college tour or picking up an application, there’s something you can do to help cover the hefty price tag of an advanced degree: Work for a company that will pay you to learn.
We’re not talking about tuition-reimbursement programs for professionals looking to hone academic skills related to their job.
Instead, these are scholarships and grants available solely to a company’s employees (or dependents of employees) to study whatever floats their boat. And they’re offered by lots of big companies, including Walmart, Kroger, Chick-fil-A and UPS.
Chick-fil-A, for example, provides $1.6 million a year to help its employees attend the colleges of their choice, according to its website. Over the life of its grant program, the company says it has donated more than $30 million to help more than 30,000 employees go to college.
In June, Starbucks launched its College Achievement Plan, a partnership with Arizona State University that assists employees who want to earn bachelor’s degrees.
The company asked employees last year what incentives they needed aside from health care, equity in the company and other existing perks. Workers overwhelmingly said they wanted help finishing school, says spokeswoman Laurel Harper. She added that 70% of the Starbucks workforce are “aspiring students.”
“There are a lot of factors that are against not just our partners but (many of) those who are wanting to finish their education, so our goal with this program with ASU is to focus on completion,” Harper says.
The program isn’t a simple grant or scholarship. It requires that eligible employees take classes through ASU’s online program, which offers 40 academic majors. The company reimburses a percentage of tuition costs and provides financial counselors to help employees find other sources for the rest of the money.
Harper says Starbucks received a flood of interest after announcing the program, and 4,000 employees have applied so far. Those who take advantage of the program aren’t obligated to work for Starbucks after graduation.
But even if you don’t find an after-school job with a company that offers scholarships -- and if your parents don’t work for one -- it pays to look around.
The scholarship money available for undergraduates in the U.S. has surged from $2.7 billion in 2007-2008 to $6.2 billion in 2011-2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to Edvisors.com, which helps students search for merit aid.
Shanice Miller graduated from high school in 2007 with no savings and no clear way to pay for college. Thanks to her aggressive approach to earning scholarships, she had a degree in dental hygiene from the University of Maryland four years later -- and, she says, no student loans to repay.
“I didn’t have to pay anything. I ended up getting money back,” says Miller, who now works as a consultant helping students get scholarships.
Miller successfully applied for several merit, state and local scholarships that paid her entire bill and even sent her refund checks. The paperwork was daunting at first, but got easier with every new application, she says.
Many of us have marketable skills acquired outside the walls of traditional learning environments, or expertise that diplomas fail to convey.
Take the military veteran who learned to deploy technical software in high-stress situations; the high school student who learned to edit video in an afterschool program; the recent college graduate who learned coding fundamentals through online courses; the office admin with a proven ability to problem solve and work effectively with different departments.
How can they prove these skills to potential employers, or demonstrate their worth as more than words on a resume?
Some postsecondary institutions and other organizations are experimenting with digital badges — tools for identifying and validating skills and knowledge picked up in formal and informal settings.
Schools such as Purdue and Brigham Young University use badges to signify the completion of projects or mastery of social media platforms and software applications within a course. The Smithsonian Institution awards badges to K-12 students for exploring science outside the classroom. NASA partnered with educational gaming company Project Whitecard to award badges for exploring space through an online game. Employers and professional groups such as the Young Adult Library Services Association use them as part of professional development and continuing education programs.
Commonly compared to scouting badges or military stripes, digital badges work in different ways across institutions, says Connie Yowell with the MacArthur Foundation, which in 2011 funded 30 research and development projects related to digital badges.
“We’re trying to find ways to recognize the skills and capacities that students have that you can’t quite recognize with a grade,” Yowell says. “Badges can be granular and part of what we want to signal to the world is what someone knows and is able to do, and it’s not clear that a diploma is granular enough.”
Software giant Mozilla received funding to develop technical infrastructure that anyone can use to create their own badges. They could be icons displayed on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, or included in a digital version of your resume or personal website. Embedded metadata show where badges were earned, projects they’re connected to and pathways for continued learning.
Anyone can help build the network by experimenting with digital badges in their school or workplace through Mozilla’s open badge platform, says Sheryl Grant with MacArthur’s Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.
Each badge, when executed thoughtfully, creates a new learning pathway and helps build “trust networks” to make badges credible, she says.
Digital badges won’t replace traditional degrees, says Grant. What will change, then? Our resumes and systems of evaluating and credentialing.
