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Being Smart About College


I don’t always write advice columns, but when I do, I don’t have a good way to finish this joke.

I’m going to talk about going to college in the US. This will be most pertinent to you if you meet the following criteria:

  * You're in your late teens or early 20s and eyeing college/university as the jumping off point to a your career path.
  * You/your family are not independently wealthy nor capable of paying for your education entirely out-of-pocket. Likewise, you have no substantial college savings.
  * You have not already obtained a full scholarship to a university. (Good on you, if you have!)
  * You have at least some idea of what you want to do as a career.

I went to college what would probably seem like a long time ago if you are in the target audience for this post. I enrolled in 1999–last century, now that I think about it. One thing I know is that much has changed since then. Just a few points:

  * A college education is much more expensive now than it was 15 years ago.
  * The terms of student loans are worse today than at the turn of the century.
  * The use of a college degree as a first-pass resume filter for employers has skyrocketed, even in jobs where a degree is unnecessary.

In other words, I know that it’s not possible for people today to do what I did back then. I worked three jobs while attending school full-time and taking out the maximum in federal student loans. Three years in, even this become untenable–I simply couldn’t afford the tuition after the latest hike. The situation has only gotten worse since then.

But I’m not here to preach doom and gloom. It’s definitely harder now than it was, but by no means impossible. If you already know all the advice that follows: great! You’re on the right track. And feel free to leave additional pointers in the comments, too. I have kids of my own who are going to be grappling with these questions in a few years (sooner than I’d like to think about), so best to start thinking about it now.

First, think about what you want to do. If you have a particular career path in mind, investigate what its educational and licensing requirements are, as well as the likely income from it. Find out if there’s a glut of people doing what you want to do–maybe that’s not the field to go into, then. For example: the US is currently experiencing a massive lawyer glut. Not only is it very time-consuming and expensive to become a lawyer (often well into six figures in educational expenses), we now have far too many lawyers. The unemployment rate for newly-minted lawyers is over 11%. That’s abysmal.

Let’s say your dream job is done in by the fact that it has a high unemployment rate, then. What are you at least good at? Think about it. Take some aptitude tests. Talk to your local unemployment office, which may have career resources for you. Once you know what you want to pursue, you’ll have a much easier time choosing a school. Or maybe your career of choice doesn’t require a college degree–maybe it requires training and certification. In that case, determine what it takes and go for it. Investigate whether financial aid is available for your chosen profession, and be sure to shop around–don’t take what the first school or program offers you. Make sure it’s a good deal.

If you do ultimately choose to pursue a 4-year degree (or beyond), the same advice applies. While I cannot give advice about specific programs, consider that community colleges are often a lot cheaper than universities, and see if it is possible to fulfill many of your desired program’s credit requirements by transferring credits from a community college. This can take some work, but it can be much more inexpensive. This does mean choosing both a community college and a university, however, which is obviously more work than choosing a single school. The cost savings should easily be worth it, though.

Whether attending community college or a university, consider the cost savings of staying close to home, possibly living with family. Many universities prefer to push the “full college experience” by having students live on-campus. This certainly does provide a different experience from what commuters get, but is it worth double the price? That’s how much room and board typically add to the price tag of a university education.

Look at other cost-effective options for university, as well: consider your state’s university system. Thanks to lower tuition rates for state residents, it may be considerably cheaper than a private in-state university or any out-of-state school. If there is a state university campus close to home, that may be your best bet. The real deal-breaker is when you get down to the program you want. Does the state university have at least a moderately respectable program in the field you want to pursue? If so, you’re all set! If not, look into other options, and again think about whether the school offers another program that might similarly benefit you. Be flexible.

So, how do you pay for this? That’s the question that needs answering most urgently, right? The top 5 options, as described in this helpful article from St. Louis University, are:

  * Merit-based scholarships. Even a handful of these can help substantially defray costs, and many are not difficult to apply for.
  * Grants. Needs-based grants are often available.
  * Work-study. You can pay down some of your university costs through work-study programs, which offer part-time work for students.
  * Federal student loans. These are not the greatest option since they have to be repaid, but they exist. Go for subsidized loans to the extent possible; avoid unsubsidized if you can.
  * Private student loans. I would generally recommend against these, no matter how attractive they might seem. The interest rates tend to be terrible (college students typically have no credit and thus poor credit scores) and the repayment terms are often arbitrary. You also don't want to end up dealing with private bill collectors, who are almost universally terrible.

There is also, of course, the option of getting a job to help pay for college. There are some options here, too:

  * If possible, get a job while you're still in high school and sock some of that money away. Even a few thousand dollars will be a big help later. (Admittedly, I did not do this.)
  * If not work-study, get another campus job that pays cash instead of directly to your tuition and fees, and use it to pay for school.
  * Look for paid internships in your desired field. These are especially common in information technology. (Conversely, be skeptical of unpaid internships. They are often straight-up exploitation with no career value at all.)

I’ll be clear and state that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Think outside the box. What if you got your degree in Europe, for free or close to it? It’s entirely possible. Investigate a range of options and figure out what works best for you and the life you want to have for yourself. And be sure to determine whether what you’ll spend on your education really makes sense given the financial prospects of your career path. Should you spend $150,000 on a degree for a job that tops out at $60,000 a year? That doesn’t make much sense, does it? Think it through and be sure it’s worth it–you’re talking about the rest of your life, here.

And don’t be afraid to make a decision now knowing that you might change your mind later. Lots of people change paths later in life. It’s not unusual, so don’t stress about it too much. What you want is something you can do right now, keeping your future possibilities open.

Good luck out there! And if you have any advice to add (or corrections to make), feel free to leave them in the comments.