Takeaways from Attending College Tuition-Free for Six and a Half Years

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Wait, it took you six and a half years to graduate from college? Even if you did attend college tuition-free that is still a really long time!

Technically it took seven years if you count the semester I took off between receiving my bachelors degree and starting graduate school.

I wish I could say that I took that semester off to travel the country or backpack across Europe, but the reality is that I spent that semester bartending at the Olive Garden and plotting a move out of my parent’s basement.

You see, when I graduated with my bachelors degree I made the huge mistake of not getting any real experience while in school. I had the degree, but not a single internship or job even remotely close to my major in financial management. Instead, I spent my summers and extra-curricular time playing baseball. In fact, baseball was my main driver for being in college at all.

Before we go any further, I do want to point out that this is not a “I went to college tuition free and you can, too” post. This is simply me sharing my story and trying to provide a few takeaways that a future college hopeful can consider to reduce the cost of tuition.

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Welcome to My Story About Attending College Tuition Free

My path through college was a winding one. My story of attending college tuition free story is not one of get good grades and attend a state school. That plays a part, but I ended up going to three different colleges to complete my bachelors degree, then a fourth school to complete my master’s degree.

My final year in college was 12 years ago and I fully understand that the cost of tuition has skyrocketed since then. However, in those 12 years since graduating I have quite a bit of experience understanding the impact college has on being successful in the workforce. I’ve been a hiring manager at my day job for going on six years, and prior to that spent a couple years as a freelance recruiter.

Read below as I take you through my six and a half year college journey through four different schools, a mediocre baseball career, and memories that will last a lifetime.

Tuition free college baseball player diving back into first base

Community College – Freshman and Sophomore Year of College Tuition Free (Mostly)

If you would have asked me about school when I was 18 I would have told you that all I cared about was playing baseball. At the time I had no idea what I’d end up majoring in and didn’t particularly care. All I really cared about was the single baseball scholarship offer that I received out of high school to attend a small community college about an hour outside of my home town.

Playing ball in college was the dream. I was realistic enough to know that I probably wasn’t making the big leagues, but then again who knows?

My freshman year I played on a baseball team that was extremely talented. We ended up first in our region and had five players drafted from that team (one ended up making the big leagues). I started almost every game in right or left field and ended up being the team’s lead-off hitter by the end of the year.

Oh yeah, there was school as well. The difficulty level in community college was about the equivalent to high school, in my experience. It was a great way to knock out a bunch of general education credits while deciding which four year school to attend.

After the end of my freshman year, I was shocked to find out in late July that the baseball program would be folding.

The baseball coach had apparently run the budget into the ground and there were rumors he was embezzling money. This left me during the last week of July trying to find a new place to play for my sophomore year with the school year starting in just a few weeks.

This is where the headline of my story is a bit misleading. I ended up only getting a half scholarship the first semester my sophomore year in community college. Close enough though. To go to school for six and a half years and only have to pay for half of one semester of community college is still pretty good. Sophomore year in college was a lot of fun as well. Our team wasn’t as good and I didn’t have a great spring, but it was still a great experience.

Your Takeaway

If you will likely have to take out student debt to attend college then you should consider the community college route. Credit hours usually come at a fraction of the cost compared to most all four year schools. I know there is a stigma around community college, but they are a great way to get your general education classes out of the way at a much lower cost.

If you end up graduating from a four year school, nobody ever asks about where you spent your first two years. If you aren’t an athlete most states offer plenty of other academic scholarships as well.

For anyone who goes this route, make sure you check to see what credits will transfer to four year schools. This will vary depending on the school, but with a little planning you can usually work this out. Completing your associates degree will improve the chances of your classes transferring to a four year program.

University sign at a college where you may be able to get college tuition free

State School – Junior and Senior Year of College Tuition Free

It was the Friday before school started. I was bummed because the school I was planning to attend was only a 30 minute drive from my house. At the time I was planning to live at home for at least the first semester, which was particularly hard as my girlfriend at the time was getting ready to head off to her new school about three hours away.

That’s when the phone rang.

It was a friend of mine that I played ball with in community college. He said they had a player drop out last minute and needed an outfielder. He put in a good word for me and the coach had remembered seeing me play in the community college regional tournament the year prior.

Apparently, the coach would be giving me a call soon. I was skeptical but hopeful.

