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B.A. to Ph.D. for under $15,000: How I did it
Sep 13, 2012
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People often express interest in my educational track, especially since I wrote an article highly critical of college degrees, even while seeking and obtaining them. In that article, I said the following:

Gary North has offered seven steps to getting a bachelor’s degree for around $15,000. I personally completed my undergraduate a few years before he published this list. I was pleased to see that I anticipated six of his seven tips, finished for well under $15,000, and had no debt. Since I was awarded a full scholarship for seminary, I can say I actually spent less than $15k on all my higher education including my M.Div. . . .

I have also found a major international university that will flex some of its doctoral programs to work as “distance” education. . . . Due to currency exchange rates, and with some dedication, I can finish a legitimate Ph.D. in Theology in two years and well under $3,000. And unlike American programs, it does not require two years of coursework: rather it’s a full research degree. From start to finish, my entire higher education will have cost less than $15k. That’s not bad. In the future, as more institutions implement online features, I expect it to get even cheaper.

I immediately got emails asking about the institution of which I was speaking.

Before I answer, let me start at the beginning. There are many lessons here that I think could be beneficial to many readers.

Do you need a college degree?

The point of my article linked above is to say, “No,” at least in many if not most cases. For many people, college will be a waste of time, a loss of potential income while not in the job market, and potentially a lot of debt. Going straight into business or marketing makes more sense for many people. Even an apprenticeship of some sort would probably pay off more in the long run than many college degrees.

To that end, I have high hopes and gratitude for a program just started by a deacon at my church, Chris King. The brand new Business Mentorship Program will enroll young talented men under the apprenticeship and employment of five different Christian entrepreneurs and businessmen who will train them at length in all aspects of how to start and run a business.

Christian businessmen training Christian youth in the actual practice of business, and giving them a wide range of hands-on experience in different fields. Now that’s how it needs to be done. Read more about the program here, and contact Chris King (tell him Joel at AV sent you!).

Nevertheless, there are some people gifted for intellectual thought and teaching. For those who are adamant, or who could possibly benefit in the larger picture from the professional degree approach, here’s how I did it “on the cheap.”

High School and Bachelor’s

The best way to get through a bachelor’s degree affordably is to have your head on straight during your high school years, or at least before you go to college. For most homeschoolers, this should not be a problem. It was a problem for me at the time, not being as dedicated as I would be later. As a result, I missed a lot of opportunities. I did, however, catch a couple.

As an outline, let’s look at the six of Gary North’s seven tips which, as mentioned earlier, I used:

  1. Night courses at community college (these can be taken even while in high school). Simple as it sounds, many college kids don’t take advantage of night courses. For high schoolers, taking night courses is at least a way to get a jump-start on the degree, saving precious life-time. Since these will most likely be entry-level courses, take them at a local community college for probably half-the price of a university, maybe even cheaper.
  2. Dual credit courses. (Combined with #1, this is very effective). I leveraged this principle to receive credit in at least one English course. I took a night course in creative writing which counted for both college English and my final Senior English credit in high school. If I’d have had my head on straight, I would have done this with as many courses as possible, not just one.
  3. Quiz out. You can easily test out of most college-level courses. This is easy at many levels. There are CLEP, AP, and DANTE exams. Again, I was slow to this game and so only took one AP test. I got college credit for Calculus which I had only taken in high school. CLEP exams pertain mainly to lower-level courses—first two years of college. Many of these courses add very little to what you learned in the same courses in high school. The industrious student here, with good preparation, should have no problem testing out. DANTE exams go beyond this, covering also many third and fourth year courses. There are two versions, one for military and one for civilian. Again, the talented student with some advice and self-study may do well here also. Self-study with exam fees is much cheaper and takes much less time than paying and sitting through courses.
  4. Day-time community college. This may sound redundant to 1 and 2, but the point here is to take as much coursework as you need and can at the local community college rather than a university. It will simply be much more affordable. Make sure, of course, any courses you take will be transferable if you later need to go to a different institution. Most are. I was lucky that my community college had satellite programs working with several of the state universities. I was able to do almost all my coursework on the campus of my community college, much of it at the cheaper rates.
  5. Distance courses. Many schools now have distance programs. I was forced into this, in a way, but it turned out for the better. I needed to complete a minor in philosophy when my little on-campus program was shut down. As a result, I had to pick up six hours by distance courses. I found them at the time (2001) at the University of Arkansas, and at Oklahoma University. I was able to study both Ethics and Logic this way. The main element required here is self-motivation. The advantage was that Oklahoma did not charge out-of-state tuition rates for its out-of-state distance students. On top of this, tuition for distance/independent courses was almost half that for standard OU courses. Again, a major advantage I should have leveraged more than I did.
  6. In-State residency. State schools almost always charge much higher rates for out-of-state students. I studied in-state except for the one distance course just mentioned. For those adamant about an out-of-state institution, I would recommend establishing residency with a driver’s license in that state first for six months. This will give you residency and thus the ability to enroll at the lower rates.

