Saturday, January 22, 2011

Four Simple Steps for Choosing the Right College, Part One

Yesterday, I discussed the value of a college education and whether it was worth the money.  On the one hand, there are statistics that show that college grads make more than high school grads.  As a general proposition, college does appear to have financial benefits.  On the other hand, there are stories of people for whom college was a poor financial decision.  These people are mired in debt up to their eyeballs.  Their plight doesn't mean necessarily that college is not worth the money.  Most of these stories boil down to two poor decisions:

1. Poor choice of major.
2. Poor choice of college.

When it comes to most decisions which could have 5 or 6 digit implications, most people take a very logical, measured approach, and rightly so.  If you choose the wrong deodorant, you might be out a couple bucks.  No harm, no foul.  However, if you purchase the wrong home, you could be looking at foreclosure, bankruptcy, and a poor credit score for years to come.  Somehow decisions about college often treated with the same care as purchasing a $2 deodorant.  Parents and students often make the decision based upon emotions rather than cold-hard facts.  Some people view college as a natural progression in life once a child turns 18.  It doesn't matter if you aren't sure if it will really help you with your career and life goals.  You are going to college.  It doesn't matter what you major in or what the cost is, you are going to college.  This type of thinking is what gets people into trouble.

In order to foster a more logical and fact-based approach to this large financial and life decision, I humbly offer my own strategy for choosing a college and major.  My hope is that these simple steps will allow some people to avoid making the poor decisions which could lead to a financial disaster.

Here are my four simple steps to the college problem:

1. Decide what your career and life goals are.
2. Decide what type of education you need to meet your goals.
3. Determine what your financial budget is.
4. Choose a college which meets your educational and financial requirements.

This article will discuss the first two steps.

Career and Life Goals

There probably are thousands of people who are more qualified to give career advice than I am.  There are many books are written on this subject.  My take on the subject is simple.  Choosing a career boils down to identifying the intersection of three things:

1. What you like.
2. What you are good at.
3. What you can make money at.

The ideal career choice will satisfy all three criteria.  If your career choice only satisfies one or two out of the three, you should keep looking.  For instance, I love baseball, and baseball players make a nice living.  However, it was clear at a young age that I didn't have the "stuff" to make it to the major leagues.  Therefore, I never considered a career as a baseball player.  However, I also like math and science, and I happen to be very good at those subjects (that's probably why I like them!).  Fortunately, there are many lucrative fields which require an aptitude for math and science.  I ended up majoring in Engineering, which happens to be my day job (which is a good thing because blogger doesn't satisfy criteria #3).

Now, it may be asking a lot for some 18 year olds to have an idea of what they want to do when they grow up.  Heck, it is hard for some 28, 38, and 48 year olds to answer this question!  If that is the case, maybe it pays to defer college for a year or two.  Get a job.  Take some non-credit courses at a community college.  Backpack across Europe.  Join the military.  A little life experience outside of the cocoon of high school can help to mature a young man or woman and get them to focus on what they want to get out of life.  A nice side effect is that 20 or 21 year old freshman may be better equipped to deal with the rigors of college life.

Some parents view college as the default next step in a young person's life, so these suggestions might be blasphemy.  However, consider that college is an expensive way to figure out what you want to do with your life.  By the time you figure it out, you may discover that you need to start your studies over again which is going to cost you even more money.

If you insist on going to college at 18 without a clue, consider majoring in something like math.  Math is the foundation of many disciplines and careers (computers, economics/finance, engineering, meteorology, medicine), and the logical thinking that you will learn will serve you well in whatever your career path is.

Choosing an Education Path

Now that you have picked a career, you need to determine what type of education you will need to enter your chosen field of study.  As I talked about in my previous article on the value of college, there are two aspects to higher education:  the credential and the knowledge that you will acquire.  Most fields have both a credential you need to obtain and a body of knowledge you will need to learn.  Knowing what those are for your field of study will determine what your major should be and what school you should choose.

Of course, your field of choice may not require any college at all.  In that case, you can save the tuition money and skip the university.  There is no point in plunking down $50,000 a year for four years if your career goal is to become an automotive mechanic.  You are just wasting money.  By the way, mechanics have the potential to make as much as any college grad.  Everyone knows what a good mechanic is worth.

Stay tuned for part two where I will discuss the third and fourth steps for choosing the right college.

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