SEATTLE — It takes a little pluck and some ingenuity, but it’s possible to work the Washington state college system to shave thousands off the cost of a degree or boost a career without drowning in debt.
So say recent and soon-to-be college grads who have used new state programs, or taken full advance of existing ones, to finish their college careers.
Some of the programs are not well known; others are familiar, yet remarkably few students are taking full advantage of them.
A few who have:
• Joseph Nutting ran a small business in Vancouver, Wash., while completing his bachelor’s degree at Washington State University, and it didn’t require a move to Pullman — he was able to do all the work online.
• Heather Shute had a college degree but, worried about the shaky economy and uncertain job prospects in her field, did a career pivot and went to community college to study aircraft maintenance — and got a job at Boeing even before she graduated.
• Elaine Melnik sped her way through college by earning college credits in high school, then signing up for a new Central Washington University program that allowed her to complete all but one course for her bachelor’s degree for about $20,000.
Melnik’s friends ask: How are you done with your bachelor’s already — is that even possible? “I say, ‘Yes, it is,’ ” said Melnik, who’s starting her next degree, a master’s, while working full time as an IT analyst for a law firm.
Some strategies come with trade-offs. Finishing a bachelor’s degree in fewer than four years means less time spent absorbing the rich intellectual environment of a college campus. Some academics worry that a focus on career skills means shorting students on the type of well-rounded education that allows people to adapt and grow as jobs change.
But equally worrisome is the rising cost of going to college. More than half of Washington’s college students borrow money to pay for college, and in 2011, they graduated with an average debt of about $22,244, according to the Project on Student Debt.
Depending on the terms, a loan of that size would require 10 years of monthly payments ranging between $220 and $255 a month.
Joseph Nutting’s degree in business administration from Washington State University is every bit like the one students earn after spending four years in Pullman.
But Nutting didn’t have to sell the business he’d purchased with a partner — a failing cafe that had started to turn around — or move across the state to take classes.
Nutting, 26, completed his WSU degree entirely online, taking classes at night, on the weekends or anytime he could. The degree itself costs about the same as one earned on campus, but because Nutting could stay put in Vancouver, “the cost savings is just amazing,” he said.
The school began offering a four-year degree online several years ago, and now has nearly 2,000 in-state students. It formed the Global Campus last summer to replicate a campuslike experience online, said David Cillay, vice president of online learning for WSU.
The Global Campus has its own student government and will hold an online-career fair and an academic showcase this year so students can show off their work to faculty and experts in the community — just as they would be able to do on campus.
Some worry that online classes aren’t rigorous enough, and that students may miss out on mentoring, networking, friendships and the other intangibles of college life.
Nutting doesn’t see it that way. Because he had to be self-motivated, earning a degree online “was probably one of the more difficult things I’ve done in my life,” he said. And he believes WSU has done a good job of creating a virtual campus that gives students ways to get to know each other and their professors.
In his senior year, he was elected president of the Global Campus’s student government.
Can technical training from a community college earn you a higher wage than a bachelor’s degree? Absolutely.
Two years ago, Heather Shute swapped her keyboard for a mechanic’s hand tools and began working on a license in aircraft maintenance at South Seattle Community College.
Shute already had her bachelor’s from Pacific Lutheran University and seven years of work experience in print and broadcast journalism, but she was worried about low pay in her profession. “With the changing economy, I wanted a highly technical skill in my back pocket,” she said.
For Shute, who is 32, going back to college was not easy. She started classes at 7 a.m., then went to work in the afternoon, studying over her lunch hour and at odd moments of the day.
But because she had some money saved and also earned scholarships, Shute will finish the $15,000 program this spring debt-free. A mechanic with her licenses can earn between $45,000 and $80,000 a year, and her bachelor’s degree may help her gain a toehold in management.
And she already has a job — as a modification mechanic working for Boeing.
Shute has no regrets about leaving newsrooms for an airplane hangar. “Tinkering in the garage has always been a joy,” said Shute, who grew up going to air shows with her dad and helping him on experimental aircraft they built together.
