Choosing a College: The Complete Guide to Finding the Best Fit for You
Graduating from high school is an exciting and stressful time. Your future is full of possibilities, but sometimes all of the impending decisions seem overwhelming. What do you want to be? Where do you want to go? How do you know if college is right for you? When you don’t have the answers, it’s easy to follow the crowd blindly without considering the impact of your choices.
Generally speaking, going to college is a great decision… but it isn’t one that should be taken lightly. Your college and career decisions have ramifications that can affect the rest of your life – both positively and negatively. While “follow your dreams” may be an inspiring rallying cry, sometimes those dreams are extremely expensive and hold little promise of a financial return.
In fact, statistics show today’s college student is getting a worse return on their money than they did just 16 years ago. As of late 2016, the total amount of student loan debt in the United States is approaching $1.3 trillion – averaging over $30,000 per indebted person and climbing, as evidenced by the Class of 2016 graduating with an average of about $37,000 in student loan debt. Tuition rates rose over 44.5% from 2000 to 2014 (in constant 2014 dollars) while median incomes based on degree attainment actually declined almost across the board. The only exception to this is for those holding just a high school diploma, whose incomes remained level.
If all those numbers have your head swimming, here’s the point: Students are paying more for their education yet earning less than they did just 16 years ago. It’s enough to question whether going to college is even a good option anymore?
Of course, the short answer is “yes.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics, employees who graduate with a four-year degree make over 66% more than those with only a high school diploma. But, it’s also important to note that not all college degrees are created equal. Thus, you need to carefully consider your college decisions before you ever put money down at an institution.
The real question is this: Is going to college right for you? In this piece, we’ll attempt to answer that question by:
- Exploring your post-high school options, both inside and outside academia
- Considering why college is still a good idea for most students and how to make it worth your while
- Evaluating the pros and cons of different types of schools and degree programs
- Looking at examples of who should earn a college degree and where their best academic options lay
- Discussing other ways to save money in college and increase the return on your investment
So, let’s get started!
What Options Do I Have After High School?
Upon graduating high school, you can pursue a number of different options – both in and out of the classroom. With that said, the path you choose will certainly affect the types of jobs you qualify for and the amount of money you are able to earn in the future. Here’s a brief overview of what you can expect based on your level of education:
- High School Diploma – As employers increasingly search for highly trained employees with specific skill sets, “good” jobs can be hard to find for high school graduates. If you choose to enter the workforce with just your high school diploma in hand, you can expect to earn an average salary of about $30,000 a year. Jobs are usually of the entry-level variety and may include general maintenance and repair, basic office jobs, and retail sales.
- Postsecondary Certificate or Diploma – Earning a postsecondary certificate or diploma is a quick and relatively inexpensive way to learn a set of specific skills needed to obtain entry-level employment in a number of industries. Careers in dental assisting, medical assisting, automotive technology, HVAC repair, and many more require no more than a postsecondary certificate or diploma. You can usually find these programs at stand-alone career colleges or at vocational and technical colleges. Your training is usually completed in one year or less.
- Associate’s Degree – Associate’s degrees can be earned at vocational/technical colleges or at community colleges. Depending on the type of program in which you enroll, an Associate’s degree may be used as preparation for a new career or as a stepping stone for further study at the Bachelor’s degree level. These programs can usually be completed in two years of full-time study and result in a median salary of $35,000 a year, although certain careers may pay even more than some requiring a Bachelor’s degree. Dental hygiene, nursing, and diagnostic medical stenography are just a few fields you can enter with an associate’s degree.
- Apprenticeship Programs – Students wanting to find work in certain skilled trades may decide to enter an apprenticeship program. Although many choose to first attend a vocational or trade school, some seeking apprenticeships begin their program immediately after high school. Apprenticeship programs provide intensive on-the-job training which usually lasts for several years. Careers as a plumber, carpenter, electrician, and a brick mason can be earned through an apprenticeship. Median salaries range from about $40,000 a year to $55,000 a year, based on the type of trade and work experience. This tool from the U.S. Department of Labor is a great resource for finding apprenticeship opportunities near you.
- Bachelor’s Degree – If you are seeking a well-rounded, liberal arts based education, a Bachelor’s degree may be for you. Through general education requirements, Bachelor’s degree programs provide a broad-based education covering topics outside of your major area of focus. Of course, you still receive in-depth training in your field of study as well. These programs usually require four-years of full-time study to complete and can be found at various universities and colleges. According to the latest information from the National Center for Education Statistics, the median annual earnings for those holding a Bachelor’s degree is about $49,900 a year.
