Student Debt: Some Clear Advice Among a Sea of Contradicting Messages

Here’s a scary thought… The total amount of college debt in the United States is pushing nearly a trillion dollars and is continuing to rise at a rate of 13.9 percent compounded annually. As students prepare to accept their degrees this Spring, many teachers, mentors, and families will proudly cheer for their graduate. Valedictorians and key note speakers will tell stories of a promising, exciting future filled with unlimited potential to stadiums full of hopeful 20-somethings. However, for the majority of graduates, a grim reality of possible unemployment and debt awaits them.

The messages are contradicting. Students are told to go to school, invest in their future, and work hard to earn a degree that will guarantee them a job. My mother is always quick to suggest that I take out more loans and pursue a doctorate degree. “If I were your age again,” is how she greets me. However, since the advent of the recession, students have struggled to find employment that matches the skills they’ve acquired in college. After graduating from undergrad, I worked in retail, in a call center, as a customer service rep, as a tutor, and at more internships than I can count. For over a year, my “sent box” looks like a cemetery for outgoing cover letters and resumes.

Often times, employers are reluctant to hire recent graduates because they lack consecutive years of relevant work experience. In turn, students are forced to take jobs that are often unrelated to their field of study, usually lack the benefits they need, and are lower paying, making it extremely difficult for them to both live and pay back their loans simultaneously. Instead of a great job, undergraduate and graduate students, are often left with a mountain of debt from anywhere between $25,000 to even $200,000. And you cannot discharge student debt given by the federal government by filing bankruptcy.

In addition to these mixed messages studies to do not reflect actual hiring practices. A recent study of thousands of U.S. companies showed more than half want a worker with at least a two-year degree. However, according to the newly-published special report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 11 percent of the country’s students who’ve earned a four-year degree were unemployed in 2011. That’s an unemployment rate that was higher than the national average, which floated between 8.5 percent and 9.1 percent that year.

So how does a student make it through college, graduate with a great degree, land a fabulous job, and start an awesome career without drowning in an ocean of student loans? Even if you absolutely have to take out loans, it’s possible to stay afloat.

Accept that Equality is a Fantasy

It may be hard to accept, but not all degrees are created equal. If you decide to go to college to pursue a whimsical degree that based on market trends does not equate to a promising job search, expect to have a difficult time finding a career to suit your degree. During freshmen year, when your advisor pulls you into her office and asks you to decide on a major, ask yourself: What type of job do you plan to pursue that will justify spending a large sum of money on that type of a degree? Do research on the types of careers people usually go into with the degrees you’re in and pick your degree based on whether you will have a better chance of securing a job. Even if you attend a liberal arts college, do not be too liberal with your choice of major. Don’t believe the hype or buy into the fantasy of college being an extended party on the government’s dime. Not to burst anyone’s bubbles, but the point of going to college is to learn what you need to know in a specific field in order to obtain a well-paying job.

Balance is Key

If you choose a major, like business or engineering, the likelihood of being able to pay back any loans is greater. If you decide to go to law school and have to take out a large loan, you’ll probably be able to pay that loan back after a few years because lawyers typically earn high salaries. Same is true for medical school. For my graduate degree, I knew I wanted to be as marketable as possible, yet still remain true to my discipline. I want to eventually teach at the university level so I picked a Humanities degree that concentrated in English, which would also make me more desirable to a university’s Humanities department. The college professor salary I will one day earn justifies the loans I took out. However, if you major in women’s studies or archeology or photography or even English, you may have a harder time paying back loans… especially if you took out $200,000. Make sure the loans you take out, if any, match the career you expect to obtain.

Two or Four?

A four-year college is not the only option and many students choose to attend two-year colleges or community colleges first. After those two years they can transfer to a four year university. This allows them to fulfill many core requirements and even get a jump start on their major credits for a fraction of the cost. If you maintain a certain GPA while in community college, many schools will guarantee you a spot in your junior year. In addition, online colleges and online courses, offer virtually every degree imaginable for considerably less money.

Private vs. Public?

Often times, the only difference is the cost. In-state tuition at public colleges is usually significantly less than private schools. Some of the highest ranked colleges in the nation are state schools with have amazing resources, alumni, and scholarship plans. Currently, the University of California—Berkeley holds the number one spot in the nation. University of California—Los Angeles is second, University of Virginia third, University of Michigan—Ann Arbor fourth, and University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill fifth. For a complete list of top national public universities click here.

Work Hard So You Can Play Harder

During my junior and senior year of high school I busted my butt writing essays for scholarships and contests. I wrote about whatever the application called for, whether it was the environment, space travel, literature, or cockier spaniels. All in all, I only won a hand full of scholarship money, but I was able to purchase books and pay for housing my first year. I also worked throughout college to afford my expenses. If I could do it all over again, I would have worked more and I would have saved more. The less you have to pay back in loans the more money you will have to enjoy your life.

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