“I’m mentally challenged,” said Shute. “I’m physically challenged. It has been a great opportunity and a fascinating path.”
Angie Weiss knocked a year off the cost of going to college by taking advantage of a program that’s nearly free and is widely available, but seldom used to its full potential.
She enrolled in Running Start, a 23-year-old state program that allows high-school students to earn both high-school and college credit by taking classes at state community colleges.
What is unusual is what Weiss did with it — accumulating enough credits to graduate from the University of Washington in just three years, an accomplishment even many dual-credit students rarely achieve.
Weiss was a Nathan Hale High School student when she began taking all of her academic classes at North Seattle Community College in her junior year. And she enjoyed the community college better than high school.
“I had good class sizes, and really good professors,“ Weiss said.
She’s working in Olympia full time this quarter as a government-relations director for the Associated Students of UW, the student-government organization, and is on track to graduate this spring or summer.
She doesn’t think Running Start is for everyone. Many students prefer the more structured world of high school, and not everybody is mature enough to enter college full time at 16.
And there were frustrations: Credits from a quarter of the classes she took at North Seattle CC didn’t transfer to the UW.
But with help from her parents and state and federal student aid, she will graduate not just early but debt-free.
Like Weiss, Elaine Melnik used a dual-credit strategy to get a jump-start on college.
She spent her junior and senior years of high school at the public Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, in a free program similar to Running Start that allowed her to graduate at 18 with both her high-school diploma and an associate degree.
Then she took advantage of another program — a new one offered by Central Washington University that allowed her to apply her earlier technical classes toward a bachelor’s degree.
In 2011, CWU started the bachelor’s in information technology and administrative-management program, which accepts up to 105 credits of technical courses earned at community or technical colleges.
Students in the CWU program take all of the general education classes they missed while working on a technical degree, including literature and the humanities, philosophy and science. “It’s kind of like an upside-down degree,” said Laurie Stehle, director of online programs for CWU.
In about eight quarters, or two full years, transfer students can earn a bachelor’s for about $24,000. The classes can be taken entirely online.
Melnik also worked full time while in school and was able to pay for the degree without taking out any loans.
Daron Vchulek was in his 40s, working in radiation technology, when he went back to school to get a bachelor’s degree — at a community college.
In 2007, Bellevue College was one of a handful of community colleges in the state that began offering bachelor’s degrees in specific fields, called applied bachelor’s degrees.
For Vchulek, there was a compelling reason to choose Bellevue College: “It was close to half the cost,” he said.
Once he finished, Vchulek was accepted to the MBA program at the UW, where he’s studying now. He also parlayed his education into a career advancement — he’s now vice president of ancillary services at The Polyclinic in Seattle.
Eight community and technical colleges now offer one or more applied degrees, and others are on the way.
The programs offer specific skills, but they can lead to high-paying jobs with high employment rates. For example, students who received a bachelor’s degree in diagnostic ultrasound from Bellevue College have a 93 percent employment rate, and make an average of $65,000, according to a state salary and employment survey.
Vchulek said he also liked going to Bellevue College because the campus was smaller, parking was easy and he became good friends with his classmates.
“At the UW, I don’t get to know them very well at all,” he said.
About 40 percent of bachelor’s degree graduates in Washington start their college careers at a community or technical college, where tuition and fees are about a third the cost of tuition at the UW.
Sadia Anees is one of them. The Lake Washington High School graduate was accepted to several four-year schools, but Bellevue College was a relative bargain.
Anees earned a high grade-point average and began to peruse lists of scholarships as her second year ended. To her surprise, she found a lot of scholarship money available for community-college students who wanted to transfer to private, four-year schools.
She is now at Loyola University in Chicago, a private school where tuition and living expenses are more than $50,000 a year.
“I saw a lot of opportunities for out-of-state students,” Anees said of the scholarships. “After the scholarship and financial aid, it was cheaper for me to go out-of-state to attend a four-year than to go to an in-state public.”