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.

(c)2013 The Seattle Times

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