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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Is College Worth The Cost?

During this long (but mercifully winding-down) campaign season, much has been said about the $1 trillion amount in student loan debt that American college graduates (and non-graduates) collectively owe either private lending institutions or the federal government by political candidates from both major political parties. What’s more, both the general and individual economic impact of this staggering amount was made all the more relevant during the recent economic downturn, as the educated (and uneducated) have struggled to find work in the midst of high rate of unemployment across the country.
Because of this, the question of whether or not a college degree is worth the investment in time and especially money has also become an issue in these lean economic times. For those thinking of taking the plunge into working toward a college degree (or those completing a degree), there are many factors to consider in making sure whether or not the investment in an education will pay off for you.
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 Is college worth the cost? Watch the recent piece on NBC's "Today Show" to view considerations to consider.

Like others, my own college experience turned out to be rather expensive, especially considering that I attended a much costlier private school in lieu of a less expensive public institution. However, I know that I would have ended up much more if I hadn’t (1) attended a community college first; (2) hadn’t maintained a respectable grade point average of 3.52; and (3) looked for and received many scholarship, most of them merit- and academic-based (some $20,000 by my recollections).
Like many others during the recent economic downturn, I found myself negatively affected. But I was one of the lucky ones; in addition to a college degree with a double-major, I managed to obtain other useful credentials which supplemented my ability to secure work, even in leaner economic times (such as my commercial driver’s license).  And given my varied experiences, I managed to do OK for myself during the downturn.  However, many young people in the most recent graduation years have had far less success in securing stable employment with their college educations.
For those both considering enrolling in college to facilitate a more financially-stable career change and those who are recent graduates looking for work, there are questions you should ask yourself when assessing whether your degree can/will work for you (or against you).  Among the questions you should ask yourself are:

What are my primary reasons for attending college? 

What do I want to major in? 

What will my degree worth in the employment market after I graduate? Am I 100% certain about my major/career choice? 

Will I be benefit from starting out in a two-year college? 

Will I be comfortable at a large university? 

Is a private college a good choice for me? 

How much can I afford to spend or borrow on college?/What are my options for paying for college? 

Do I plan to work while attending college? 

What geographic area do I prefer? 

Will I live on campus, with my parents, or in an off-campus apartment? 

What type of work would I like to do after college? 

Will graduate study after be necessary in order to be marketable? 

All of these questions have an impact on what you can expect to pay (or borrow) in order to finance a college education.
Another thing to consider is career path you choose, based on your college major.  Simply put, some degrees are worth more than others.  According to a recent survey by the online salary database Payscale.com. the worst-paying college degrees of 2012 are:

Child and Family Studies Median Annual Salary: $37,700 

Social Work Median Annual Salary: $45,300 

Elementary Education Median Annual Salary: $46,000 

Human Development Median Annual Salary: $47,800 

Special Education Median Annual Salary: $48,900 

Culinary Arts Median Annual Salary: $49,700 

Athletic Training Median Annual Salary: $49,800 

Of course, these average median salaries are only averages; they may be higher or lower depending the geographical area of the country where demand rises or falls.  However, if you are determined to set your path toward a college education, there are steps and strategies you should expect to take to begin securing funding for your education, and lessen the pain in the wallet you can expect to contribute.

1. Apply for financial aid (even if you don’t think you'll qualify, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid [FAFSA] form).
2. Apply for national grants (options include Pell Grants, Academic Competitiveness Grants and National SMART Grants).
3. Apply for local scholarships (civic organizations and religious institutions often have funds set aside for merit and non-merit-based scholarships).
4. Bargain (even schools that only provide need-based aid sometimes come up with drastically different offers. If you have more than one package on the table, you may be able to negotiate a better deal at another college).
5. Find an official benefactor (AmeriCorps, Peace Corp, National Health Services Corps and ROTC programs offer college money in exchange for a service commitment).
6. Look abroad (tuition and fees at U.S. private four-year colleges and universities now averages $27,293. At Scotland’s St. Andrews, the alma mater of Britain’s Prince William and wife Kate, U.S. students pay only $21,650; Canada's McGill University charges just $17,400 for Americans studying for a B.A.). 
7. Live at home (starting out at a low-cost community college and transferring to a four-year college for the final two years will wipe away a hefty chunk of room and board costs, as well as some tuition).
8. Inquire your employer about a tuition reimbursement plan which pays for some or all of your courses. Some companies will pay for their employees to attend college part-time.

If you would like to focus your search for college money in the realm of scholarships, there are literally dozens of sites you can use, such as http://www.salliemae.com/scholarships or http://www.finaid.org/scholarships/ . However, you should be aware that many of these sites require you to register with a valid e-mail address (and whereby you can expect to have your inbox/spam box flooded with junk e-mail). But it should be noted that finding scholarships is not a sure thing (Read: "On Hunting for Scholarships, and Coming Up Empty").  And on this note, please make an effort to seek out specialized scholarships for certain demographic groups.
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Scholarships for (single) moms seeking to attend college

Ultimately, it is up too you to determine whether or not college is for you, or worth the investment in time and money.  My advice is to make sure that your career choice is something that is both personally rewarding, as well as financially sound insomuch as your ability to earn a living.  In addition, consider continuing education course leading to certifications...never stop learning.  Every bit of experience you can gain makes you that much more marketable and able to make your decision to attend college to pay off.


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