APU Careers & Learning Everyday Scholar Online Learning Podcast

Reducing College Debt: Tips for Students and Parents

Podcast featuring Dr. Aikyna FinchFaculty Training Developer, Center for Teaching & Learning and
Dr. Ouida McAfee, author and student advocate

Earning a college degree can be expensive, but there are ways to reduce the cost. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Aikyna Finch talks to author Dr. Ouida McAfee about unique and easy ways to minimize the cost of a degree. Hear tips such as creating an academic plan by studying the academic catalog, testing out of courses, maximizing transfer credits, and taking advantage of university services. Also hear strategies for military students, transfer students, and students with disabilities.

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Dr. Aikyna Finch: Greetings, greetings, greetings everyone. I am Dr. Aikyna Finch, and I would love to welcome you to the podcast. Today, we are talking about destroying college debt, with Dr. Ouida McAfee. Dr. Ouida McAfee is a higher education professional and student advocate. She has authored four books to guide students along their learning journey. Her work focuses on helping students graduate from college, looking beyond academic success to a more holistic picture, and incorporating finances and special needs access into her approach. Welcome, Dr. McAfee.

Dr. Ouida McAfee: Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Finch.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: So tell us about your passion for destroying college debt.

Dr. Ouida McAfee: Well, having been in higher ed for so many years, I tend to see students go through the same challenges, over and over again. And so, I wanted to make an impact on the lives of students because when students go through college, it’s their life. It is their life.

And so I wrote a book called “Destroying College Debt,” and it’s actually for parents “The Working Parents’ Guide to Easy & Unique Ways for Children to Graduate Faster,” because students need guidance. It doesn’t just stop or end at high school. I know some parents are referred to as helicopter parents, and I say that parents should be hovercraft parents because students need their guidance. So, I do have a passion for helping students to graduate and to graduate with the least amount of debt as possible.

If they have to incur debt, I want them to have the least amount of debt as possible so that they can have a good start. So yes, it is my passion. It’s my passion for my son, as well as my nephews, my godson, and everyone that I know. I know that it can be done. Students can do it—that is graduate from college with little to no debt—by finishing college in four years or less.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Wonderful. So, tell us some of the ways that they could use your book to help them in their steps.

Dr. Ouida McAfee: Okay. My cover says, or my title says, “Easy & Unique Ways,” it’s ways that people necessarily wouldn’t think of because when you think of debt and finishing college, you automatically think of scholarships. And so that is not necessarily my focus. I want to help to educate the parents and students on how they can, or just tips in ways that they can actually finish faster.

And so one way is, the book talks about different terms. For example, I always say that you should ask your student, once they graduate from high school and they’re accepted into college, “When are you going to graduate?” And then listen for that response. When are you going to graduate? And see if they tell you the year, and if they tell you the year, ask them the month, ask them, “Are you going to graduate in May or does your school graduate in December?” So just start asking questions. That is the first thing. When you start with the end in mind, that’ll help you to set a goal.

So, when I talk about terms in the book, a degree plan, some students aren’t familiar with a degree plan. Where do you find the degree plan? And this is my best tip that I’m about to give you: All parents and students should be able to find the academic catalog on the website of the college or university they’re going to attend.

And then you will find your degree plan. You’ll look up your major and you’ll see what’s required to graduate. I hear people say “smart” all the time. Going to college to me has nothing to do with being smart. It has all to do with meeting the requirements of graduation. So when you’re in your classes, yes, you can learn and you can graduate in four years or less. Right now, the average college student is graduating in six years, and you don’t have to do that. The longer you stay in college, the more money you’ll spend.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Wow. The longer you stay in college, the more you’ll spend. So I guess that would assume that there should be a plan in place to make sure that you stay in in the allotted amount of time. Can you speak to us about that?

Dr. Ouida McAfee: That’s a great question because my book talks about tools that you can use, like CLEP exams. You can actually test out of certain classes. So again, you go to your college website or university that you’re going to attend, and you search for CLEP, C-L-E-P. And that is a college exam that you can take. And once you search for that on your college or university website, it’ll tell you which classes that you can actually test out of.

And so that exam is usually no more than $100. And it takes, on average, 120 credit hours to graduate from college. I’m do just a little bit of math here. So, if you’re taking 15 credit hours, which is usually five courses, because most courses are about three hours, three credit hours. So if you’re taking 15 college credit hours per semester, and you have two semesters in a year, and you multiply that, in the four years, you should graduate, you’ll have 120 credit hours because you’re taking 15 credit hours.

