Monthly Archives: September 2015

CollegeQandA asks: What are the hidden costs of college?

It’s not just tuition and room and board

Routlette WheelThe idea that college is expensive is in our common culture, and it’s true.  The sticker price (sticker price = the tuition cost and sometimes the room and board costs) of colleges is regularly quoted to give you an idea of the base cost of attending college.  Note that depending on your situation, sticker price is not what you should expect to pay when considering discounts and scholarships.  However, sticker price is a nice ballpark starting point to calculate costs.

The reality is that there are other costs – hidden or not – that are not quoted in the sticker price.  I knew of these additional costs, but an excellent NPR article got me thinking about this more.  There are hidden costs, and these costs can be significant if you don’t watch it.

Hidden costs

What are the hidden costs of college?  The article lists a few of these hidden costs, and I’ve added some of mine in the following list:

  • Textbooks – sometimes required for classes
  • Travel – how are you going to get to and from college
  • Healthcare – you need to be protected if you get sick
  • A new laptop – is it really needed?
  • Your phone – the plan and the phone are pricey
  • Calculator – you can’t use your phone on an exam
  • Clothes – you need to wear something
  • Coffee – fancy caffeine drinks aren’t cheap
  • Alcohol – if you’re of drinking age it can be expensive
  • Class supplies – depending on what you are doing you need supplies
  • Fees – any club or organization you are a member of might have membership fees

Shared knowledge

This is an ongoing list/idea that I think we should build and improve on to help others.  In a previous article, I talked about the moving list hack that I created to help you automate packing. I’ve added a second page to that document trying to list and estimate additional college costs that you might need to consider.  Please consider commenting or writing me with other costs so we can collectively help ourselves and improve on this shared knowledge.

Credits: photo title: So Close; by Bruce Martin


CollegeQandA related links: College report cards; For profit = for debt; Is college too expensive?

Related links to CollegeQandA:


CollegeQandA asks: Is college lifestyle inflation a problem?

What is lifestyle inflation?

Kermit Macy balloon inflatingLifestyle inflation is the idea that even as we, potentially, make more income, our cost of living somehow matches or exceeds that increase such that we never seem to have enough money.  This idea is associated with moving up the ladder and getting promoted, but I suspect the problem can start in college where the idea of “roughing it” seems to be disappearing for some students.

Is college lifestyle inflation a problem?

Last week, I answered what are the hidden costs in college.  Many of these items are what I would classify as luxuries.

Let’s start with your computer.  A laptop is not a necessity for most colleges; at our university there are plenty of computer labs with desktop machines, the library is full of terminals, and the library even lends out laptops (both Mac and PCs).  The question might then be, is the software needed for your class and project work available on these devices?  I teach and use a very dedicated type of software (Quartus for FPGA design).  I know this software is available in all our labs, and therefore, I suspect that most software that is used in a course will be available.

The laptop, however, is convenient and something like 60% of students will buy a new laptop when they enter college.  Just so you are aware, the computation power, memory, and storage space on almost any modern laptop is much greater than what you will need for the entire four years – unless you are playing video games, designing and running complex simulations, or rendering 3D landscapes.  The difference between the low-end and high-end laptop from the perspective of surfing the web, word processing, spreadsheets, and basic design (such as programming) will all run fine on the low-end machine.  So save your money.

In many ways, college is about experiencing that first step into adulthood.  In that experience, I believe that you should make your furniture out of milk-crates, and you should visit the thrift store to find a t-shirt with some interesting vintage logo.  I suspect that many students think that college life should be as comfortable as their lives with their parents.  Based on this, that means even before you get your first paycheck, your living level is starting at the same level as your parents (who are making a living and have already struggled to afford some of our commercial worlds nicer things).  Lifestyle inflation will crush these future graduates if they stay at this level – cue consumer debt.

Multi-generation Lifestyle Inflation

That title above is my new name for this potential problem.  College should be a little bit of a struggle and that means lowering your lifestyle standards.  In the worst case, you should have to choose between the fancy coffee or matching lampshade, curtains, and duvet.  To help you in your consumer life, the stoics used negative visualization to prevent hedonic adaptation.  Good luck.

Credits: photo titled: macy’s balloon inflation; by Charley Lhasa


CollegeQandA book review: A (Mind/for) = Numbers

Book Review: A (Mind/for) = Numbers

A (Mind/for) = Numbers book cover
Fluent Forever: A Mind for Numbers is written by Oakley who has her Ph.D. in engineering, but started off her academic/learning life with a fear of  science and math.