“Digital badges add evidence to resumes, but they also force us to rethink what’s worth putting on there,” says Grant, who evaluated the MacArthur pilots for an August 2014 report, “What Counts As Learning: Open Digital Badges for New Opportunities.”
“Badges are just the icing on the cake for how to think about the different ways of organizing and structuring the delivery of credentials.”
As a college rugby player, Anthony Gonzales was shaking off a big hit he had taken, as rugby players are prone to do.
"I said I was fine," says Gonzales, who played at Arizona State, "until I lined up for the ball on the side with the other team."
And that, says Gonzales, was the beginning of FITguard, the product of a startup he co-founded while working on his master's degree at ASU.
FITGuard is a mouthpiece designed to warn athletes, and their coaches, when they've taken a blow to the head that may have caused a concussion, like the one Gonzales suffered that day.
Using the same kind of accelerometers and gyroscopes that measure movement and speed in many smartphones, the mouthpiece lights up with green, yellow or red lights when a player's head is hit. It also sends data via Bluetooth to a mobile app so coaches or medical professionals can see what happened.
"We're the brain's 'check engine' light," says Gonzales, who said the guard could also be used in sports like skiing and horseback riding, where head trauma might not be so obvious.
The concept of the college entrepreneur has become the stuff of legend in the startup age, with the origin stories of multibillion-dollar companies like Facebook and Snapchat set squarely in dorm rooms and even fraternity houses.
Increasingly, students like Gonzales are choosing "CEO" as a college job and making real money with their own businesses. He's one of five nominees for Entrepreneur magazine's College Entrepreneur of the Year, alongside the creators of products like an app that lets parents remotely monitor their children's temperature with a smartphone and a social networking site that links users working toward common goals.
Now 25, Gonzales returned to Arizona State for his MBA in 2013. That's when he started working in earnest on FITguard, balancing his studies with research and development, as well as forming a company, Force Impact Technologies.
He says he took advantage of the resources available to him at the university, and urges other students interested in getting an early start as entrepreneurs to do the same.
At Arizona State, that meant accessing the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, a program that provides funding, mentors and office space for student projects.
Gonzales completed his MBA work in May. He encourages college students who think they have a good idea to follow through, regardless of the special obstacles their age or circumstances may present.
"Don't be crushed down by everyone else's nay-saying. People are going to discourage you. You shouldn't let that be a deterrent."
So far, the approach seems to be working. His company has earned $50,000 in grants and another $150,000 in investor funding. Gonzales plans to augment that with a crowdfunding project next month and have FITGuard ready to ship late this year.
It’s hardly a secret that the price of new college textbooks has risen 82% in the last decade, forcing students to find cheaper alternatives or forego course materials altogether.
Rentals, buybacks and used textbooks are part of the solution, but they still involve textbooks from the three major publishers that control the market. Experts say the next disruptive force in the textbook market could cut out these “big three” altogether.
Instead of traditional bound textbooks, some schools and educators are assigning open textbooks, or digital course materials accessible online free of charge or at significantly cheaper rates. The idea was inspired by the open-source movement, which favors free software that’s available for anybody to use or modify.
The first decade of open-source textbooks was focused on creating content and getting it online under a Creative Commons license so anyone could use it as they wished. Now that the material is out there, the focus has shifted to encouraging schools to use open-source books on a widespread basis, says David Wiley, co-founder of Lumen Learning, which helps schools adopt open educational resources.
Some educators build their own course materials from scratch from articles and videos available on the Web. The most common open textbooks are developed by digital publishers that make them available to individuals and schools for free or comparably low prices.
OpenStax, one of those publishers, makes nine introductory level textbooks used by about 140,000 students at more than 850 institutions. OpenStax is funded by grants, which allow it to offer digital books that students can download and print for free. Students also have the option of requesting a hardcopy ($30 to $50) or an iBooks version for $4.99.
“Students really are looking for ways to get better access to high-quality learning materials,” says OpenStax creator Richard Baraniuk.
This year OpenStax launched partnerships with libraries at Virginia Tech, Ohio State, Auburn, the University of Oklahoma and UMass Amherst. The schools make the texts available for review to students so they can share them with professors and request them for their courses.
Boundless is another major open textbook publisher that offers intro-level textbooks in more than 20 subjects, from algebra to world history. Art history textbooks often retail for more than $100, for example, but Boundless sells its open-source versions for $20.
Like OpenStax, the Boundless platform allows educators to edit and customize material to suit their course needs.