See related article: How Being a College Athlete Better Prepared Me For the Workforce

Sure enough, the coach called later that day. Not only did they have a spot open, they also had scholarship money available. A full scholarship.

Many will call this dumb luck. And it mostly was. However, what people don’t see when luck is involved is all the hard work put in behind the scenes. Hours at the gym and weight room, studying hard in the classroom, and spending weeks sending out letters with my athletic profile praying that someone would take interest.

So yeah, it was luck in that moment, but as I’ve learned over the years, the harder I work the luckier I get.

The school I attended was a division 2 baseball program. It was a state school and one of the smallest in my own state of Missouri. In fact it was so small that I had barely heard of it until that Friday call.

I ended up playing baseball at that school for two years. It was an amazing experience. The school was located in a city just big enough and far away enough from other metro areas to have its own newspaper and TV stations. This resulted us being covered by the local media regularly.

It was a surreal experience to turn on the 10 o’clock news and see our highlights during the sports updates, or to see a full length story on the front page of the newspaper. It was an experience that no college class could ever teach even though the school may not have been the best around.

Your Takeaway 

Clearly this experience is unique to me. However, there are a few key takeaways you can consider.

First, regardless if you have a scholarship or not, consider attending a state school. Even the smaller less reputable schools. There are a few professions that require a top school to get a job out of college; however, the reality is for most degrees the school doesn’t matter much after a few years. Instead, focus on getting internships in your field as that is the best way to get hired with little experience.

Don’t be afraid to follow the money if you’re fortunate to have scholarship offers. It drives me crazy when I head stories about how so-and-so had a scholarship to a local university but instead decided to go to some out of state private school at an exorbitant cost. The school I went to wasn’t my dream school but I made the best of my experience and have never regretted the decision.

Marks on a chalkboard with the number five

5th Year of College Tuition Free

With my 5th year of college looming I distinctly remember trying to figure out how I was going to pay for tuition. Loans would most likely be the answer but I was determined to find other ways. Since my four years of eligibility playing baseball was up, the scholarship that paid for my previous two years was no more.

I knew I had at least one semester left and maybe two to receive my bachelors degree. When I met with a counselor to map out my plan for the following year he asked if I had heard of the fifth year scholarship that the school offered athletes whose eligibility had expired.

Completing the scholarship form for took less than an hour of my time. There weren’t any strict requirement or actions required to complete the application. I know there were only a limited number of scholarships available so my hopes weren’t exactly high.

It turns out of all the 5th year former athletes (I’m guessing there were at least two or three dozen) only three filled out the scholarship application. I’m not sure if people didn’t complete it because of lack of awareness or laziness. Either way, they ended up awarding scholarships to everyone who applied.

I ended up graduating after one more semester and moved back home to figure out what to do with my life.

Your Takeaway

Apply for as many scholarships as you possibly can as you never know what money may be available. If you’re not already at the school, contact the administrative office and ask to speak with someone who is knowledgeable about scholarships.

Get on the internet and do some research on scholarships offered by your school of choice. The scholarships and money are out there and sometimes the hardest part is finding them.

The cap from a tuition free college graduate

Graduate School – Years 6 and 7 of College Tuition Free

Finding a job out of undergrad was hard. When I wasn’t in the classroom, I was playing ball almost year round. While I surely could have found time to get internships before graduating, I didn’t. Now back at home, I went on several interviews and had a really difficult time selling myself on a position without any experience besides baseball.

After graduating with my bachelors on financial management I moved back home to live with my parents. During my final semester in college I picked up a job waiting tables and bartending. Upon graduating I was able to transfer to a different Olive Garden back at home.

So there I was at age 23 with my college degree, living back at home with my parents, basically being laughed out of any interviews, slinging bread sticks, and trying to figure out what to do next with my life.

Most people would wait until finding that first job and saving up a little money to move out of their parent’s house. I quickly realized that I needed to get out on my own. I was making about $500 per week waiting tables and bartending, which was enough to get by. My parent reminded me that once I moved out I would be completely cut off from any financial support. This was actually a good thing as it was motivating to make it on my own.

After about three months living at home I moved into a duplex with three other guys. The next several months included a lot of late nights, money blown at bars, and trying to find my way in life. Right before my 5th year in college I had broken up with my girlfriend of three years so the wounds were still fresh from that experience.

