High school students today are even more clueless than I was about choosing a college and a career path (and as the first in my family to attend college, I set the naiveté bar high!). Today's college-going students and the people who advise them know even less about college and careers than in my era, and college recruiters who visit schools aren't unbiased about where they want you to go to college.
With so little good information, so much misinformation, and so much money at stake, it's no wonder that poor decisions are made. Anyway, here's the advice I'd give my children and (all too soon) my grandchildren:
1. Good people don't always give good advice. The people that you rely on for advice, such as teachers, parents and friends, probably aren't reliable sources for choosing a college and career. These days, you and your friends are less likely to have had exposure to the real working world, as summer and after-school jobs are not as prevalent as they once were and students' schedules are already overfilled with other activities. Your counselors and teachers are also far less likely to have outside summer jobs or to have worked outside of education. In most states, counselors must first be teachers in order to become school counselors. They are eminently prepared to guide you into education and teaching jobs but may know less about high demand/high skill/high pay careers (and how to best get into these fields) than your next door neighbor.
2. You may not be the one that profits from your education. At private for-profit schools, the recruiter isn't as interested in you profiting from your education as he is that his employer and the school's stockholders make a profit from you and from taxpayers. Many of these publicly traded, high-cost marketing machines get 90 percent of their money from federal funds, but that doesn't leave you off the hook. Last year, taxpayers paid out over $32 billion to for-profit colleges while the average student stayed enrolled in them for just four months. Although these students opted out, they can't opt out of the huge student loan debts they signed onto. Unless repaid, they won't be able to receive financial aid to attend another college and chances are that they wasted their one chance at higher education. With no new skills, these former students are left working at minimum wage jobs while trying to pay back massive loans. When they default, the taxpayers pay but the former students are still locked into low wage jobs and prevented from returning to college because of their unpaid loans. The quality of instruction varies widely and not all the for-profits are bad choices, but before you let some persuasive salesperson/recruiter sign you up, click on this link or at least read the executive summary of the Senate report.
3. The "best" college for you is the one you graduate from. Lots of people believe that price and quality are interchangeable. If that were true, the for-profit schools would be in the top tiers. Too many students choose a college for its prestige instead of its value. They hope to impress family and friends even though it's far less prestigious to drop out of Harvard than to graduate from a good public college. If the college that impresses your friends and family is going to be too expensive, too far from home, or too big an adjustment for you to be successful there as a young student away from home for the first time, there are better choices. You don't need to bankrupt your family and yourself with loans to get a good education and a bright future.
4. Your future employer doesn't care where you first enrolled in college. People who will drive an extra mile to save a nickel per gallon to fill up their cars will spend thousands of dollars unnecessarily for a college education that could have cost so much less. Transfer as much coursework as you can, at least one or two years' worth, from a public or community college into a more prestigious college. It will cost you two to five times less and your future employer will not know or care how much you paid for your degree. Even better, many prestigious colleges offer generous transfer scholarships because it's a good deal for them -- they get to claim a great future alumnus who they only had to provide a scholarship for two years and who already was a proven success.
5. The idea that everyone needs a college degree is wrong-headed, especially when talking about four-year degrees. Most everyone needs to get skills and education beyond high school but a four-year degree is a terrible choice for many people. If you choose to study a major that feels good but pays so little that you can never pay back the loans you took out to get it, those good feelings will disappear after you leave the womb of college. According to a recent ManPowerGroup survey involving more than 1,000 U.S. employers, the most difficult positions to fill are those in skilled trades, such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical work and other tool-wielding professions. Those workers, also known as craftsmen or artisans, typically develop their skills through training as apprentices. They topped Manpower's list for a fourth consecutive year. At the same time, countless students find themselves majoring in fields with no career future. Law schools are turning out thousands of graduates each year who will never find work as lawyers. History and music majors will enjoy their college days studying a field they're interested in, but, unless they choose to teach, will not find work in their field of study. Too many baccalaureate graduates with prestigious pedigrees graduate with $100,000 or more in student loans into low paying jobs and no hope of ever paying back those loans. In February, CNN Money reported on a study that concluded that graduates of two-year colleges typically out-earn graduates of four-year universities, and they do so while acquiring far less debt - or none at all.
6. You don't have to be an economist to understand that economics determines which college majors are most available to you. One of higher education's dirty little secrets is that we continue to graduate an oversupply of baccalaureate degrees in fields with no job demand. While there is a shortage of graduates in high-demand fields like science, engineering, mathematics, technology and health sciences, there is little or no demand for history, English, philosophy, liberal arts, psychology or sociology graduates. Why don't colleges respond to market demands? It is many times more expensive and more difficult to produce the graduates in highest demand. High demand people aren't lining up for low paying teaching fields, the teaching labs are enormously expensive for colleges to provide, and large classes aren't feasible. Not so in the most widely offered and popular majors. As a freshman student in a psychology class, I asked my professor why all the research studies seemed to be conducted on either freshman psychology students or laboratory rats. "They are both inexpensive and readily available" was the answer. Most colleges have massive departments with tenured (lifetime) professors whose jobs are only in danger if no students choose their major.
I encourage you to share these observations with people you know who are currently giving thought to their future college. It might save them money, time or both.