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Monday, March 21, 2011

Paid For College on His Own

The April issue of Kiplinger's Personal Finance on page 65 features an interview with David Leetsma, a junior at Ferris State University in Michigan. David has paid his way through college. I did as well; and, as I read David's story, I thought for a minute I was reading about myself. I thought the questions were well done and decided to answer them myself.

You took a year off between high school and college. How come?
My father suggested that I do so. He said it would give me work experience, give me a better appreciation of what I was trying to achieve with a college education, and, of course, give me money to pay for school. I had some nasty jobs. One was in a laundry of a major hospital. Many older people at these jobs encouraged me to go for an education. I felt the opportunity was a privilege many people would have liked to have had. Finally, I was fortunate in that I landed a job working 60 hours/week and getting paid time and a half for overtime. The job wore me out, and I was able to save a pile of money. It isn't easy to spend money when you are working 60 hours/week.

Why did you start at a community college rather than a four-year college?
Actually a couple of reasons. First, my start was a false start. I thought the purpose of college was to extend one's sports career. I went to play basketball and baseball. Classes were secondary. I did learn, however, that I wasn't interested in engineering. Secondly, I was the first one in my family to go to college. In my eyes, community college was the same as a 4-year school. We didn't live in the type of neighborhood where everybody compared the colleges their kids were accepted at.

On my second attempt, where I took the education part seriously, community college enabled me, like David, to live at home.

Let me put in a plug. The really great thing about the University is all of the super smart people. Still, when I look back, I feel that the very best teacher I had in Economics was my first Econ teacher, Mr. Biggs, in community college.  One of the big secrets, I feel, is the quality of teaching at community colleges.

You had siblings. Were your parents able to help with the college costs?
No. But again, like David, I did live at home for a while.

What were some of the ways in which you paid for college?
There were three. I took the year off, as mentioned above. After my false start, I then took 2 years off-- courtesy of being drafted into the U.S. Army. This gave me the GI Bill, of which I used every penny all the way to graduate school. And finally, I always had a job - in graduate school it was mostly teaching-assistant positions.

What was the biggest challenge?
Jobs. After the Army, I needed a job to help pay for school. That summer, I worked in a tire warehouse and made good money. At the end of the day, however, I fell into bed exhausted. Two weeks into the Fall semester, I saw this wouldn't work. I then took a job as a bank teller, at a cut in pay; but the bank teller job offered me a chance to study in between customers, and it was related to the business/economics curriculum I was studying.

This has come up since, because today I am an adjunct economics instructor at the local community college. I once had a student fail the mid-term, and he told me he didn't have time to study because he had to spend time learning the menu at Outback where he was a waiter. Priorities are important.

Do you have advice for students?
Think about why you want to get a college education. Think about the career you want to pursue. After I got discharged from the Army, I knew I wanted to do something with investments. I took my first economics course, having no idea what it was going to be about, and immediately saw that it was the key to understanding investments. Every economics course after that was vitally important to me.

My youngest daughter went to the University of Maryland and to the Culinary Institute of America. The first thing she said was the students are different. At the Culinary Institute, all they want to do is cook. All weekend long, out of class, they are experimenting with food. If a student can study something s/he is passionate about, it is a huge advantage. Even more important, IMHO, than smarts!

Any regrets?
None. I'm glad I paid for it myself, and it has been great fun and a great challenge. I admit it's harder today; but, as David shows, it can still be done.


  1. Robert, glad you posted this. I admire those like David who work hard, sacrificed, and didn't have an easy road to meet their goals, but managed to achieve them just the same. Having passion about what you do for a living and for fun is so important and makes life worth living.

  2. It's an interesting idea to take time to work after high school. I'm very glad I did that with grad school, instead of going straight through for 6 years of college to get my Master's. The benefits of a few years in the workforce are definitely helpful for deciding on a career path and if you like what you're doing.

    That said, I imagine that many people wouldn't be disciplined enough to go BACK to school, especially after making some money and taking home a paycheck every week.

    There are benefits to both, I s'pose.

  3. Great post, Robert. I didn't take time off between HS and college but instead I got work experience through internships. One downside is that our education system here means you'll spend minimum of 6 years to get your bacheler's.