- Start a Business – Going to college isn’t your only option after high school. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you may wish to start your own business instead. Depending on the type of business, you may not need a college degree to get up and running. (Check out the U.S. Small Business Administration for information on getting started.) Of course, running your business well requires an understanding of basic business concepts like accounting, marketing, management, and more. You must also conform to any legal and reporting requirements. Therefore, many aspiring entrepreneurs pursue college courses or business degrees prior to launching.
Why Going to College is Still the Best Option for Most Students
For most students, going to college is still the best option for their future earning potential. Generally speaking, the more schooling you complete, the higher your potential salary. As we mentioned earlier, those holding Bachelor’s degrees make about 66% more than those with a high school diploma alone.
Of course, pursuing a postsecondary education is not “one size fits all.” Blindly selecting a four-year college because that is what you’re “supposed to do” isn’t always the best course of action. Going to college is expensive, and your choice of degree could have financial implications for the rest of your life. It is important to weigh your options and choose the path that will provide the best results for the lowest price.
What Type of College is Right for Me?
Getting the most return for your college dollar means carefully considering your options before enrolling in any program. Ask yourself:
- What are my career goals?
- What are the degree requirements needed to pursue this career?
- Where can I get the best value for my educational dollar?
Choosing the right college for you starts with knowing what you want to study. If you want to become a plumber, a Bachelor’s degree program probably won’t provide the best return. However, if you plan to study law, you will eventually need to earn a Bachelor’s degree.
Additionally, you should consider the differences between private and public schools. Generally speaking, private institutions cost considerably more than public colleges and universities. However, some private universities may provide additional value through other means, such as networking and clout.
It also helps to think of your education as an investment. Because you’re spending money to invest in your future, it may be prudent to ensure that your major provides an acceptable average return. In other words, choose a field of study that both interests you and pays well. A good rule of thumb is keeping your total student loan debt below the average annual starting salary for your profession. After all, FedLoan is still going to expect you to pay back those federal loans, regardless of what you make.
If you aren’t sure what you want to study, don’t worry. Consider a less expensive option, like community college, first. These schools will expose you to a number of different fields for (usually) a fraction of the cost of a four-year institution. While acquiring a better understanding of where your passions lay, you’ll also save money…and earn college credit while you do it.
Why Should I Consider a Trade School?
Are you somebody who wants to learn a trade but doesn’t want to spend much time or money doing it? Trade schools, also known as vocational or technical schools, are a great way to learn the job skills you need and hit the job market quickly. Benefits of trade schools include:
- Learning a skill – The skills learned while attending a vocational school are skills that will stay with you for a lifetime. Besides, many of these trades are extremely hard to outsource. It would be pretty tough to build a house in China and ship it to the U.S. Thus, many (but not all) trades provide excellent job security.
- Career focused learning – Technical schools are perfect if you want to focus your time and energy on learning a specific set of skills. These programs eliminate general education requirements, allowing you to spend your time learning just the practical knowledge that applies to your chosen trade.
- Limited time commitment – Because trade schools are career focused, they are able to use their time more efficiently. Trade schools generally offer both certificate programs and Associate’s degree programs. Certificate and diploma programs are usually completed in one year or less, while an Associate’s degree can be completed in two years of full-time study. This means you’ll spend less time in school and enter the job market faster than if you choose a four-year degree.
- Larger return on investment – Learning a trade can be a great investment in yourself. In addition to entering the workforce quickly, many trades pay a median salary of over $50,000 a year. Trade schools usually cost less than a 4-year degree, meaning you’ll probably end up owing less as well. That is definitely a good thing for your future.
Trade schools are particularly appealing for those who want to get to work quickly and prefer focusing almost entirely on acquiring job related skills. They are also an excellent opportunity to get a great return on your college investment. In 2015, plumbers were paid a median salary of $55,100 a year while electricians earned a median income of $55,590 – excellent incomes considering the amount of money and relatively short amount of time spent learning these trades.
Why Should I Consider a Community College?
