Dear High School Graduate,

If you’re a little queasy about your future — what with Covid-19  deaths, a wobbly economy, technology, and automation destroying jobs and creating gig work for slave wages– don’t despair.  Make one decision at a time and don’t worry about stuff no one can control.  One issue that I have gotten lots of mail about is the question of whether or not going away to college is a good idea, given the current climate where “reimagining” everything is making us all want to imagine ourselves on another planet where cooler heads prevail. I can offer you some comfort perhaps by sharing my experience. 

When each of my three sons started the college search, I was paralyzed.  We weren’t plagued by pandemics, social upheaval, or a political chasm the likes of which threatens to swallow the country whole and end the world as we know it. 

 It was comparatively calm, but I still worried about the choices they would make and how I could guide them.  I need not have panicked, as they are slowly making their way into the world as all young people do.  However, I felt compelled to give them the best advice I could and it has served them well.  As a high school teacher, I also gave a lot of advice, some ignored and some followed, but all given to help young people make wise choices.

One observation students often confuse is the nature of higher education.  Higher education is a business.  When you pay $50,000 a year for an education, you are buying a product.  You must factor in what this is worth to you and take into account the financial toll.  Avoiding this will make you vulnerable, especially if you run out of money midstream, and if you can’t earn enough in the future to pay back the money you borrow.  

The system is uncharitable because unsubsidized student loans come with hefty interest rates (6%). Savings accounts, CDs pay less than 2% on average, mortgage loans 3.5%, in comparison. So, we are charging young people a very high rate just when they are starting their economic journey.   The cost of borrowing money becomes an investment in the future, where accountability must be part of the equation.  I was an English major, but quickly added education courses and considered taking the LSAT before I graduated because a simple B.A. in English would not get me a job.  A teaching certification made me employable and able to support myself.  This was my calculus, it will differ from yours, but you must not ignore the accountability factor.  Did I love literature, language, linguistics? Yes, but I still had to hold myself accountable for transforming my passion and skills into a job. 

Before you go: Be proud of your accomplishments, be bold, and answer these 15 questions.

Here are a few questions I asked before my sons enrolled in college.

  1. Why do you need to leave the state? Are there schools closer to home that offer the programs you want? If so, leaving the state is the more expensive option.  Better to go cheap if local colleges offer comparable programs of study.
  2. Who will be paying for college?
  3. What major do you want? If you are going for a career in high demand areas like science, technology, math, health care, engineering, etc. then it may be worth it to borrow money for school. If you want to major in art history, or anything that is not currently in demand, be careful because the loans will have to be repaid and the jobs in that field will not pay enough to pay back student loans.
  4. Are you going to be returning home during vacations? 
  5. How will you pay for the trip home and back?
  6. Are you on a restricted diet? Many schools offer meal plans, but they may not be offering the type of food you need.
  7. Socialization and networking are important. Are you going to make an effort to join clubs, sports, and activities? If you are the type of student who will stay in a dorm room most of the time, college offerings may make little difference.
  8. Do you need to work? You may be able to get a work-study, but you can probably get a better part-time job closer to home.
  9. Have you considered going to a community college for the first two years? Most colleges require basic courses anyway before you decide on a major.  The savings of completing two years at a community college are enormous.
  10. On a scale of 1- 10, 1 being least important, how badly do you want to go away to college? 
  11. After senior year, you don’t have to defend your college choice to your friends, grandmother, or uncle at family parties. Will you still be happy with your choice when the congratulatory car brigades ride away?
  12. Have you considered attending a trade school?  
  13. Have you considered apprenticeship programs offered in your state? Or, Starting your own business? If so, what knowledge do you need, and is a college classroom the best place to get the skills you need to launch your entrepreneurial dreams?
  14. Many schools will be utilizing remote learning as well as face-to-face instruction.  Will this make a difference in how successful you are likely to be in college?
  15. Lastly, consider Covid-19.  How will you deal with being in a dorm room if the pandemic hits again?

Selecting a career path, whether it be college or trade school, is probably the first momentous decision you will make as a young adult, and it won’t be the last.  You are buying a product.  If you are honest about your motives, you won’t have buyer’s remorse.  Wishing you wisdom as you choose.

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