Rethinking College Options

For years high school counselors and parents have told students that completing a bachelor’s degree is their ticket to the good life. Today, the cost of a college degree is skyrocketing and the potential of a degree leading to a well-paying job is a lot less certain. In addition, many young adults finish college facing years of repaying student loans. As a result, many students (and their parents) are questioning the value of a college education.

Skyrocketing College Costs

Just what is the price tag of a four-year bachelor’s degree? Over the past five years, annual public-college costs have reached $17,860 according to the College Board. Private-college costs are approaching $40,000 a year. The average debt of students who borrowed money to pay college costs is $26,600 (enough to buy a new car), and many new graduates owe much more.

Shifting Job Prospects

A college degree no longer ensures a job in one’s field, a well-paying job, or (with increasing frequency) any job at all. The unemployment rate of young adults between the ages of 20 and 24 is nearly six percent. Others are earning less than anticipated or must take jobs outside their fields of study. Still, the unemployment rate for recent high school graduates is even worse at an astounding 27 percent.  Many of the jobs lost during the recession were held by workers with a high school diploma or less. The number of jobs that need high school or less will likely continue to shrink. Despite the dismal statistics, college graduates can expect lifetime earnings of about $1 million more than a high school graduate.

Looking at Your Education Options

Most employers offering middle-income jobs in fields with a positive job outlook (such as health care, information technology, and public services) need some education beyond high school but less than a four-year college degree. So, what are the alternatives to a traditional residential college program? How can you get into the workforce faster, cheaper or both? Most of the options available are not new, but all are worthy of renewed consideration. Some of these options may lead directly to a job paying $35,000 or more. Others may serve as a springboard to get you closer to your career goal. Consider the following possibilities:

Get a Certificate

Professional certification or licensing programs offer the knowledge and skills employers expect for many well-paying jobs. More than a quarter of employees holding these certificates or licenses earn more than the average college graduate. You can find certification programs at community colleges, at for-profit schools, and in corporate and industry training programs. The price, length, and academic requirements of these programs vary. Some include hands-on workplace training. You may need to pass a certification exam before you qualify for work. In some fields, it may even be possible to meet certification requirements through independent study. If you want to continue your education, you can work while you do so or can take advantage of workplace training programs.

Complete an Associate’s Degree

Associate’s degrees are increasingly in demand by employers today. These two-year degrees typically offer skills-based career training. Employees with an associate’s degree can expect to earn about 24% more than high school graduates during their careers. With an associate’s degree, men earn an average of $49,000 per year; women earn an average of $35,000.  Popular fields include business, information technology, and nursing.

Split Your Studies between Community and Public College

One way to save money on a four-year degree is to complete the first two years at a community college. Many community colleges have transfer agreements with four-year institutions for prerequisite courses. (Warning: If you plan to transfer, be sure the four-year college you plan to attend accepts the community college courses you plan to take.) On average, tuition and fees at a community college are about one-third the cost of those at a four-year college. You can save the cost of room and board by living at home. In addition, the night and weekend classes typically available in community colleges more easily adapt to a part-time work schedule. If you complete an associate’s degree you can later enroll in a bachelor’s degree program. This gives you the opportunity to take a break to save for your last two years or to earn more while working part-time to finish college.

Enroll in a Three-Year Degree Program

Graduating in three years eliminates one year of college costs and enables you to start working a year earlier. Both public and private schools now offer three-year degree programs. You will save the most in a school that charges by full-time versus part-time status instead of by credit hour. To finish a degree in three years means that you will need to take a full course load and attend school all year. Unless you are a strong student and are highly motivated, this option is not right for you.

Make the Most of Attending a Public College

If you decide that attending a four-year college is the best choice for you, Attending a public college costs less than a private one. Choose a college with a strong track record of graduating students within four years. Choose a major in a field with a positive job outlook and a college whose graduates employers in the field seek . Choose a minor that will make you more valuable to prospective employers or increase your flexibility in the job market.  Increase your chances of getting a job when you graduate by keeping your grades up. Get involved in student organizations related to your major. Seek part-time work or summer internships related to your major with employers who might hire you or give you a good recommendation when you graduate. Make graduating on time a priority!

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