Now, if you’re an athlete, I do not recommend, I talk about this in my book, I do not recommend that you take over 12 credit hours per semester. And if you fall behind, and when I say fall behind, if you happen to fail a course, or if the course that you need is not offered that semester, you can go to summer school.

So again, it’s just a change in mindset. Do not think because you weren’t successful in one course that that’s going to end your college career, because it’s not. And don’t think that you won’t finish in four years because you can, you can go to summer school. Many students are taking college credit courses while they are in high school. And that’s great, but what’s happening is that some students are not reporting that to the college or university that they’re attending. And they end up repeating courses they do not need. And this is requiring them to stay in college longer. And, again, the longer you stay, the more you will spend.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Alrighty. So some of the tips: Reporting what you’ve already taken, paying attention to the catalog and making sure that you haven’t missed anything, or that you have a plan to go around. So, let’s say, your Plan A didn’t work so you have a Plan B.

And then, of course, I think the biggest one was just having that piece that says, “Okay, if I fall off track, I can get back up.” So, what would you say to someone who fell off track and left, but it’s still been spinning around in their heads, spinning around in their heads that they need to go back, they want to finish? So, let’s talk to them about how they would destroy their college debt.

Dr. Ouida McAfee: Excellent, excellent, Dr. Finch. Most or many of students who are in college right now are students who have left college and returned. And so, because that’s the case, students can sometimes get frustrated. And I totally understand that, I get it. What I want those students to know is that they have more options now than they ever had before.

You can find a school, for example, if you’re in the military, you’ve been in the military, you started and you’ve got credits from, and I can speak to this because my son is in the Army Reserve, and I recommend strongly for students to consider serving in the military while they are in college. But, I say this, he has credit hours from different colleges at different places. And so what we do is we look at that catalog and then we find the college, he picks out the colleges he wants to attend, and then we look at them to see which ones will accept credit hours.

So this part is crucial for students to know. You need to apply to at least three colleges or universities. And this is rather you’re a transfer student starting again, or a freshman right out of high school, you need to apply to at least three different colleges. And you need to look at what they say about their transfer credit.

So military students need to look at military friendly schools. Meaning, are they going to accept your ACE credits? And all of that is in your catalog. And so that’s why I keep referring to the academic catalog, it’s just crucial to look up this information in the academic catalog.

But I say that transfer students have so many options now because, of course, we have online schools. And so, some of the online schools are a great fit. It was a great fit for me, I got my Ph.D. online. And so, some students, there are various reasons as to why they are having challenges returning back to school, but online offers an option.

And, as I said, there are many different colleges and universities—private, public—that offer a curriculum that is friendly to transfer students. The key, the key, please remember this: Is to apply early and to transfer all of your transcripts, and to get that evaluation. That’s why you want to apply early because you want to make sure that your transcripts are fully evaluated to see what courses are going to transfer.

And transferring is a big deal, it is a really big deal because after you see that you’re going to get credit for your courses, then you want to go in and make sure that those courses that you are receiving credit for actually are going towards graduation. So, I have a Facebook group Working Class Parents Paying for College, and now in fact, I’ve got lots of good tips on there like that, about transfer students. And so you can always find me at @College 4Pay on Facebook

Dr. Aikyna Finch: And I would like to see if you have any tips for people with any other backgrounds.

Dr. Ouida McAfee: Okay, so we talked about military, we talked about high school, we talked about, as you said, transfer students. Well, let’s talk about students with disabilities. One of the four books that you mentioned that I have written is called Access, and it’s also a parent’s guide. And it’s for disabled children, children with special needs, who want to finish college.

And there are a wealth of resources online, and there are wealth of resources that colleges and universities will provide. But here is the key to my students with disabilities. Here’s the key for you. You must go to the Office of Disability and report that you have a disability, or no one knows. And then talk about the accommodations that you’ll need. The good thing out helping everyone is that when you help someone, it always spills over into someone else.

For example, Immersive Reader, that’s offered by Microsoft, it’s in Office 365. Immersive Reader is for a student who has different disabilities. Immersive Reader can be for any student. It reads to you, it translates languages for you. So I encourage all of my students who have disabilities to contact the Office of Disability, to visit the campus to see how the terrain will be for you. And that’s a group that I think sometimes gets left out of the discussion, but you are welcome on college and university campuses.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Now, what are some of the ways that the transfer student, the new college student, the student with disabilities, what are some of the ways that they can look for different ways to squash their college debt, as we say? Are there any websites they need to go to? Are there any places that they need to look that’s hidden? Tell us more about that.

