As a high school junior or senior, you probably consider yourself a savvy consumer. When you buy something, you check out different stores for a bargain with the best features. You and your friends share tales of getting a good deal on recent purchases.
Do you know that a Bachelor’s degree can cost from $50,000 to over $100,000? Or that graduate schools charge $40,000 to $85,000 a year. A college education is likely to be the most expensive product you’ve ever bought.
And, don’t just think, “I’ll get a student loan.” Student loans are not free money. Debt, both from student loans and credit card borrowing has become a huge issue for today’s college students and recent grads. The bottom line is: your undergraduate education should not leave you heavily in debt. Too much debt limits both your options and your quality of life.
To choose a college that’s right for you, applying your consumer smarts becomes extremely important. To make a good decision, you need to know:
Do you need a degree? Additional education or training after high school is needed for 60% of today’s jobs. Yet, less than 20% of those jobs require a bachelor’s degree. Of course, there are jobs for which a bachelor’s degree is essential. Do you really want one of those jobs?
Don’t assume that a degree makes you more employable. If you are wrong, you’ve wasted tens of thousands of dollars and several years of your life. Talk with a half dozen people doing the work you want to do. Find out from them if a college degree is necessary. If it is, they may suggest colleges that have exceptional departments or programs for what you need to study.
Also, don’t assume that all college degrees are of equal worth in the job market. Starting salaries for chemical engineers are nearly $30,000 higher than those for philosophy majors.
- What can you afford? Nationwide, only 32% of college students graduate in four years; 56% graduate in six years. If you need to work—85% of college students do—or can’t get the right classes for graduation, you may spend more than 4 years getting an undergraduate degree. Stretch your money by going to a community or less costly state college first and then transferring to complete your major. Even better, learn an in demand trade that can support you and your studies without borrowing.
How can you avoid over-borrowing? The average grad has more than $21,000 in student loans and over $3000 charged on credit cards. Private loans can push debt load even higher. One in three grads leaves college in serious financial difficulty. Limit your total borrowing to no more than 2/3rds of your likely starting salary, or you won’t be able to pay your bills. Being heavily in debt is not only stressful, but it can limit your job and graduate school options.
Students typically over-estimate starting salaries and under estimate college costs. Do field research in the area you want to live to make sure you know your likely starting pay.
- Which schools have value-added programs? Employers hire candidates that can quickly become productive. Internships, co-op education, service learning, campus chapters of professional organizations, study and working abroad all increase your employability. If you want to work at a campus radio station, newspaper or other cool position to add to your credentials, remember these opportunities are much harder to get at big-name schools.
Who has the best support programs? Being away from home is so exciting. It can also be overwhelming living 24/7 with strangers whose habits and values are so different from your own. Sharing a postage stamp sized room with someone is challenging. Look for schools with strong Student or Residential Life programs that teach time management, setting priorities, study skills, conflict resolution and give an overview to leadership and team-building opportunities or clubs.
Also, check out career centers. If you haven’t a clue what work you want to do after you graduate or want to have a job before you graduate (highly recommended), you may need help from a competent career counselor. Some college career centers work well with students who know what they want to do, but are less effective with students who don’t have any idea what work would interest them. Ultimately, finding a job that uses your education and interests will be is your responsibility.