Busting the College-or-Bust Myth

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You’ve probably heard the sobering statistics. The average college student graduating today leaves school with approximately $37,172 in student loan debt. Students graduating from elite Ivy League schools may graduate with upwards of $100,000 in debt. Collectively, American students owe upwards of $1.45 trillion in student loans.

But student loans are a necessary evil, right? After all, you have to go to college — preferably, the best you can get into — to make yourself an attractive candidate in a tough job market. Armed with your newly minted degree, you can start earning the big bucks and paying off those student loans in no time.

Not necessarily. One out of every four college graduates is underemployed, and in certain job sectors, as many as 48 percent aren’t earning what they are worth. The good news is, you don’t have to believe the hype about college being the be-all, end-all career path. Whether or not you choose to pursue a higher education, there are still ways to protect yourself from falling prey to the common collegiate machine scams that can leave you in debt for decades.

Is a College Degree Worth It?

If anyone tells you that you have to earn a college degree to have any hope of earning a decent living, they are misinformed. Earning a college degree is certainly a worthwhile task, but don’t be fooled — there are plenty of good jobs out there that don’t require a college degree. Some examples of careers with median wages above $50,000 per year that don’t require a college degree include insurance claims adjusters, construction trades supervisors, web developers and postal employees. While some of these jobs may require specialized training, they still don’t require that big 4-year, thousands-of-dollars commitment.

What About Certificate Programs?

Many certification programs take even less time to earn than an associate degree, and can lead to lucrative employment opportunities. Many certificate programs are designed for working adults and are available online, at far less expense than traditional campus-based programs. Examples of certificate-based programs include training to become a paralegal, real estate agent, insurance agent, executive assistant, dental hygienist, child care worker and even a certified dog obedience trainer.

If You Choose College, Always Scrutinize Where Your Money Goes

Perhaps you have your heart set on a career that does require a four-year degree, such as teaching, nursing or clinical social worker. There are still ways to save on the cost of schooling. The single best thing you can do to cut the cost of a four-year university is to live off campus. According to one study, due to the skyrocketing costs of campus housing, students living in dorms paid, on average, $2,298 more than those who live off campus.

Even if you can’t afford to commute from the home you may still share with your maw and paw, off-campus housing remains a better bargain. As a bonus, you’ll get to be choosy with your roommates instead of possibly getting stuck with a roommate from hell. Plus, in most cases, you won’t be required to buy into the campus meal plan like those who live on campus must, saving you hundreds in food you may not even eat.

Find a Job That Pays You to Learn

If you’re seeking higher education but don’t have the financial means, there are multiple organizations that will pay you to get your degree in exchange for your service. The U.S. military is a prime example of an organization that will fully pay your way through college in exchange for typically four years of service. If you’re a pacifist at heart, organizations such as the Peace Corps and Americorps sometimes offer full tuition reimbursement in return for your volunteer hours.

In addition, several major corporations are famous for providing tuition assistance to their employees. UPS, Verizon, Intel and Starbucks are among the major brands that offer tuition help to qualified employees. If you’re determined to go to school one day, but lack the money now, negotiating for tuition reimbursement benefits at your next job interview can be a great way to grow as an individual and prepare yourself for upward mobility on the job.

Ivy League-or-Bust Is a Lie We’ve Been Fed for Too Long

There’s a pervasive myth that to really stand out in the job market, you not only need a degree, but that you must pursue one from a prestigious university. This belief is utterly false, especially in modern times.

Today’s employers care less about the school you attended, and more about the quality and professionalism of your work. While it is true Ivy League graduates tend to earn higher starting salaries, the same doesn’t remain true over the course of many of their careers. Being the type of person who isn’t afraid to put in the extra work it takes to be an outstanding employee and consistently rank in the top percentile in your annual or semi-annual performance reviews means much more to today’s employer than a fancy piece of paper written in Latin.

While it was true for your parents that a college degree meant a better career, this is not necessarily the case today. Don’t fall victim to the malarkey that a $50,000/year+ four-year degree is your only chance at success in life. Instead, cultivate the personality traits that employers tend to value, such as dependability, attention to detail and an attitude of ownership toward your work. Your attitude in life always leads to a bigger payoff than any degree can.