Dr. Ouida McAfee: Sure. Great question. And this is the route that I’m looking. This is one of those easy and unique ways is again, I’m going to always go back to the academic catalog, is to start with the end in mind. As I said earlier, with the degree plan, you’re going to have to do some communicating. And this is where parents may need to give a gentle push to their student to communicate, with their chairs, with their professors, and ask the question, “I see that this course is listed as a prerequisite. What does that mean?” Well, that means that you have to take this course before you can take another course. Okay, well, what happens Dr. Finch, as you and I know sometimes, is that these courses that are prerequisites, before you can go onto the next course, are not offered every semester. And students don’t know that.

And sometimes, if the average cost of a public tuition to attend for a year is $20,000, well, if a student does not know that they have to take this class in a certain order, or that it’s only offered in the spring semester and not the fall semester, that can cause them to stay an extra year.

So communication is key with the campus. When I talk about mindset and meeting the requirements to graduate, students need to think of themselves as, “It’s great, I got accepted. I’m so happy to be here,” also think of themselves as a consumer because you are paying. Even if you get a scholarship, someone is paying. There is a cost to attending college. And so, students can help themselves to lessen their debt by utilizing the services that they’ve already paid for in their tuition. Using career services, career services can help them to do an internship, or when we get up and going again, study abroad programs. And they can often then receive college credit for that.

So they can get those experiences and graduate, and perhaps come out with a job where they have interned, that they used to go through career services. There are several support services that students do not utilize. And I’m not sure if they think it’s because there’s an extra cost, there’s a stigma.

Listen, if you haven’t set foot into a counseling office these days, I think some parents would be shocked because there is aromatherapy, there is massage therapy, there is so much to help the student with anxiety and other issues. Now, there are Title IX offices, so if you’re worried about your child and they’re adjusting, these are things that you can talk to them about. But also help alleviate their fears by saying, “Hey, something happens, there’s an office there that you can go to.” So these are things that will, and I’m talking about communication and educating yourself through the academic catalog, and the resources on campus, that will help you to actually save money.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: You have a very interesting approach. When most people think about destroying college debt, they think about, “Oh, I can go to this plan and I can get that money, and I can do that money.” Well, you are here talking about the holistic person. If the person is depressed, that can affect the money. If the person is giving up, that can affect the money. If the person is not on their plan with their prerequisites, that can affect the money. And so I love this path that we’re going on. So if you could put this path in a nice, neat bow, please do so now.

Dr. Ouida McAfee: Parents and students, please work together to finish your academic goals. It involves the entire family, going through college involves the entire family. So I would encourage you, as parents and students, to see this as a collaborative effort, to see it even as a business venture. You are investing in one another because when one wins in the family, then we all win as a community. So I encourage parents and students to work together on their college career.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Wonderful, Dr. McAfee. And as we close out today, is there a nugget that we missed that the audience needs to know about?

Dr. Ouida McAfee: Good question. I would say the nugget is, and this is extremely important to me, again, I’m going to repeat what I said at the very beginning, if there’s any doubt in your mind as to whether or not you can finish college, there’s a doubt that your student can finish college, first of all, ask them, “Do you want to go to college?” It needs to be their dream. And if they do, and they have been accepted into college, then it is a parent’s job to continue to tell that student, “You can do this. This is where you belong because you have been accepted. You have been accepted because you have met the requirements, which means that you can do the work and you can graduate. And that there are services there for you. There’s tutoring, there’s a writing center, there’s a career center, and you know what? I’m going to be here to encourage you.”

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Thank you so much, Dr. Ouida McAfee, for being in with us today. I have truly enjoyed this conversation and I have learned so much.

Dr. Ouida McAfee: Great.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: And so, to the audience, I want to say, remember that destroying college debt is not just about the money, it is about the whole student, and the family that supports them. So I am Dr. Aikyna Finch, be safe and be well.

Dr. Aikyna Finch is Faculty Training Developer in the Center for Teaching & Learning at American Public University. She received a Doctorate of Management, an MBA in Technology Management and an Executive MBA from Colorado Technical University. She has an M.S. in Management in Marketing, an M.S. in Information Systems in IT Project Management from Strayer University, and a B.S. in Aeronautical Technology in Industrial Electronics from the School of Engineering at Tennessee State University. She is a podcaster, social media coach and speaker. She is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council and a contributor to Huffington Post, Goalcast, Forbes and Thrive Global. She can be found at DrADFinch on all social media platforms.

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