Creative, Budget-Conscious Alternatives To The Traditional Four-Year College Education

As student debt and tuition prices soar, many families are changing their approach to higher education.

Sending your child to a four-year college has, for many years, been part of the American Dream. But the dream isn’t as attainable as it once was. The debt burden that students have amassed in recent years, together with the inflated cost of a four-year education and a struggling economy, makes the prospect of a college education an uncertain one for many Westchester families.  

The federal government’s June 2014 report, Taking Action: Higher Education and Student Debt, points to the $1.1 trillion in student-loan debt that is currently burdening millions of Americans. The report also notes that nearly 3 million New York State residents are shouldering more than $73 million of that debt. 

As the crisis—and the debt—continue to grow, surpassing auto loans and credit-card debt nationwide, alternatives to the traditional four-year degree are being explored. They include two-year community colleges, which often provide students with a more viable route to their four-year school of choice; private schools that aim to better prepare students for the workplace; and newer initiatives that focus on entrepreneurial training and real work experience, all at a fraction of the cost of a typical four-year college education. 

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Community College

According to official Westchester County government figures, the median household income in the county is $79,585, which exceeds the median for the state and for the metropolitan area. Many families make more than that, which is why Yonkers resident Michaela Rodican, like many middle-class Westchester students, didn’t get the monetary aid she had hoped for when she applied to college last year. “I wouldn’t be the best candidate for financial aid and, with the price of college nowadays, I wasn’t able to afford a private college, even with the academic scholarships I received from the schools I applied to,” laments the 19-year-old. 

Rodican relied on the help of her guidance counselors at Yonkers High School and did a lot of the legwork herself, since her parents, who are immigrants from Ireland, were unfamiliar with the college-application process. She chose Westchester Community College because it’s affordable and it provides a logical transition to a four-year school and what she hopes will be a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science and, eventually, a master’s in Physical Therapy. 

WCC’s Vice President/Dean of Student Affairs Don Weigand says that, since the 2008 recession, the college has seen a demographic shift, with more students coming from Westchester’s middle-class communities. “People are taking a step back,” says Weigand. “If you’re not really sure what career path to explore, $5,000 versus $50,000 a year makes a great deal of economic sense.” 

The affordability of a community-college education is one reason why so many students choose to attend the more than 1,500 community colleges located across the country before taking the leap to a four-year school. 

That’s exactly what Fairfield County resident Byron Kittle chose to do when he entered Norwalk Community College a few years ago. In fact, Kittle, now a digital editor at this magazine, did so well at Norwalk Community College, he was able to transfer to Cornell University on a partial scholarship. 

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Kittle, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Communications, graduated from Cornell with honors and with only $10,000 in student-loan debt, “which is much, much lower than that of other students who are coming out of top-tier colleges,” he says.

In addition to preparing him for the transition to a four-year school, Kittle says, NCC offered him something much more valuable: The practical experience he gained at the school’s TV studio and in media writing classes taught him about communications as a viable trade, as opposed to some of the more research-based courses he took at Cornell. “The courses I took at NCC definitely complemented the more advanced classes I took at Cornell,” he says.

While WCC awards close to $40 million annually in financial assistance, its supportive environment—and teaching-focused rather than research-focused professors—are also a draw, says Patrick Hennessey, a spokesperson for the college. “Certainly, some of our professors research, write books, and speak at various conferences, but, at WCC, the college professors are here to actually teach,” Hennessey says.

For students who want to transfer to a reputable four-year school, hard work at a community college can pay off. Taking the required core courses and working his way up through the college level and more advanced classes was worth it for Kittle. As a result, Cornell offered him a “very generous financial-aid package,” along with the more than 70 credits he earned at NCC. 

Kittle refutes the notion that the community-college experience is unable to provide students with the same quality education or environment they might experience at a four-year school. “I reject the idea that every community college is a piece of cake,” he adds, referring to some of the difficult classes he took while at NCC. 

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His transition to Cornell was also positive. “My orientation leader at Cornell had also taken the community-college route, so people were familiar with the fact that students from alternative education backgrounds are just as capable of academic success,” Kittle explains. In addition, Cornell housed him in a dorm occupied by other transfer students, so making friends wasn’t difficult and there was no social stigma.

Taking the community-college route hasn’t hindered Rodican, either. “I don’t really feel like I’m missing out on the whole ‘college experience,’ because I have the same freedoms I would have if I had gone to a big college,” she explains. In addition, she says, being closer to home has helped her focus more on her schoolwork and having family close by is a plus, too.

