Choosing the right college for you: Part I – Money

Choose your alma mater wisely.

As you apply to colleges, there will undoubtedly be many questions weighing heavily on your brow. Two, in particular, are probably first and foremost in your over-stressed and overworked brain. Where do I apply? When I get in, what school do I choose?

Choosing where to go to college is probably the biggest decision you have been faced with thus far in your life. It will determine where you will live for most of the next four years and influence who you will meet, what friends you will make, what opportunities you will receive, and ultimately what you will end up doing with your life. So far, most of your life decisions have been made for you by your parents, teachers, and other authority figures. While those figures will still play a big role in this next step, you are now more than ever going to have to make decisions for yourself. This can be liberating, but it can also be scary, especially since college often carries a significant price tag. This first post in this new series on choosing the right college will thus focus on perhaps the most stressful part of choosing a college: money.

At least they don't throw people in debtor's prison anymore.

How much should you pay for a college degree? College is now more expensive than ever, and tuition fees just seem to keep going up. When choosing a college, always remember that college is an investment for your future, and you want to be able to get a good return on your investment. College can cost a lot of money, and when you get out, you want to be able to get a job that will allow you to make that money back and pay off any student loans you may have taken on in order to finance your education. With the current state of the economy, this becomes even more important, since getting a job straight out of college isn’t necessarily guaranteed. It’s not hard to find horror stories of people who have tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debts and can’t get jobs to pay them off. Remember, even if you have to declare bankruptcy, student loan debts are treated differently from other debts and are not automatically discharged. They can stay with you forever.

Do not despair, though, gentle reader. There are many fields that need qualified people and will even make you rich if you get the right degree, and universities grant you access to internships and other career related opportunities that greatly improve your chances of getting a good paying job after college. It’s also possible to get a great paying job without going to an expensive undergraduate school; a friend of mine got into the honors college of a local, public university, majored in accounting, and got an internship and later a job with Deloitte, one of the nation’s top accounting firms, straight out of college.

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Also remember that many undergraduate degrees require graduate degrees in order to be useful for your career. You might think an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry sounds useful, but actually it’s not worth too much without more school. When choosing what school to attend, keep in mind that while an undergraduate degree from a prestigious school might help you get into a better graduate program, ultimately it’s where you go for graduate school that will determine your career prospects. And for graduate school admissions, it can sometimes be a better move to graduate at the top of your class from a less expensive school than in the middle of your class from a more expensive one.

The Poor Poet, by Carl Spitzweg

Since I know some of you are probably thinking about this, I just want to make it clear that I’m not knocking people who want to major in things like English Literature or Medieval Studies. I think those subjects are great and important to study, but you have to realize that the only way to turn your passion for Romantic Poetry into a career is by becoming a professor, which is going to require you to go to graduate school, get a PhD, write and publish books and scholarly articles regularly, and climb the greasy ladder of academia all the way to the ever rarer position of tenured professor. If you decide that’s not for you, don’t make your parents shell out a ton of money for a degree that you won’t actually use (note: there are some special circumstances where “useless” degrees can be useful for fields outside of academia if you go to a really prestigious school (then you can work on Wall Street no matter what you major in) or decide to go on to law school or even medical school (but that requires a lot of planning and taking pre-med or pre-law classes as well)). If you do decide the ivory tower is for you, remember that in these kinds of disciplines you can usually work as a TA and receive a stipend to cover your living expenses from the university you end up at for graduate school, so you aren’t going to have to worry too much about how you pay for graduate school (this is not true for medical school or law school).

Always remember this rarely spoken truth: college is never just about learning for the love of learning. Even at the highest level, and even in the least ‘practical’ majors, it’s about preparing you for a successful career. Ultimately, what you need to keep in mind when choosing a college is this: don’t pay a lot for a degree that isn’t going to make you a lot, especially if you’re taking on debt. Do research about potential careers you might be interested in, and find out what kinds of jobs recent graduates of each college you are considering have gotten. If you want to be a doctor, find a school that gets its seniors into medical school. If you want to be a journalist, find a school that gets its seniors jobs in journalism or spots in top journalism schools. If you want to be a fashion designer, find a school that gives its students opportunities to meet people in the industry and to get their clothes on the runway. Don’t be distracted by famous alumni – find out what the average senior ends up doing.

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In Rembrandt's famous painting, the wealthy, worldly Aristotle enviously contemplates a bust of the poor but pure poet Homer. As children we were told we could have money, fame, and do whatever we wanted. In reality, you might have to start making some tough decisions and figure out what's really important to you.

I know you just want someone to tell you where you should go, but when you ask counselors and admissions officers, they always give you some wishy-washy answer like, “You have to decide what school is the best fit for you.” I hate to say it, but this time they are completely right. Different people want to get different things out of college, and certain types of college are more practical for achieving some goals than they are for others. No one can tell you what you want out of college but you, and this means you need to start asking yourself some hard questions about what you want to do with your life. Even if you aren’t sure yet (and most high school kids aren’t), asking these questions can help narrow down your college choices.

Next time in Choosing the right college for you, we will turn to a related issue: financial aid.

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