Following these tips, mainly the use of the community college, I was able to save tremendously. I don’t have all the receipts for exact figures from back in those days, but I don’t remember ever paying anywhere near $1,000 per semester. I am certain the total bill was under $15,000, and may have been closer to $12,000.

And I did it without borrowing a cent. I did this by working full time while I finished my bachelor’s full time also. I had employers at the time who allowed me to work a flexible schedule as long as I fulfilled 40 hours weekly. This was helpful, but I am not sure it would have been necessary. It did allow me to finish more quickly, even if not in the traditional four years.

I suspect that someone leveraging more of the CLEP exams than I did could get by even cheaper, perhaps even while working only part time.

One tip for the first two years of college: Many people think of college as a higher intellectual level than high school. For the first two years this was simply not my experience. The distinction is less about higher knowledge and more about increased work load and expectations. It’s not so much harder work, there’s just more of it. This is not true across the board, but in general. It was my experience. It may not be true everywhere.

Masters

You really only need a Masters degree if your profession requires it, if it will give you a substantial raise (enough to offset the time and cost of getting it), or if you need the stepping-stone to a doctoral degree. Else, it’s an expensive wall-hanging. If you simply want the added training, a competent graduate should be able to gain the knowledge from reading and interacting with other experienced professionals.

In my case, I was considering the pastorate—a professional master’s degree. This does not absolutely require a seminary education, but at the time, I was in the traditional mindset (although I knew better) of attending a bricks-and-mortar seminary for training.

There was simply no way I would consider paying the $415 per credit hour of RTS or $455 for Westminster (most others are comparable). For an eye-opener: at the RTS rate, its 106-credit hour M.Div. program will cost you $44,000 in tuition alone (not counting books, lodging, and living expenses).

And there was no way I would consider going into debt for anywhere near this.

I jumped at the program offered originally by Cranmer Theological House. At the time it offered a work-study program which would have paid tuition and more. I would have been debt-free upon graduation. But this program was moved to the bishop’s church in Houston weeks before I was about to decide. The work-study program was eliminated. CTS is a very small school, but very conservative: traditional Anglican with some Reformed flavor. The Dean, Curtis Crenshaw, is a fine man and a very competent scholar. The tuition is, I am sure, still very low compared to other options.

This experience got me interested in the Reformed Episcopal Church in general. Its original seminary, founded in the 1870s, was outside Philadelphia. It is conservative and traditional Anglican with the influence of some Reformed scholarship mixed in (but slowly being replaced by higher-church Anglicanism). When I learned of their scholarship program, I was interested. Their “full scholarships” are still available today. When awarded one, I took the opportunity to study for the M.Div. at Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

I was thus able to finish my Masters degree for $0 in tuition.

This does not mean it was “free.” I lived in Arkansas at the time, and the cost of moving a family across country is no small thing, especially for a young family.

As I wrote in my previous article,

There are hidden costs, of course, such as lost income during periods of working part-time (in order to take a full course load), moving your family across country, a feeling of rootlessness, [and, I would add, difficulty in making new friends and spending time with them,] and the price of family stress while living in small apartments as daddy studies all day and works all weekend and sometimes nights. These costs add up and must be taken seriously. I dare speculate that many seminaries have produced more strained families than good pastors. But that’s a whole different topic.

I cannot stress this enough. The move-across-the-country, bricks-and-mortar experience was very difficult for me in all of these respects. While I did not go into debt in tuition, the costs were very stressful. While the quality of the education was not lacking (especially in some areas: compared to many other seminaries, the preaching practicum at RES is unparalleled), I am not sure I would choose this route again, merely because of the uprooting and family factors.

Now that many seminaries are offering distance learning programs based on more of a mentorship model, I don’t believe the old medieval, classroom-based, geographical-based, centralized seminary will be necessary or even the best option.

Either way, it is not necessary to go into debt here. Even for the more expensive seminaries, in many cases, local churches will sponsor a student at least to defray the costs. I personally think it is foolish even for a church to spend too much money when there are more affordable options. Greenville Seminary appears to have a reasonable system in regard to this, lowering tuition to $2500 per year if the sponsoring church will cover it.