Attending a community college is a great way to prepare for careers requiring only an Associate’s degree to get started. They’re also an excellent option for students wanting to complete some of their college credits for less. Some of the major benefits of community college include:
- Affordability – One of the best things about community colleges is that they are affordable. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, tuition, fees, and room and board at public two-year colleges cost just $9,282 per year in 2013-14. That is $8,828 a year less than the cost of attending a public four-year institution. Since community college is a two-year program, you would save an average of $53,876 over the course of a four-year period.
- Credits often transfer – Because tuition costs typically are lower than at a four-year institution, community college is great for students who are still undecided about their career plans. Credits from these colleges often transfer to four-year universities. Thus, you can complete many of your general education requirements at a fraction of the cost. However, it is important to ensure that your credits will transfer to your intended transfer school prior to enrollment.
- Two-year time commitment – Completing an Associate’s degree generally takes just 2 years of full-time study. Many of these degrees can result in good to high-paying career options for graduates. Like vocational schools, some community colleges also offer career training programs resulting in a certificate or diploma. These programs can usually be completed in one year or less.
- Career-focused training – Like technical schools, academic disciplines at community colleges usually focus on providing career training skills for various trades and professions. Many jobs in fields like healthcare, computer science, and various construction careers may require at least an Associate’s degree to get started. Community colleges help you meet those requirements while providing the hands-on practical training needed to find entry-level employment.
- Broader exposure than technical schools – While technical schools focus solely on career-focused skills and training, community colleges usually require some general education courses. Most of these credits will still have applicable uses in your future career.
- Excellent value – The average annual cost of attending a two-year public institution is $9,282 while the typical graduate makes about $35,000 a year. That’s a pretty good return on your investment already. Some careers requiring only an Associate’s degree do even better. In 2015, the median salary for a dental hygienist was $72,720. Median annual salaries for registered nurses were $71,000. Diagnostic medical stenographers made a median annual salary of $70,880. These are all growing professions providing an excellent return on your educational dollar.
While four-year schools may enjoy a higher profile, they also have a higher price tag. It’s important not to discount the value of attending a community college. Don’t forget, many two-year degrees lead to high-paying careers. Community colleges can also serve as a budget-friendly stepping stone to a four-year degree.
Why Should I Consider a Four-Year College or University?
Pursuing a Bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university is a path many high school graduates choose. In general, earning a four-year degree is an excellent option. Here’s why:
- Higher average salaries – Median salaries for graduates with Bachelor’s degrees come in at about $49,900 a year. That’s almost $20,000 a year higher than those who only hold a high school diploma, meaning you’ll make an average of around $800,000 more over the course of a 40-year career. Keep in mind, though, that your salary is highly dependent on your field of study.
- Broad-based education – While pursuing a Bachelor’s degree, you’ll not only complete an in-depth study of your chosen field; you’ll also be expected to complete general education requirements. These courses expose you to basic concepts and theories outside of your area of interest, helping you become a more well-rounded and knowledgeable individual. You may also use these courses to better understand your interests and apply many of their concepts to your future endeavors.
- Increased marketability – Earning a Bachelor’s degree makes you highly marketable during a job search. Many careers – including those in sales, business, and others – do not require you to major in a particular field. Employers are increasingly seeking candidates holding a Bachelor’s degree – any type of Bachelor’s degree – to be considered for entry-level positions. Thus, a Bachelor’s degree can be an important part of getting your foot in the door.
- May be required for certain professions – Certain jobs which require licensing may also require a Bachelor’s degree. Be sure to research if there are any state or federal regulations pertaining to your chosen career which require you to earn a particular degree.
- Prerequisite for advanced degrees – If you envision continuing your education at the graduate level, a Bachelor’s degree is almost always required as a prerequisite. Certain professions – including attorneys, doctors, and more – are legally required to earn advanced degrees in order to practice. Additionally, many companies expect candidates for upper-level management positions to earn a graduate degree. Keep this in mind as you plan your educational future.
Naturally, many students going to college pursue a Bachelor’s degree because they think it is the next logical step in their educational development. Keep in mind, however, that not all careers require this. Because four-year degrees are considerably more expensive than other postsecondary options, it behooves you to carefully consider your choice of school before enrolling. That’s not to say Bachelor’s degrees are a bad option. Completing a Bachelor’s degree program is clearly an excellent choice for many high school graduates, but you need to make sure it is the right option for you.
Who Should Earn a College Degree?
Now that you understand the benefits of attending different degree programs, let’s discuss what might make one type of school a better choice over another. Listed below are some examples of common issues facing high school students who are considering their postsecondary options. We’ve described each situation in detail and provided some insights as to what type of college degree may be the best fit for their particular career goals.
