College is incredibly expensive — and the cost rises steadily every year. The typical Ivy League university charges over 35,000 after-tax dollars a year. The typical private college costs $25,000 a year. The typical state university charges over $9,000. With the typical textbook at $100, it’s easy to understand how bills pile up.

And it’s not a problem that concerns only your kids’ education. What about you? Maybe you’ve hit a brick wall in your career. Maybe your employer’s policy is to promote only college graduates. “No tickee, no washee” as the now politically incorrect slogan used to be.

What are you going to do at this late date? Quit your job? Move to a college town if you’re not living in one? Work at McDonald’s part-time and go to college part-time for eight years? Not likely.

What is your wisest course of action at this stage in your life?

Before we get to that, let’s consider your stupidest course of action: paying some spammer hundreds of dollars to buy a diploma from a college you never heard of. There have been diploma mills for half a century or more. With the Internet, they are sprouting like toadstools after a rain. You have seen the ads. Maybe you’re tempted.

Resist this temptation.

If your career advances because you persuade an employer that you earned a degree at a real college, and he ever finds out, you may be fired. Deception is risky. If a competitor ever finds out and leaks the truth to someone in charge, your career could suffer a setback from which it will not recover.

When a future prospective employer calls the one who just fired you, he can say, “He lied about his academic record.” Most inquiries are politely and cautiously avoided. “No comment.” Businessmen don’t want to get sued. But faking a college degree is a clear-cut violation of trust. Lawyers are hesitant to challenge that one. After all, they spent years in college and more years in law school. Their profession comes down hard on fake degrees.

If a degree-granting institution is not accredited by one of the eight regional accrediting associations, don’t pay a dime unless the college offers unique training that can open special employment doors.

There is another big mistake you can make: paying full tuition for a distance-learning degree. Colleges love students to do this. The off-campus students pay full ticket, yet they do not fill up classroom seating, use the school’s library, enjoy the school’s manicured grounds, take up seats in its football stadium (that can be sold by the school at $25 to $50 per ticket), or otherwise add to the wear and tear of the campus. The money rolls in.

Show me a university that charges full tuition to its off-campus students, and I’ll show you a money tree. Now, if the school is tax-funded, and tuition is subsidized, then this may be worth doing. But no college that offers a bachelor’s degree for distance-learning students offers the degree in all majors. The number of majors is limited, usually under half a dozen.

This may still be OK, if your employer doesn’t care what field your degree is in, only that you earned one.

There are ways around these pitfalls, though not very many.

You can earn a legitimate degree from an accredited college. You don’t have to pay full tuition. There are some tax-funded schools that offer in-state tuition to out-of-state residents. But there are not many like this, and their programs are not widely known. But they do exist. It is possible to earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university at home in three years for under $11,000. If you hustle, you can do this in less than three years. Even working full-time, you can do it in four years. I know of one 18-year-old who earned his degree in six months for about $5,000.

It can be done.