Michaela Rodican (19) of Yonkers at Westchester Community College in Valhalla. Rodican is attending WCC with the intention of transferring to a larger four-year university.

Career Preparation

While the typical student at Berkeley College might be over 23, there are plenty of younger students in the mix as well, including Momo Bowman, who attends Berkeley’s White Plains campus, where he is in his second year. A Pennsylvania native, Bowman chose Berkeley because of the financial-aid package the school offered him—and its persistence in recruiting him. Bowman, 20, who is working toward a bachelor’s degree in International Business, says the professors at Berkeley are “motivators and want you to be better than you are today.” 

The school, with nine campuses across New Jersey and New York, offers bachelor’s, associate’s, and certificate programs. Vice President of Career Services Brian Maher says its most popular programs are in Criminal Justice, Fashion Marketing and Management, General Management, and Health-Services Administration. 

Maher explains that, in addition to taking the required core and major-related courses, students must also participate in career-management seminars, which include help with writing resumes and emails to potential employers, interviewing techniques, social-media etiquette, and other strategies needed for the job market.  

The college prides itself on giving students a competitive edge and the skills employers are looking for, such as the ability to communicate effectively and professionally on the job. “We are career-focused,” says Maher. “Our graduates leave Berkeley with the skills they need to be successful in today’s competitive marketplace.”  

A Training Ground for the Real World

While parents don’t often see an alternative to a four-year degree, many young entrepreneurs are already testing the waters. Isaac Morehouse, CEO of Kalamazoo, Michigan-based Praxis, an intensive 10-month program for students who want real-life career experience (not to be confused with technology-services firm Praxis, Inc.), has seen a decline in the value of a typical bachelor’s degree.

Many students, Morehouse notes, jump into college not really knowing what they want to do. So he established Praxis to give young entrepreneurial types real-world career experience together with an online curriculum that covers business; economics; entrepreneurship and life skills; history and culture; philosophy, logic, and ethics; and technology and digital skills. 

The program costs approximately $1,000 per month over a 12-month period, with participants receiving $1,200 a month in salary. (A payment of approximately $2,000 is required before the course begins.) Praxis, Morehouse says, offers a short-term, low-cost opportunity to students, providing them with more than just an internship. 

Praxis graduates also are expected to submit a portfolio project and acquire “hard skills” from public-speaking workshops, writing assignments with professional editors, resume workshops, and job-interview training. 

Luba Sydor, CEO of Person2Person LLC, a White Plains-based recruiting firm, sees a gap in college graduates’ written and oral communication skills, skills that are being sought by Westchester employers. While a college degree is important, she notes, the kind of real-world critical-thinking skills that companies like Praxis promote are more important to a graduate’s success.

“Managers expect workers to hit the ground running and come up to speed faster,” Sydor says. On the other hand, the importance of a college degree cannot be overlooked, says Donald Zinn of Exigent Search Partners, Inc., in Tarrytown. “Westchester companies are hiring knowledge workers,” he says. “This is not a factory town, and that degree still makes a big difference.” 

A New Kind of Apprenticeship

For students who are not interested in—or can’t afford to—attend college, national nonprofit Enstitute offers an alternative, says Kane Sarhan, one of its co-founders. Referring to participants of the program as “apprentices,” Sarhan says the students at Enstitute fall into five categories: gappers (high school graduates taking a gap year before pursuing college); DIYers (entrepreneurial types who love to make things); savers (those who postpone college to work and save money); refiners (college grads who are looking to sharpen their skills and gain experience;) and voyagers (high school students who want to go straight into the workforce). 

“We found that many employers, particularly in business, are having difficulty finding Millennials with skills that are applicable to the workforce,” explains Sarhan. “They may look good on paper, but, more often than not, they lack experience and the ability to adapt and learn quickly in new situations.” 

Sydor admits that Millennials are indeed a “whole different breed” in today’s workplace, but believes their ability to collaborate and work in teams will be to their advantage. “They also want to be in an environment where they make a difference and to get immediate feedback on how well they’re doing,” she says. 

Enstitute’s no-cost program gives students an opportunity to work for one to two years as paid, full-time apprentices at high-growth startups, small businesses, and corporations in New York City; Washington, DC; and St. Louis. 

Enstitute initially partnered with companies based in the technology, digital media, advertising, and nonprofit industries and is now working with biotechnology and life-science companies. Approximately 90 percent of its graduates have received full-time offers from their host companies, according to Sarhan.

“We’re putting a new spin on one of the oldest models in education—the apprenticeship,” says Sarhan. “With the rising cost of college and the increasing competitiveness of the job market, alternative routes will gain recognition as more practical and acceptable alternatives.”

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