Students seeking higher education in the United States today face a fundamental paradox. On the one hand, the economy is struggling and competition for jobs is fierce. Well-paid, full-time work is scarce, and even more so if you dare to dream of a job that offers inner fulfillment. An advanced degree is a valuable qualifier that can represent the difference between the joy of a new job and the drudgery of a renewed job search.
On the other hand, college is expensive! For most individuals, it means taking out significant loans. Last year, 71% of students graduated with at least some debt. Among these, the average debt per student was $29,400.
That is a heavy burden to bear at a delicate juncture. Even with a degree, there is no guarantee of finding decent work right out of school. Many graduates accept unpaid internships to earn the experience required for “entry-level” positions in their field, creating even more financial stress forced by a lack of income.
Even some professions – such as teaching or health care – provide for loan deferment and eventual forgiveness, but this is generally in exchange for long hours with minimal pay.
At this point, prospective students in need of reassurance may be tempted to Google the list of rich and famous people who never went to college. However, unless your name is Rockefeller, or you wield charisma akin to Sean Connery or Halle Berry, you are well advised to invest in yourself by pursuing a degree that will act as the foundation for the skyscraper that is your life.
To build a solid foundation for said skyscraper, one must first dig a hole. The depth of this hole is proportionate to the height of the building one intends to build. More degrees mean more years in school means higher earning potential requires more and more loans.
Trouble arises when young people begin digging their hole before they've drawn blueprints. Without a plan in place, one is liable to dig too deep, or not have the proper metaphorical construction materials on hand once the hole is dug.
Let’s explore the elements necessary to construct a successful, on-budget college career. The process is three-fold, including preparation, execution and completion.
Prepare for College
First, it is never too early to initiate the preparation stage. Ideally, parents will establish a college fund when their child is still an infant, allowing this account ample time to collect interest and grow large enough to offset a significant portion of higher education costs. Again, this is ideal, and will not apply to everyone.
Not to worry; there is plenty a student can do to lay their own groundwork. Saving money from summer and part-time jobs is an obvious tactic. Going the extra mile to excel in class creates the potential for merit-based scholarship; pursuing personal passions through extracurricular activities can open otherwise unseen doors.
The most important aspect of preparation is to identify institutions that meet your desired criteria. Primary criterion should include academic programs specific to your interest, class and school size, and location, be it rural or urban. These factors are absolutely vital in determining your success and ultimate happiness with the educational experience.
Use these measurements first and foremost to create a long list of schools. Only after you’ve generated this list should cost become a consideration. Remember, through scholarships and other means, the published cost of many schools can be significantly reduced.
Definitely do not eliminate your dream school from the list simply because the out-of-state price seems beyond your means. If you are sincere about your love for a school, consider establishing in-state status as part of your preparation.
This can be a complex process, fraught with peril. If you commit bureaucratic improprieties, intentionally or not, consequences can include rescission of your degree or retroactive reassignment of residency – meaning you owe even more.
Thankfully, there are well-established organizations offering professional assistance that can make it simple and easy, ultimately saving you tens of thousands of dollars.Talk to an organization like In-State Angels operating in 38 states and helping students everywhere save thousands on tuition.
With so much money at stake, these schools have full-time lawyers and accountants working on their behalf. Don't you as a student also deserve professional support?
Use Money as a Tool
Having navigated the preparation phase, the rest of the process is relatively simple. Keep your grades up to maintain your scholarship; get a part-time job to get a head start paying off any loans; and engage deeply with yourself, constantly adjusting course to reflect your evolving interests.
Knowing who you are, what you love and in what circumstances you’re likely to thrive is the most valuable knowledge one can possess. Such depth of self-knowledge will guide you toward success before, during and after your college career.
Money is a tool; the means, not the end. When motivated by your innate interests and an authentic spirit of service, opportunities tend to arise wherein the cost becomes mere formality. Cultivate a profound sense of personal purpose, and the path will rise to meet you.
If you do everything possible to minimize costs beforehand, then pursue your passions academically and support your studies with practical applications like a part-time job or internship, you will be well positioned to find work in the field of your choice soon after graduation.
This level of planning gives you the best chance to graduate with a manageable level of student debt, and a reasonable expectation to pay it off sooner rather than later. In that case, you’ll be blessed with options, and options mean freedom, which is everything most of us are working towards.
I hope this has been helpful. Best of luck to you!”
What other steps would you take to build an affordable college foundation?
Jake Wells founded In-State Angels in 2009 after graduating from the University of Colorado-Boulder with more debt than seemed reasonable. He is on a mission to prevent others from suffering a similar fate, and aims to provide students with vital wisdom and savvy support at a crucial time in their lives.
Photo credit: LuMaxArt