This book is titled and focused to the math and science adverse, but oddly enough, I would argue that the book is about learning and not so much about the math and science aspects (though there are many stories of STEM based people and how they overcame their challenges and succeeded in STEM type fields).  The book is focused on how we learn, how ideas get moved into our long term memory, dealing with procrastination, and other learning based ideas that will help all of us.

I think that this book paired with The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking are an excellent starting set of resources to help students understand and improve their learning.  Also, for interested teachers, I think these types of books are great in providing new insights to how people learn and, possibly, how to teach their ideas so that student’s improve on how they learn.  For example, the book introduced me to research on why it is useful to have many fully solved problems available for students to help them learn.  I held the opposite belief (not backed by science), and I was concerned that students with many worked out problems will reverse engineer the problem solving method and then just pattern match problems to a methodology.  It turns out that this process can be a vital part of learning.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

This is another book I would classify as meta-learning.  In these cases, students and teachers will both benefit from a deeper understanding of how we all learn, and therefore, this adds to answering one of CollegeQandA’s key questions: How do I learn?

I would recommend this book to…

For those of you who are math and science adverse, then this book provides insights, stories, and knowledge about learning in relation to those scary subjects that will help you succeed.  However, I think this book is a good book on helping us understand how to learn better, and therefore, I would recommend it to anyone who wants to improve their learning and thinking – which should be all of us.


CollegeQandA asks: Why should I go to career fairs?


Career FairIn “How do I pick a major?”, the goal was to look at majors and why or how they might lead to careers as well as pursuing your interest in college.  One idea to note is that universities no dot prepare you for a career.  Let me restate that, universities do not prepare you for a career.  University degrees show (to some degree – no pun intended) that you have an understanding of some of the basic ideas and solution/design methods within that field.  Professional degrees (engineering, certain business degrees, architecture, etc.) lead more directly to a career, but still these degrees do not prepare you for your career.

One of the many things that universities do is provide resources for your many possible needs, but you must choose to take advantage of these resources.  Universities and colleges have many resources and events that will help you prepare for your career.  In some cases, a major might have a coop program to help you get experience for your career.  I define a coop program as a degree in which on alternating semesters you will spend your semesters either in class or working in degree related experience, and the school may or may not help you find that company (most likely they help and have connections).

Other than coop programs, the majority of career preparation is put on your shoulders as the student.  You will need to go to the career center and learn about preparing your resume, interviewing, and how to network to find a good job.

Career fair

Career fairs are another opportunity in this preparation that happens during the academic year where many companies will come to your institution and directly recruit from the student body.

Regardless of which year of study you are in, which degree you are majoring in, and even if you are a graduate or undergraduate, you should attend every career fair at your institution.

Why?  First, because these companies are focused on students from your institution, which suggests that they like what they get from your school.  More importantly, the information you can learn from these events will help you understand what skills and people companies want, which can then be used to ask really big questions.  Why are these traits and skills desired?  How do those skills make money for that company?  What message does what I wear send, and how does that message relate to the economics in our world?  Do I want to be part of these types of money generating machines?  Will the goals of these companies align with my goals for the world?  Is my time given to this industry and compensated by money worth it?

Examining these questions in the hyper-impressionism world of a career fair will help you decide what your career might or might not be.

Go to career fairs in your first-year, and learn what they are about.  If you want to take a corporate path, then learn what it takes to land an entry job in these companies.  Find out which internships are available, and in the worse case, try an internship with a company to get a feel for how different academics and education is compared to various industries and the so-called real-world.  Learn what people do in a company on a daily basis, and ask does that sound like something you would be interested in doing.

Your life and career are shaped by you and your efforts.

Credits: photo titled: 14-03-06 Spring ’14 Career Fair (Edited) (124) ; by: Romer Jed Medina


CollegeQandA related links: College Calculus? Earnings because of grad degree? Lifehack school

Related to CollegeQandA links:


CollegeQandA book review: Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It

Book Review: Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It

Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It book cover
Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It is written by Wyner and is accompanied by a website:

The focus of this book is to help you learn a foreign language fluently (to your desired needs) based on applying leading learning techniques to the process of language learning.  I don’t think this is a major new idea, but the book shows some reasonable methods to achieve this including the resources needed in the process.

The book does not promise any quick fix to learning languages, and the strength of this books is the connection to other resources.   From someone who is not a language expert by any means (just look for my homophone errors), I liked this books approach and I’m interested in testing it out.  I’ve been thinking about taking a stab at learning Chinese, but I still feel I should solidify my french before trying another language (probably English too).

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

We live in a world where more than one language is spoken.  The value of learning another language not only allows you to experience a different culture in a vastly different way, but the learning process improves your brain.  Also, languages are offered at every college and in some places a second language is required.  So, yes this book relates.

I would recommend this book to…

The reason I read this book was to see what ideas on improving learning of a foreign language related to design languages and programming languages, which I teach.  It turns out, other than the base theories on effective learning, there isn’t a significant crossover between the topics as I see it.

However, if you want to or have to learn a language, this book provides some tips that I think would be useful in the process.  Many of the tips are based on the authors experiences, so I think they have to be taken with caution.  Additionally, the resources in the book and the website are a good lead to finding quality resources to learn the language.


CollegeQandA asks: How bad is it to drop a class?

What does it mean to drop a class?

Parachute dropDropping a course means removing that course from your schedule before certain dates such that you will not get a traditional letter grade in the course that impacts your overall record, and there might be some monetary refund (if you pay per course).  Depending on dates at your university, a dropped course might appear on your transcript (official record) as dropped, and you might not get any money back.

Typically, in the early part of a semester (first few weeks depending on the university), you can drop a course with no transcript record or cost.  Later in the semester (normally before the half-way point) you can drop the course and this tends to be recorded with an annotation such as “dropped”, “withdrawn – W”, or something similar.  Also, this later type of drop usually does not result in any refund.  Check your universities “academic calendar” that should list these specific dates.

Why would you drop a course?

First off, most early drops are done because a student is still adjusting their schedule and figuring out what their course preference is for the semester.  These types of drops are minor in the big scheme of dropping, so I won’t deal with them and let’s move on to the other types.

Withdrawals later in the semester are the types of drops we are really talking about.  The first factor in dropping is can you drop?  There are different university rules for full-time standing, financial aid, scholarships, staying on campus, etc. which can impact your situation.  Depending on your course load dropping a course can have repercussions beyond academics, so be knowledgeable about the rules for your case.

If you can drop, then the question is should you?  From a repercussion stand point, dropping means that you potentially will delay graduation, which in turn means it may cost you more to complete your degree.  For example, dropping can result in a prerequisite challenge where you can’t take other courses since you are missing the prerequisite, and beware that there are things called prerequisite chains where course A is needed for course B is needed for course C and so on.

On the other hand, you are usually dropping a course because the workload and likelihood of success are, respectively, big and bad.  Given your circumstances, continuing in the course will have a significant impact on your grades, and as little a fan I am of grades, “F” and “D” are not good letters to have on your transcript (“F” is way worse than “D”).  My question as an adviser to students in this situation is, why are you on the edge of failure – knowing that it is probably because you haven’t been continually working on the course.

All sorts of things happen in life that can result in needing to drop a course.  Beyond delaying graduation, what impact might this have on your career?  My perspective is that a few drops have no impact on your career.  An interviewer might ask you why you dropped course X, but these can should be able to be easily explained.  For example, I was overwhelmed that semester and chose to drop that course.  However, multiple withdrawals of the same course Y or a large number of withdrawals can be a red flags for recruiters.

Bottom line

Drop a course if you have to.  Life will throw curve balls that make this choice completely reasonable given your situation.  It’s not a sign of failure, personal value, or anything other than you dropped a course.  Just beware of the rules and repercussions, and try to stay with each of your courses from day one so that this is not an issue.

Credits: photo by: Program Executive Office Soldier; title: Maneuverable Canopy (MC) Personnel Parachute System



CollegeQandA asks: Why do I have to buy this textbook?

Textbooks – a major cost in university

text book stack: Why do I have to buy this textbook? Why do I have to buy this textbook?  At 50 dollars a book, roughly on the low end, and at 500 dollars on the high end, textbooks can be a major cost in university.  Let’s take a look at textbooks from three angles –  teacher, student, and the market.

Teachers perspective

From the professors perspective there are a number of reasons that a textbook is used with a class.  First and foremost, the textbook is complimentary/supplementary material as related to the course.  This means that ideas covered in lecture are also covered in the textbook in another voice, and by another voice, I mean that the authors of the textbook are teaching the material through writing, images, examples, and problems in a different way than the professor.  This is the most valuable aspect of a textbook, as supplementary information, but don’t think that the assigned textbook is the only voice to use to help your learn the course’s ideas.

There is this strange building(s) called the library that, likely, carries a number of textbooks in the related topic.  If you don’t like, are having trouble with, or can’t understand the assigned textbook, consult other textbooks to find the voice that speaks to you best and helps you learn the material.

Teachers might also use a textbook to help them organize how to present the material.  In some cases, your professor is not an expert in the field, and has some expertise, but not to the detail of teaching without a textbook.  In these cases, textbooks provide teachers with insight on one ways to organize the ideas and present them in a logical progression.  This includes problems and challenges associated with the material, which a textbook has carefully created, and likely, has worked out solutions.  Creating a problem related to the material is tricky.

Finally, teaching is time consuming.  Full disclosure: Textbook writers and publishers will incentivize professors by preparing materials including lectures, problems, exams, and quizzes so that the professor can save some of their time.

Student perspective

A textbook can be a major cost to your budget, but even required textbooks are not necessarily required.  You need to find out:

  1. How is the textbook used in this class?  Consult the syllabus and ask the teacher.  Is there open book exams and is this the only textbook you can use?  Are problems assigned from the textbook?
  2. Are there cheaper formats of the textbook – online, used, renting?  Depending on how the textbook is being used this can be fine, but beware that different textbook editions may change the problem numbering, references, and even include different material.
  3. Does the book make sense at my level of understanding?  If you can’t understand the book, check for others in the library.
  4. Does the book provide enough examples?   If it doesn’t do as above, and also look for problem and example books.
  5. Will the book be used in more than one class?  If it is, then the one-time cost can be thought of as lower as you divide the cost per class.
  6. Is this the textbook that everyone uses?  There are some textbooks that many universities use and professionals keep as a reference.  Check to see if the textbook is on all the professors shelves, or if someone working in the field has kept the book.  Normally, these textbooks will appear in your third and fourth year.
  7. How many copies and what lending out rules does the library have for the textbook?  Note that the textbook might be available in the library, but how long can you have it for?

Introductory textbooks in areas such as physics, calculus, english, philosophy, etc. are numerous and come in all shapes and sizes.  I found these books to be less useful, but again depending on question 1 you may or may not need to buy it.

One of the best methods to learn about textbooks is to make friends with people who are a year or two ahead of you and ask them what they thought about the textbook.  Peers provide valuable advice, but don’t take that advice as law.  More than one opinion and thinking for yourself is important in this decision, and the cheaper route is not always the best route.

Market perspective

This is the perspective I have the least understanding of since I’ve never been part of it.   As a student, I felt that many textbooks were a means to make money adding very little value to my courses.  On other occasions, the textbook taught me the course since the professor did such a poor job.

As a professor, the market is making someone money, and note, it is probably not your professor.  I would guess that a few publishers and bookstores are doing very well selling books.
Textbooks are part of university and college life.  Take some time to figure out if you need the book.

Credits: Photo by Logan Ingills; titled: just the ones i’m getting rid of


CollegeQandA book review: A Concise Guide to Improving Student Learning

Book Review: A Concise Guide to Improving Student Learning: Six Evidence-Based Principles and How to Apply Them

A Concise Guide to Improving Student Learning: Six Evidence-Based Principles and How to Apply Them book cover
A Concise Guide to Improving Student Learning: Six Evidence-Based Principles and How to Apply Them is written by Persellin and Daniels and provides a number of research-backed ideas on how to teach more effectively – and by teaching the meaning is having students learn and retain the knowledge.

This book is small (78 pages of ideas) and is intended as a quick point of reference for busy, early, and interested professors and teachers to help them learn about how student learning can be improved via a better class.   This is presented organized by 6 principles:

  1. Challenge students early
  2. Spaced repetition
  3. Emotional connection to material
  4. Multisensory teaching and learning
  5. Small group learning
  6. Formative assessment or Low-stakes assessment

For each principle, there are a number of techniques that are briefly described to facilitate them, and everything is evidence-backed by briefly annotated research papers as related to the principle.

Finally, the appendixes include quick prescriptions (the authors call these “workshops”) to help teachers create syllabi, open and close a class, and prepare for classes.  All of this is done in 78 pages, and obviously, the focus is on introducing these ideas with references for deeper inquiry.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

This book is primarily focused on helping teachers and professors quickly get familiar with innovations (backed by research) in learning theory and practice.  It is very relevant to one of this sites major themes – learning.  And because of this it is highly related to CollegeQandA.

I would recommend this book to…

Firstly, this book is recommended for the professor or teacher who wants a quick preview to a number of ideas on improving learning in their classes.  The ideas are not discussed in depth in this book, but that is not the goal.  Instead, this is a great resource for starting your exploration into improving teaching and learning.

Secondly, this book is recommended for learners (students).  Of course, the problem is you (as a student) can’t implement these ideas in the classes you are in, but you can use the concepts in your study sessions and overall learning strategies.  Just because the professor is not promoting a learning environment does not mean you still don’t have to learn the material.  Therefore, these techniques will help you maximize your learning.