I have written before about my struggle with acceptance at Edinburgh for a Ph.D. in New Testament. I will not rehearse that here, except to add that even some influential people in my church were beside themselves that I would be so foolish as turn down this “once in a lifetime opportunity” over some stubborn refusal to go into debt. Apparently thinking I had been browbeaten into such a decision by my wife, one person took it upon themselves to attack my wife verbally, publicly at fellowship in church. My wife had nothing to do with it, save that I had obviously discussed and considered her in making the decision. It was fully mine, however. I considered family stewardship more important than man’s credentials—and hope I will always.

This is how deceived some people are. They cannot fathom the basic simplicity of God’s laws and faithfulness to them. Debt is a serious and major issue, yet some Christians call “the chance of a lifetime” what the Bible calls enslavement.

The person later apologized for, as my wife reminded her, not minding her own business.

Doctorate

Some ask, “Why get a Ph.D. at all?” Good question. Few people need one. Some lift it up as an idol, and then use it as a bludgeon against those lesser-intellectuals down there who don’t have one. They will have their reward.

But most people who bad-mouth them altogether are not exactly straight either. As one scholar told me once, “A lot of people speak ill of Ph.Ds. Most of them are people without Ph.Ds.”

My view, simply put, is that a Ph.D. can open some doors for a limited number of people (rightly or wrongly), or it could be another very expensive piece of wallpaper. Or worse, one more thorn in your crown of pride.

How’s this for your doctoral pride: there are 2.5 million people with Doctoral degrees. If we count profession “doctoral” degrees (lawyers, medical doctors, Psy.D, Ed.D), you can add another 3 million. So, Doc, you’re not even one in a million. You’re more like one in five and a half million—many of whom are unemployed.

Whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs for you personally, you must calculate for yourself. I was able to get it on the cheap, without traveling or moving, and thus it worked for me and my situation as an educator with a public ministry.

So, what was that school?

As AV announced Monday, I received a Ph.D. degree from Pretoria University.

“What state is that in?” someone asked. Hehe. South Africa.

Why would I choose such an obscure program? Aside from the reasons quoted earlier, there is also the fact that South African universities still have some vestiges of their Dutch Reformed heritage, though they have been largely liberalized. Nevertheless, unlike most secular universities in the U.S., Pretoria still retains a separate Faculty of Theology—one not absorbed into its fully secular “religious studies” or “humanities” programs. They still teach divinity to those planning to enter ministry. Though again, they are not what conservative religious groups in the U.S. would consider conservative.

Yet, at the Ph.D. level, this is much less of an issue as long as your thesis is intellectually defensible. For example, my thesis on the history of Mosaic Law during the Reformation, 1520–1536, was barely questioned and even highly complimented by my reviewers, despite everyone seeing my clear conservative angle show through.

So while you probably won’t find Calvin as assigned reading in standard courses here, you could easily write a doctoral thesis on Calvin and do just fine. Things change a bit at the postgraduate level.

Most important, however, was the fact that I could get an internationally recognized degree for under $3,000. In fact, as it turned out, with scholarships, it was closer to $1,000. And yet this was no degree mill. Pretoria is less well-known, but still an international university circulation in the academic journal markets, international postgraduate peer review, and “accredited” degrees. In the eyes of academia, this meets the guild standard, so to speak.

So, in short, I took advantage of distance education, exchange rates, the international economy, a little history, and a lot of self-motivated hard work. Thrift and hard work are, of course, values we should apply to everything we do.

Conclusion

Someone wrote me a while back telling me of a very bright young man who had no money and whose family had little money. He is gifted intellectually, especially in theology, but had no idea where to start or how to pay. He felt stuck.

Well, there simply is no traditional path to follow that does not require tons of money. This usually means lots of debt. Refuse to take this path. You can follow my example, or design a similar path of your own. It will take longer (I am now almost 38—hardly the traditional age at which to receive a Ph.D.), and you will have to work harder. It is not the traditional path to a degree. But—and this is the most important part—there is nothing in my path that cannot be duplicated and repeated by someone else. And thus the aspiring scholar or pastor can reach the same educational/credential goals for a total of under $15,000 or perhaps even less. Over time, with a job, this can be paid along the way.

And I would go so far as to say that if you can’t do it without debt, you don’t need to do it at all.

And one more thing to add: my wife never had to work outside of our house in order for me to accomplish this. Even for families which believe in this traditional arrangement, many are tempted for send the wife out working to pay the bill while they attend school. But you don’t have to cave. Work harder, and adjust your lifestyle and living standard “downward” if necessary. This is the proper sacrifice to make in this situation.

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About author

Dr. Joel McDurmon

Dr. Joel McDurmon

Joel McDurmon, Ph.D. in Theology from Pretoria University, is the Director of Research for American Vision. He has authored seven books and also serves as a lecturer and regular contributor to the American Vision website. He joined American Vision's staff in the June of 2008. Joel and his wife and four sons live in Dallas, Georgia.

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