What to consider before you invest in a college education

I've spent the last 15 years of my life working at three universities, wearing many different hats during that time. As you can imagine, this means that I've developed an opinion or two when it comes to higher education! Based on what I've experienced (and what I've seen other people go through), one of the most difficult things for people is matching a degree program to their budget and overall career path. You want to find the right fit.

What is “fit” anyway?

I don't think finding a program that fits means finding your “true calling,” as they say. I'm not convinced, having seen firsthand how it can unravel, that the people who can only imagine one specific career for themselves are necessarily the lucky ones. What if your chosen profession doesn't pay well? What if you have to relocate to a place where the job market for that career is better but you don't know anyone? What if the job requires more of your time than you'd like to give?

In my experience, the people who have a wide variety of interests, instead of a single, overriding passion, actually have a better chance of enjoying that ever elusive work-life balance we talk about so frequently. Post-secondary education isn't just an investment in your career, it's an investment in your ability to build the whole life that you want. As such, there are a number of things to consider when it comes to finding your fit.

Where would you like to live?

When I started my PhD, I knew that if I wanted to find a tenure-track position, I had to be open to moving anywhere. At the time, I was single and had just moved across the country by myself. However, by the time I defended my dissertation, I was dating the man I would eventually marry. Unfortunately, my hottest tenure-track job lead ended up being in a small town in the middle of nowhere where he could never find a job. I had become “geographically bound.” While I did find a job I loved, it ended up being a position that doesn't fully utilize my degree. Tradeoff.

In many ways, I was lucky. I have seen dozens of students follow their passion only to discover — after completing their degree and amassing a ton of debt — that there was no demand for that knowledge in the place they KNEW they wanted to live. It's definitely something to keep in mind when you are choosing a degree, certificate, or vocational program: Will you have to find a compromise between what you want to do and where you want to live? Thinking about these things sooner rather than later may save you some heartache — and some debt, if it redirects you to be more strategic about your goals and your budget.

How much time would you like to spend working?

I'll admit it: I'm a ” Grey's Anatomy “ junkie. However, as obsessed with the show as I am, I know that I could never be a surgeon. Yes, it's a lucrative career, but 100-hour weeks just aren't for me. A 40-hour workweek suits me perfectly! And fortunately, that's exactly what I ended up with. And yet every day I see students make investments in careers like medicine or the law without having fully considered what that lifestyle entails.

For example, when Jake was daydreaming about making oodles of money as an attorney, he didn't realize that it was going to mean staying at work until 10 p.m. or later every night. I appreciate the freedom that his schedule gives me to watch my Grey's reruns without being judged! However, I know that he wishes he could afford to give up his six-figure salary for a career with a less demanding schedule, even if it wouldn't be as lucrative.

What schedule works for you?

I have a perfect circadian rhythm. Even if I never look at a clock, I get tired at about 10:30 p.m. every night and wake up no later than 6:30 a.m. every morning — even on the weekends. Jake, on the other hand, suffers from a circadian rhythm disorder that is like permanent jet lag. Functioning on a normal schedule is misery for him, and he still believes his college job as a nighttime security guard was the best job he ever had.

If you are a night owl, then jobs with those hours or jobs you can do from home may work best for you. Some careers, like nursing, offer shift differentials for those who work at night, so you can actually make more money accommodating your body's own rhythms. Other careers, like freelance writing, mean that you can complete the work in the evenings or on the weekends if that's what works for you. Similarly, if you have personal goals that conflict with the 8-to-5 life (such as being a stay-at-home parent), then you may want to pursue an education that will prepare you for a career that offers the flexibility you need.

What you enjoy, what you're good at, and what people will pay for

Apparently, I'm excellent at event planning. At least, that's what my co-workers (who have spent the last six years migrating every possible event my way) tell me. However, if there's one thing I absolutely detest and would prefer to avoid as much as possible, it's event planning. In other words, what you enjoy and what you are good at aren't necessarily the same thing.

What does that mean for picking something as a college major? First, it means that you shouldn't major in something you absolutely detest just because you have a talent for it or because you think it will earn you a big pile of money. However, it also means that just because you enjoy something doesn't mean that you're good at it — or that people will necessarily pay for it. I became a creative writing major because I loved reading fiction. I learned that not only am I incapable of writing the type of book I enjoy reading, I am also unlikely to find a job reading the novels of my choice all day!

How much money you plan to spend on your education

How much are you prepared to spend pursuing your chosen major and career? Where will those funds will come from? Have you thought about scholarships? Given your likely salary once you start working, how much student loan debt should you responsibly take on? And how long might it take to pay off that debt?

Institution type can play a huge factor when it comes to cost. Community colleges, the public four-year university system, private universities, online universities, and vocational colleges all operate at different price points. Strive to obtain the education you need (because education can be a want, too, as I well know) — and then make sure that it's also at a price you can afford.

What would you say is most important for someone who is interested in “finding their fit” and making it work with their budget?

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Kasia
Kasia

Before going off to university or college it’s important to decide what exactly you want to do as there are many jobs that may not require a degree. There are so many degrees available now that are very general in nature and are often useless. Another option is to consider what industries are going to be blooming when you plan on graduating to increase the likelihood of getting a job. I think one of the biggest perks of going to university or college is networking.

Beth
Beth

Some good tips! A couple of things I would add: – Are you considering entrepreneurship? Look for a school that not only teaches courses on running your own business but also provides support (coaching, incubator programs, etc.) for students and staff who want to start their own businesses. – Are there work opportunities? For instance, co-op education programs or internships? Volunteer opportunities, student government, etc. – What is the employment rate for recent graduates in your prospective program, where are people working and living? (Beware: these numbers often include part time workers) Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “society… Read more »

Scooze
Scooze

I think it’scritical piece id’s fir the student to take the initiative to very important to consider the financial aspects of college, but it’s unrealistic to expect that a 17 year old will know what they really want to do fir a career. I think that the cultural “fit”is key and the overall cost (given living expenses, tuition and scholarships) should decide the institution. But once there, undergrad is the time fir kids to explore their interest and figure out who they are. That well determine their initial choice of career. I think the critical piece id’s fir the student… Read more »

Scooze
Scooze

Whoops, lesson learned – don’t thumb your comment into your phone while on a train! Haha even I can’t decipher that, but this is what I meant: I think that a college degree is very important. There are some vocational fields that don’t require it (electrician, plumber, etc.) but for the majority of people, life will be much easier with a college degree. The key is to get the most out of that degree – take the initiative to avail yourself of all career and student services, network with alumni, join clubs, etc. I believe that it is not realistic… Read more »

Midwest Jane
Midwest Jane

Good article. I am also a geographically bound, lapsed academic who decided to opt out of the Ivory Tower altogether. I would add that if things don’t turn out like you expect, don’t beat yourself up about it. You are not a failure if you don’t become who you set out to become. Have a fluid definition of your goals. For instance, it’s better to say “I want to be involved in learning” or “I want to impart knowledge” rather than “I want to be a professor.” This keeps you from pigeonholing your identity. Also recognize that you will always… Read more »

Millionaires Giving Money
Millionaires Giving Money

Before you consider college you should definitely to some calculations to find out what the opportunity cost is. If through your calculations you find that you’re better off without a college degree then take that route! Debt sucks so be analytic in your decision making.

Emma
Emma

These are all excellent questions to ask yourself, and even if you don’t have all the answers, those you do have will help steer you in the right direction.

Kathy
Kathy

Unless one is going to medical school, all students graduating from a 4 year program, should work for a few years before going on to grad school. Taking that time will enable the graduate to mull over their next career move, whether it be grad school or even getting a different degree. Some kids stay in school in order to avoid the working world, which is unfortunate.

LeRainDrop
LeRainDrop

I agree and specifically add law school to your list of grad programs for which it is beneficial to work at least a couple years before attending.

Another Beth
Another Beth

On the other hand, I wish I’d pursued my master’s degree immediately after college. It’s been a number of years since I earned my BA, but it’s so hard for me to go back because of time, because of kids, because of money. It’s a lot easier to justify taking on I-don’t-even-know-how-much in student loans for a master’s when kids aren’t in the picture.

Beth
Beth

It interesting to hear your point of view! When I went back to do my MA, people told me “have your kids first while you’re young and have lots of energy! You can go back to school anytime!” I was in my early 20s, single, and underemployed at the time so obviously THAT wasn’t going to work! One of the reasons I was able to go back to school was that I didn’t have a spouse or kids. I know a few people with kids who are doing or have completed MAs. They either went to school part time with… Read more »

sarah
sarah

It’s so hard for a teenager to understand what they’ll want their life to be like. I don’t think most people at 18 or 19 know whether they’ll be the type to want to work 100 hour weeks. I probably would have thought that I’d like that. Plus a lot of it is influenced by our partner and/or social circle. For some careers, a person has already invested a few years before even starting college. I think my husband wanted to be an architect since he was in middle school and took lots of drafting classes in high school. It… Read more »

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57

It is a Herculean task to decipher through all of the mixed messages and navigate your way through the incompetent, sometimes even well-meaning, professionals. My high school counselor was mediocre at best. She was overworked and maybe underpaid. If she at one point had any passion for job, it was no longer discernible. No discussion or thought was given to how my college education would be funded. She did not solicit my input to know where me and my family stood on these issues. She treated all students this way. Whenever I interacted with her the conversation lasted for five… Read more »

Laura
Laura

I think h.s. students would be well-served by taking 1-5 years off before applying to college, to spend some time in the working world and finding out firsthand things they do and don’t like, as well as gaining a little more maturity along with perspective. That said, the U.S. educational system is largely set up to feed students directly from h.s. straight into college; a student would have to be pretty pro-active to take a break. I took a year off between h.s. and my first attempt at college, and it was much harder to get guidance as I no… Read more »

sarah
sarah

As someone who took 3 years to work between college and grad school – yes it gave me a lot of valuable experience and allowed be to be more mature and thoughtful in my work, as well as make a better decision about what to study in the first place. But going back to school after having worked is really hard, too. I was used to being an adult and being paid for my hard work. I hated going back to being broke, borrowing money, sitting in classes, interning and studying for 16 hours a day for free. I couldn’t… Read more »

Carla
Carla

Now imagine doing it when you’re in your 30s!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo

If it’s any consolation for your sufferings, I taught college while in grad school for 4 years and the adult students were invariably the more engaged, more organized, more fun to teach, more hard-working, more successful– in other words, the best students.

sarah
sarah

But those were the ones who made it back. If it was recommended to take 1-5 years off I believe that more than half would never do college at all, and many would ultimately regret it.

Beth
Beth

Given how many people drop out or fail, I wonder how many people regret going straight to college? It’s an expensive way to “find yourself”.

Financial Forager
Financial Forager

With the cost of college tuition these days it is a tough choice, to get a college degree or learn a trade. I think most kids should take a year off and see the country before they decide what the want to do. It will give them some perspective on life.

James Salmons
James Salmons

Several have mentioned people changing fields while in college. Statistically, some years ago, over 90% changed what they started out to do and a lot more never had any idea to start with; it may not be so high now but I can’t say.

There is no stigma to changing. In fact, I think it is wise to start with the knowledge that as you learn more you will discover opportunities you never dreamed of before.

I know it does pay to focus on basics at first and keep your options open. Learning how to learn is most important.

MM
MM

I strongly dislike false statements like this one made in the blog post: I know that he wishes he could afford to give up his six-figure salary for a career with a less demanding schedule, even if it wouldn’t be as lucrative.” If he really wished that, he would do it. And he certainly can. People all over America routinely pay off debts like those your husband has/had and live abundant lives earning under six figures. Your husband could have a generous but less-than-six-figure income, work a reasonable number of hours, and have a fine lifestyle. He’d just have to… Read more »

Mom of five
Mom of five

Our two oldest are approaching college age (rising high school senior and sophomore), so I have a lot of opinions on this subject. And I’m sensing a change in the zeitgeist – more people than ever believe college is for some sort of occupational training and degrees should be achieved with low debt. Our oldest is a model student with a sky high SAT score and GPA. She’s also got great extra-curriculars. In another era, she’d have almost certainly been looking at the Ivy League, but today we see young people crippled by student loans and we will not even… Read more »

jim
jim

I do NOT recommend taking time off after h.s. or undergrad for higher education. Spouse did it and by then we had a child. She was always a straight A student, but when she went to law school after having been out of undergrad for 5 years, it was really, really hard for her to get back into that “college state of mind”. She did end up graduating with honors, but it was a really, really tough 3 years. If she had to do it all over again, she’d go straight thru with no break ’cause it’s hard to get… Read more »

Jen From Boston
Jen From Boston

“Post-secondary education isn’t just an investment in your career, it’s an investment in your ability to build the whole life that you want.” In grade school I had a teacher who told us that the larger point of school was to teach us how to learn. In my case, that’s exactly what happened when I left high school and got a liberal arts degree. Many people scoff at liberal arts, and given the outrageous college costs I can see why. You have to hit the ground running the minute you get your degree, and so many people have degrees now… Read more »

Jen From Boston
Jen From Boston

One bit of advice I’d offer is to strongly consider schools with co-op programs, like Northeastern, although NU is pretty pricey. Northeaster has its students work alternating quarters starting after sophomore year. It takes longer to graduate – five years – but you get real work experience, and a chance to test drive a career. As for cost, I don’t think you’re paying any tuition during your co-op periods, so the overall costs should be the same as a four year program. There’s also one or two colleges in the US that don’t charge tuition. Instead, the students work on… Read more »

Crystal Olivarria
Crystal Olivarria

It would be nice if schools (and parents) spent more time encouraging students to explore career paths. Parents expect the school system to prepare children for college. You would think this would include helping students pick college majors, but unfortunately it does not.

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