See related article: Money Advice for Recent College Graduates

After months of failed interviews and no direction, I decided to explore graduate school options. I didn’t want to move to a different city so the options were somewhat limited.

I had narrowed my list of grad school programs down to 3 or 4. Economics and finance classes were what I enjoyed most in undergrad and I wanted to continue down that path in graduate school.

My main criteria for choosing a school was their internship program. I knew that my lack of experience was the biggest hurdle to getting a job. I guess I could have tried to find an internship without grad school. Though at the time that didn’t occur to me.

The school I ended up choosing had a robust internship program. Not only did it pay a couple hundred dollars a week, it also paid for tuition. When I started the program, there was no guarantee of getting an internship right away though I felt the odds were pretty good.

The internship ended up working out. It paid $800 a month plus tuition. Even though we weren’t supposed to work another job, I still bartended on the weekends once or twice making another $200 or so dollars weekly. Life was simpler then and I had no issue fully supporting myself on about $1,500 income per month.

I also made a little money by flipping items from garage sales.

The graduate school program was really hard. It wasn’t uncommon for me to do 20 plus hours of homework per week. For the first time I was really being challenged in school which was a surprisingly enjoyable experience. Taking a full load of graduate school classes, my internship, bartending, plus trying to keep a social life was a great test in time management. There was almost zero downtime. During my first semester I also started dating someone new, who also happens to my my wife of almost 10 years now. Some of my best memories of my life happened during those two years of grad school.

Your Takeaway

The first big takeaway is don’t do what I did and wait until graduate school to get an internship. Work hard to find an internship during undergrad. More companies are paying decent hourly wages for interns these days.

If you do make the decision to go to graduate school right after undergrad see what options are available to intern or work to pay your tuition. While in my situation the internship only paid $200 per week, it saved me tens of thousands in tuition over a two year period. Talk to someone in admissions if you’re interested in a school and see if they have internships available to help offset high tuition payments. Some schools will have opportunities and others will not. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Similar Stories From Other Bloggers

Not really feeling my story? Check out similar stories from others across the internet. Not all are about attending college tuition free, but I promise all have great tips. We all connect to different stories in different ways, so be sure to check out the posts below. You won’t regret it!

Thanks so much for reading! If you have a unique college experience you’d like to share related to reducing or eliminating the cost of tuition (or your very own story of attending college tuition free) I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. 

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4 Comments

  1. Amazing you managed to get out of college without paying for tuition aside from the little time spent at community college! My fiance’s daughter is in the process of starting college apps now. We were hoping to encourage her to go the route of paid-for military school, but she has opted out. So now it is back to the drawing board, trying to explain to her why community college followed by a degree at a well established university looks the same on a resume as a four year degree from the same school. I personally believe colleges spend so much of students’ time, energy, and funding on classes that are never going to be directly applicable to their jobs in the real world. So if you can knock out some of those courses at community college, why not? Seems like this was also part of the problem when you graduated : lots of schooling, but no real world experience. I’m hoping some day we can find a better balance between giving students the basics but then really focusing on skills and education that are going to be directly applicable to their future jobs.

    Elise

    1. Best of luck to you. There is a real stigma around community colleges so I understand it’s a tough sell. Some look at going to community college as a failure when that couldn’t be further from the truth if they are able to transfer to a four year school and then graduate.

      You are right that colleges need to do a better job with real world experience. I had the chance to work with several interns at my work this summer and there is a clear disconnect between the academic and professional worlds. I would hope that schools have gotten better these days but I’m not sure they have. It’s often up to the student to seek out real world experience.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Very similar situation to mine! However, I did not pursue a graduate degree.

    Went to CC for 2 years on academic scholarship. Transferred all credits and my AS degree to UT and got more academic scholarships.

    I was a finance major. Worked my tail off in the summers and saved everything that I didn’t need to provide basic needs. Landed an internship with Merrill Lynch my senior year.

    I wish more students would realize the value of CC. However, many are influenced by the “Joneses”, even at that age. I think for me, it was a matter of pure life survival.

    As a result of my childhood, I didn’t know how to party or waste time.

    Great post! Memories…..

    1. Yes, so many memories! I think any college experience is what you make of it. There are good people everywhere. The stigma around community college is frustrating and hopefully more kids realize there are real benefits going this route. Thanks for commenting!

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