“The more you learn, the more you earn,” right? Well, this is precisely what the Bureau of Labor Statistics found when comparing weekly earnings from those of various schooling levels across the country (Torpey, 2018). In fact, those with a bachelor’s degree made 34% more weekly earnings than those with some college but no degree and had a 37% lower unemployment rate. As degrees increased to master’s and doctoral, pay percentages continued to increase, and unemployment decrease. Those extra years of schooling, though, can cost a pretty penny and add to student debt. So, what can you do to get the most out of your education? Which type of college is most beneficial for your goals? And what career path is going to pay off down the road?

Choosing a Major & Career – What does it Mean for you Down the Road?

I’ve been an instructor now for 10 years, but I clearly remember the small and awkward path I took to consider possible majors and colleges while still in high school. My peers and I sat down at our ancient computers, completed a small questionnaire about our desires, and every student in the classroom pretty much looked for which career would make us the most amount of money with the least amount of effort.

While earning potential is a factor each student should consider, here are a few more elements to use for brainstorming:

  • What areas of study do you most enjoy?
  • What areas of study do you excel at or desire to learn more about?
  • What lifestyle do you envision for yourself 10 years from now?
    • Are you comfortable sitting in an office space for long hours?
    • Do you ignite in social settings and enjoy being the leader of groups?
    • Do you prefer working with your hands?
    • How about solving problems?—do you ask “why” or “how” something works?

According to Payscale.com, the highest-earning bachelor’s degrees to have “are mostly STEM-focused, meaning they are focused on science, technology, engineering, or math.” Yet, Inside Higher Ed tells us that those who start in mathematics and natural sciences are more likely to switch fields in their first few years of college than their peers (2017).

So before committing to a major or potential career path, it’s best to:

  • Review syllabi for potential courses at various institutions. See what prerequisites there are for higher-level classes you’re interested in and see if the degree plan looks like a potential fit.
  • Talk with current students, academic advisors, and professionals within the fields. Get a glimpse of what daily life might be like with your desired degree.
  • Consider internships or shadowing those on the job; this can offer beneficial insight and potential hands-on experience within the field (which can bode well on your resume while offering you a sense of peace either way about the field).
  • Consider the length of time it will take to get a degree in your chosen major. Will it take 2 years? Or 4 to 5 years? Will you need to go to graduate school to be successful?

Ultimately, choosing your major will be a gradual process for most, and you won’t be required to “declare” it until your second year of college. But it’s important to give your major a good deal of thought even before entering college—because you’ll want to ensure that the college you attend has adequate and well-reviewed programs for your desired career path, including prerequisite degrees for desired professional degrees.

Understanding College Debt and Student Loans

As you sit down with your college brochures, be sure to also grab a calculator. You’ll want to calculate the cost of tuition (including room and board, classroom materials, and living expenses), available free aid (such as scholarships and grants), how much you’ll need in loans, and which type of loans to pursue. Remember,  student loans will become a debt that you’ll be required to begin paying once you graduate.

If you don’t know the difference between federal and private student loans or don’t feel too savvy in the financial arena, you’re not alone. Almost 4 in 10 students/borrowers polled by College Ave Student Loans weren’t aware of the difference in these loan types (as cited in Mercado, D, 2019). Yet average college costs for in-state students at public four-year institutions during the 2018-2019 academic year was $10,230 and $35,830 for private nonprofit institutions (Trends in Higher Education, 2019). With this annual cost, students can expect that they’ll need a bit of borrowing power.

So, let’s get savvy:

  • Basically, federal loans are funded by the government and have benefits such as fixed rates and more flexible terms (including income-based repayment); if you need to borrow money, you’ll want to start with federal aid.
  • Private student loans are offered by private organizations like banks and credit unions and are generally more expensive and contain stricter terms and conditions (Federal Student Aid, 2019).

Once you have a handful of colleges picked out, you’ll want to submit your FAFSA application to determine how much aid you may qualify for. This information will be sent to your schools of choice, and you’ll then receive a financial aid packet from each school.

Before you borrow:

  1. Calculate the amount you actually need.
  2. Calculate your total monthly payment for your prospective loans.
  3. Look into (and apply for) a variety of scholarships (national, state-wide, and local) to offset costs. Be sure to search niches you might qualify for (gender, area of study, leadership, disability, etc.).

You will not want to take more than you need. Katzeff of Investor’s Business Daily (2018) found that more than 73% of borrowers say student loans are the reason they haven’t started investing in their retirement. Debt can become a wicked spiral if we allow it to; but with proper planning, becoming debt-free quickly is quite possible.

Community Colleges as Leverage

Another way to obtain the quality of education desired without breaking the bank is through community college. Having attended a private college for my bachelor’s degree and then teaching at both a public 4-year university and community college, I can attest to the high level of instruction and student commitment at the community college level. And as you may have guessed, it’s a fraction of the cost. For the 2018-2019 academic year, the average tuition for community college within the US was $3,660 compared to $10,230 for public 4-year (in-state) institutions (Trends in Higher Education, 2019). Now, with some proper repayment planning, quite a few on-campus jobs, and a good number of scholarships, I was able to pay my private college loans off within a handful of years. However, looking back, community college makes a lot of sense for a number of reasons:

  • You can save on overall tuition costs
  • With part-time courses, there is more flexibility to hold a job and therefore simultaneously pay tuition costs
  • Some careers, such as nursing, only require a 2-year degree
  • Those pursuing a 4-year degree can begin at a community college for a much lower cost before transferring

So, examine your options. A cost-benefit analysis might become your trusted friend in a situation like this.