Weighing work and study: one student's strategy

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Matt and Karen Birkner added up the cost of working versus taking more classes for their daughter Elise, who had offered to work to help pay for attending Texas A&M University.

"She was willing to work, but Matt and I ran the numbers and said we would prefer her to go full time or more," Karen Birkner says. "If she had worked, she would have taken 12 credit hours and would have taken an extra year to finish." 

As an in-state student, that extra year would have cost about $21,000 in tuition, housing and other expenses, according to the Birkners and A&M's website. Meantime, the family wouldn't have saved any money by cutting back credit hours to 12. Like many schools, Texas A&M charges a flat rate for tuition of 12 hours or more.

"If she made $10 an hour working, at 20 hours a week that's only $800 a month," Karen Birkner says. "That wouldn't have even covered her housing costs of about $900 a month, let alone her tuition. I don't see how you could make $21,000 working." 

With an eye on on-time graduation, Elise Birkner took at least 15 credit hours every semester. She also saved money by completing courses in community college -- both while still in high school and during college.

Elise earned degrees in zoology and wildlife and fisheries science, graduated in four years with a near-perfect 3.8 GPA and started a job the February 2014 before she graduated in her field -- working for a wildlife geneticist. That last semester she also managed 17 credit hours. She has about $15,000 in student loans for her education.

"She did pretty darn good," Karen Birkner says proudly.

See related: A simpler way to estimate college costs?, 6 college money myths, 4 credit choices for college-bound students
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