Ten years after graduating with a degree in journalism and English, I headed back to the classroom to pursue my dream degree in music education/piano. No longer was I a footloose 18-year-old living on campus striving for a mere B average while balancing marching band, the school newspaper, card games and — oh yeah — classes.
This time, the juggling act was much tougher. Since this trip through college was on my dime via savings, loans and credit cards, I wanted As. I also decided it was best for me to keep my journalism job — fortunately, my employer allowed me to stay on part time. Still, that meant I had to balance work, study, a husband, two small children and an hour commute.
Luck played a role in my success. First, I acquired the best adviser ever, Dr. G., who provided valuable guidance from the day I applied until I finally finished. Second, my first degree was from a respected school so all my credits transferred. Finally, my husband supported my decision and picked up the slack on the home front. My advice: Make sure you get a good adviser. If you’re taking community college classes, ensure that your planned four-year school accepts the credits. Enlist family support.
To be sure, I made some mistakes along the way. I stuck with a bad piano teacher for too long, kept a heavy volunteer load that I should have ditched and ended up in one course that was too easy and thus, a waste of precious time. But I give myself partial credit for learning from my bad decisions and full credit for making some good choices.
Good Decision No. 1: Opting out of honors
I was eligible for my university’s prestigious honors program, but chose not to enroll. The honors program required extra seminars each semester, meaning I’d pay more tuition and take longer to finish my degree. If I had been a traditional undergrad, I would have tried to fit the honors program into my schedule to get that “with honors” designation on my diploma. But since my goal was to get through school as quickly and cheaply as possible, I skipped the honors to save money and was content with my cum laude status.
My advice: Weigh the price of status designations against your goals.
Good Decision No. 2: Mapping my coursework
After my first semester, Dr. G and I mapped out every semester based on what classes I needed to graduate, when I’d be ready for those courses, and what days those courses were offered. The goal was to go part time and graduate in five years. To save commuting time and money, I also limited my classes each semester to either Tuesday-Thursday or Monday-Wednesday-Friday. My fourth year, I took all my Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes and even enrolled full-time at 12 hours one semester to save money and avoid a third semester of three days a week. But although I could have bumped up to 15 or 18 hours without paying additional tuition, I accepted my limits.
My advice: Make a plan for every semester from beginning, to cap and gown. If you can take 15 hours or 18 hours for the same amount of money as 12 hours, seriously consider it — but don’t kill yourself.
Good Decision No. 3: Test driving my new career
I started working in my field well before graduation. My degree is to teach music in the classroom, but after my first year I tried private piano teaching. I loved the kids, worked well teaching one-on-one and enjoyed the flexibility. On the other hand, I decided against student teaching — essentially an unpaid internship while paying full-time tuition. Skipping student teaching saved me time, tuition, daycare costs, gas and stress. I knew I could always teach two years with a provisional license if the classroom beckoned.
My advice: Get experience in your field while you have time to change majors or goals if you realize your choice doesn’t work. Although it worked for me, think carefully before deciding against an internship.
Good Decision No 4: Keeping a well-paying day job
While in many cases it’s a good idea to stop working while in school so you can take more classes and graduate sooner, I kept my job for three years. My part-time day gig with Associated Press gave me the option to return full time, and I earned $21 an hour ($34.35 in 2014 dollars). I eventually did quit AP as my piano studio continued to grow. While I might have graduated a little earlier by taking more courses and working less, the music courses I needed were sequential so I could double up only so much.
My advice: Run the numbers. If your job pays well and you have seniority, consider keeping it. If your job pays minimum wage, you might be better off borrowing more money and graduating earlier.
Good Decision No. 5: Making my finances work for me
We used about $10,000 in savings, borrowed $10,000, used our credit cards more and delayed buying our step-up house. On day-to-day expenses, I brown-bagged lunches for school and cooked in bulk so I could rely on frozen leftovers instead of takeout. We weren’t crushed by either debt or stress.
My advice: Remember the money you’re borrowing now is money you’ll pay back later so don’t go wild on restaurant meals and other expenses while in school.
Finally, be prepared for setbacks. I was on track to graduate in the spring semester of my fifth year but the piano faculty decided I hadn’t mastered the music on my recital program. All along I had feared failure and finally, it happened.
I practiced all summer and performed my recital in September to the cheers of my second piano teacher, my adviser and my former boss at the AP. I donned cap and gown the next spring, added more piano students and savored my success. Then, I started paying back those loans.