What Type of Degree Should I Get?
Example #1: Stephanie isn’t sure what type of career she wants, but she knows she enjoys helping others. Motivated to figure it out, she is determined to start college in the fall.
- Possible solution: In this case, Stephanie may want to consider attending a community college. There, she can start earning college credits to apply toward her future major. She’ll also be exposed to various general education courses that can help her decide what she truly enjoys. Above all, while she figures it all out, she’ll save money by attending a community college over a four-year institution. She might also consider working full-time while taking online classes on the side. This may help her earn college credit without making a full-time commitment.
Example #2: Matthew enjoys working with his hands and wants to learn a craft. He isn’t interested in spending a lot of time in school and wants to start working right away.
- Possible solution: It sounds like Matthew may be the perfect candidate to attend a trade school. Also known as vocational or technical schools, these institutions focus on providing career-specific training without spending valuable time on teaching concepts which are unrelated to the job. Because these programs usually last for one year or less, Matthew can learn his craft and get to work quickly.
Example #3: Sandra has an aptitude for math and likes dealing with complex equations and formulas. In the future, she envisions herself working in some type of financial institution.
- Possible solution: To get a good paying job in banking, insurance, or another financially related field, Sandra would be wise to consider pursuing a Bachelor’s degree. Majoring in finance, business, or another closely related field might be the best fit. After completing her Bachelor’s degree and gaining some work experience, Sandra may even consider returning to school for a Master’s degree.
Ways to Save Money on College
As we’ve discussed, it is extremely important to choose a college that you can afford. By 2017, total student loan debt in the United States will rise to about $1.3 trillion. That’s trillion with a “T”. When you break it down further, that’s an average of over $30,000 per student in debt. Ouch.
While this type of debt can have a detrimental effect on your life for years to come, going to college doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. Here are several tips that can help you save money on college.
- Choose a school you can afford. – When comparing schools, pick from colleges that meet your budget. Private two-year colleges cost an average of about two and half times more than public schools, while private four-year colleges cost an average of two times more. On average, attending a private two-year school will cost a total of $14,578 more per year while a private four-year college will cost you $18,500 more annually. That’s a huge difference, and one which may not be worth the return.
- Choose a major that pays. – Even if you complete a degree program, not all majors result in a higher salary. Consider choosing a field of study that justifies the amount you’ll be spending. Use the Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to get a good idea of how much money you can expect to earn from your future career.
- Consider completing your general education requirements at a community college. – As noted previously, public community colleges cost an average of $8,800 a year less than public four-year institutions. So, it might make sense to complete your general ed requirements at a community college, then transferring those credits later on. You’ll save tons of money, provided you make sure your credits transfer first.
- Complete college-level classes for credit while still in high school. – If available, consider taking courses for college credit while still in high school. Your high school may offer the option to earn dual credit, meaning you get both high school and college credit. The best part is that these college credits are typically offered to you for free or at a severely discounted rate.
- Attend classes online. – Some colleges offer online courses at a reduced rate. This may be a good option, especially if you are currently employed or are unsure about what you want to study.
- Apply for scholarships and financial aid. – Although you may not be eligible for a full-ride, every dollar adds up. Apply for any scholarship or grant for which you qualify. Find available scholarships by speaking to your high school guidance counselors and financial aid representatives at the colleges you may attend. You can also use the free Scholarship Search from Sallie Mae which tracks information on over 5 million scholarships. Be sure to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and scholarship application forms as necessary.
Choosing a college is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make. But, with the cost of college continuing to rise, it isn’t as easy as just picking a school and going. Student loan debt can cripple your finances for years, putting you deep into debt before you even get your career started.
To make the most of your investment, consider all of your options. Choose the school and major that best suits your needs and your budget. Lean on the advice of your parents and guidance counselors, but in the end, know that it is your decision to make… and your debt to pay back.
We hope this guide has helped you understand your college options and shed some light on the financial implications of your decisions. Thanks for reading, and good luck with your future endeavors!
Annual Earnings of Young Adults, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cba.asp (December 14, 2016)
Fast Facts: Tuition Costs of Colleges and Universities, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76 (December 14, 2016)
Federal Student Loan Portfolio, Federal Student Aid – US Department of Education, https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/about/data-center/student/portfolio (December 14, 2016)
May 2015 National Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm