Calculating the Best College Choice

Americans are living in a retro painted world when it comes to college. For decades, we watched the kids who went to college get those management jobs, regardless of their degree, and we learned; our parents learned: if you want a good job, go to college and get a degree, ANY degree! And so we went.

After WWII, the GI Bill afforded many otherwise non-college kids the ability to get a degree and so began the middle class rush into higher education. It was a good thing, and colleges more than anyone, saw this first hand and began to count the tuition dollars.

As the factory jobs began to decline in the 1970s and 1980s people saw their blue collar family and friends losing jobs by the tens of thousands, the myth of the college degree ramped up again, and in droves we headed off to college, aided and abetted by the student loan industry. As late as the 1990s we still believed that a degree – ANY degree at any cost – was ALWAYS a good investment. At one time that may have been true, but with the entrance of the quickie online degree programs into the education game, this is no longer the case. In addition, even venerable institutions of higher education, once considered respectable, have boosted tuition and fees past the rate of CPI growth, inflation and everything sane to the point that concern about the sustainability of student loan debt among recent grads is a national conversation.

I mentioned the manufacturing base, and yes – it’s for the most part gone, so what’s a person to think when looking at the options?

Identify WHY you are going to college. Are you going simply to educate yourself and be more well-read? This is a noble goal and one the founding fathers based the entire public education system on so many years ago. Go for it, and unless you have a trust fund, I recommend going part time and paying as you go (i.e. don’t borrow any money to finance this little foray)

If you’re going to college to get a job, get out your laptop and open a file. THEN, it’s time to do some research. What is the job market for what you want to do? For this information do NOT listen to school admissions offices – do your own homework, and begin at the Bureau of Labor Statstics, which can be found at: www.bls.gov

Next, search for the median salary for this position, based on your geographic region (BLS will give you national estimates). I like http://salary.monster.com for this information.

Next, look for schools offering the degree you need to work in this field. NOW, it’s time to be really careful! Lots of unscrupulous schools will promise you that you can earn that degree, but if you have to ask, and someone has to tell you some convoluted story (i.e. you can’t find the curriculum and program information easily on their web site),… keep looking and move on.

Once you find an institution that offers that degree program, find the tuition and fees information. Now, calculate the money you have on hand, and the money you can afford to pay toward your degree as you go. HINT: if you find your degree (or even the START of your degree) is available at your local community college, you will save yourself a TON of money.

Once you figure this out, estimate how much you may need to borrow. Write this down.

Now, Google FAFSA so you can get information on how much federally-subsidized and unsubsidized money you are eligible to borrow (this depends on whether you are a dependent, or an independent student), then go to this site: http://www.finaid.org/calculators/loanpayments.phtml and see how much this loan will cost you each month to pay back.

If you are already a working adult, you probably have a monthly budget. Take the MEDIAN salary for the job you are hoping to get after graduation (keeping in mind you may be hired in at a lower level if you are new to the profession), and figure out your new budgetary reality after graduation, with all your current bills, and your new student loan payments.

IF your student loans are going to actually make you have LESS disposable income after graduation, you really want to think about some alternatives to that path.

Alternatives include: find another school, go part time, investigate On the Job training options.

Public institutions like community colleges and state colleges and universities are almost always more affordable than for-profit, online institutions, They are also more likely to let you attend part time, which can allow you to pay as you go and not go into as much debt.

Ask employers what they are looking for in the job you are seeking. If most of their hires have associate’s degrees, don’t spend the money on a bachelor’s degree (get hired, and use your tuition benefits to get that BA/BS degree!!). Also look into OJT (on the job training). There are schools that SELL you a $40,000 culinary degree, but you can get the same job without that kind of money by getting an entry level position with a restaurant and working your way up, and once you learn what you need to learn and make the better money, you don’t have the student loan debt hanging over your head.

Some of the biggest scams out there right now are the online degrees in health care “administration” and criminal justice that cost $40,000 and more, and “prepare” students for jobs that a) don’t need degrees, b) don’t pay you enough to be able to afford to pay off your student loans, and c) aren’t real pathways into the jobs they promise (ps: most health care administrators have master’s degrees and years of solid health care experience…)

One other IMPORTANT note: If you borrow federal student loan money and decide not to pay it back, you CANNOT discharge it through bankruptcy (thanks to George W. Bush and the GOP). That debt will follow you to the grave and they can garnish your tax refunds and SS checks to get their money.

If you default on federal student loans you cannot get a state job or federal job (like working in a prison, which pays well for non-educated or marginally educated folks), and you will find that the student loan that seemed like such a good idea, is a nightmare, made manifest in your life.

Getting an education is a GREAT idea, as long as you do it the smart way and don’t get duped into spending an obscene amount of money for a worthless piece of paper. It’s no longer enough to have a degree; you need real skills that can be applied in the work force, so before enrolling in college, do your homework and make the right choice for you.

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