After all, educators are the ones who choose course materials. And research shows they often make those decisions without cost in mind.
“We want educators to feel comfortable using Boundless because they’re the ones who set the agenda,” says Boundless creator Ariel Diaz. “They’re the ones who can help students drive down their costs.”
It's a simple fact of college and life: There are only so many hours in the day.
Between classes, work, family and fun, finding the time to study can be tough. But, if you want to do well and graduate, you'll have to hit the books.
There's a new wave of resources for students looking to make the most of their study time -- from apps that manage your schedule to techniques proven to boost long-term retention.
Let's start with the technological gizmos.
As we know, the Internet can cut both ways. It's hard to imagine life without it, but it can also be a major distraction.
To limit interruptions while you're studying, try an app like SelfControl, which allows you to block certain websites for a period of time. Your friends' Facebook status updates can wait.
For keeping track of your assignments, schedule and grades, use an app like iStudiezPro. It's your basic planner on steroids.
To connect with your peers, try StudyBlue, a crowd-source app that allows you to create and share study materials like flashcards.
The app covers everything from bartending to biology and includes a library of some 250 million entries. It can track your progress, helping you to hone in on what's hardest.
It's about "being prepared, so that when you do dedicate time to study, you have the right material," says StudyBlue CEO and founder Chris Klundt.
Even if you just have a few minutes, maybe waiting for a bus -- he says -- you can pull out the app and study. It's an idea that was echoed by Katherine Rawson, a professor of psychology at Kent State University. She says if she could give students a single piece of study advice, it would be to space out their learning.
Last year, Rawson co-authored a paper that looked at various study techniques.
Simply put: "The worst strategies are the ones students use the most and the best strategies are the ones they use the least," she says.
Cramming, re-reading and highlighting are not good for long-term retention, Rawson found, while using flashcards or other memory prompts can help cement whatever you're trying to learn.
As time is limited, she advocates those techniques that give students the most "bang for their buck." Speaking of which, study break is over! Go hit those books.
You know the college deal: Four years of schooling. A varied set of courses. Graduation. Job search.
But is that really the ONLY deal?
If you want to pursue a specific trade, there are other options, says Danine Tomlin.
Tomlin is executive director of the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative (AMTEC), a collaboration between members of the auto industry and more than three dozen community colleges in 18 states. The program is designed to train and improve students with an eye towards channeling them into manufacturing – and there are jobs available for those who fulfill the program’s requirements.
“The demand for a multi-skilled technician is needed in several of the trades,” she says.
It’s not just the heavy manufacturing epitomized by the auto business, either. Health care – a rapidly growing field, especially given the aging of the population and the need for improved services – has a number of businesses looking to [train and hire people] for such specialties as pharmacy technicians and elder care.
The food-and-beverage business needs people to oversee the making of products. The electrics, plumbing and climate-control industries all have a demand for well-trained workers. Many of these training programs are offered through community colleges, and some take just two years to complete.
In some ways these programs are throwbacks. Decades ago, established businesses and professionals would take on newcomers as apprentices, teaching them skills in classic on-the-job “earn and learn” arrangements. Though “apprenticeship” has a specific definition these days that includes requirements set by the U.S. Department of Labor, the model is still greatly successful in providing training and work for willing students.
Ironically, however, finding those students has been a challenge, says Tim McGhee, dean of the engineering technical division at Chattanooga State Community College in Tennessee. The college has a partnership with Volkswagen called the Volkswagen Academy, where students balance five semesters of academic training with four semesters of paid, on-the-job training, according to its website.
In a national environment that prizes the four-year baccalaureate degree, the idea of a trade school, community college or apprenticeship has been a hard sell, McGhee says.
“That’s an embedded stigma in this country and we’ll always be fighting that,” he says.
Nevertheless, the training is tremendously flexible, he says. The Volkswagen Academy’s “automation mechatronics” training, which combines electrical and mechanical skills, “would transfer to 99% of any manufacturing plant in this country,” says McGhee.
“At the end of the day, you’re going to have pumps, dials, motors, controls, electronics, automation that has to be maintained, repaired and programmed, and these folks can do that anywhere.”
Like the four-year university setting, apprenticeships and community colleges aren’t for everybody. It helps to have a specific career goal, and applicants often have to be willing to start working right away.
But if you’ve got that focus, it might be the way to go.
“Most of my friends don’t have a clue about their futures,” says one AMTEC student. “I do.”