By Gina Stewart
As a higher education advocate and counselor, I have helped many people, ranging in age from high school graduates to adult professionals, enroll in higher education, only to see them get in way over their heads when it comes to finances. Pressured to meet enrollment numbers, admissions advisors are often guilty of selling the my kids and clients “the dream” without painting a realistic picture of the financial burden that they’re going to saddle these students with after graduation.
Here is what I tell my kids and clients: College, at any level, is expensive. Anyone selling you the dream of higher education without also providing an accurate accounting of the costs and associated difficulties, is doing you a disservice. While I will not share with you the horror stories I have witnessed in an abusive and unchecked system, I can give you some advice on how to spend as little of your money as you can to get the best return on investment possible.
Here are the most important pieces of advice that I offer to every hopeful student I work with:
Get a Degree that Pays
The most important advice I can give to anyone running the financial aid gauntlet is to get serious about the investment, and choose a degree that will pay off in the end. While it is great that many schools offer degree programs in subjects like art history and music appreciation (I majored in music theory and composition so I know whereof I speak), these programs aren’t going to help you get hired outside of your field.
It is better to get your degree in a field that pays well from a school that has a solid track-record of placing students in jobs within the first six months of graduation.
For example, I helped one of my kids enroll in the radiation therapy bachelor’s degree program offered at Gwynedd Mercy U, located here in Pennsylvania. I explained that radiation therapy is a degree that she could carry with her wherever she went and, if she wanted to further pursue medicine or health would pay her enough to help fund that education while simultaneously giving her a leg up on her fellow students. Whatever university and degree combo you choose, make sure it is one that has a good chance of paying off (and that travels well).
If you are still carrying some doubt about the efficacy of online universities, get over it. When I was an admissions advisor for a major online university back in the day, I understood people’s reticence about joining the program. Today, though, we live on the internet and recent high school graduates are literally younger than household access to the web.
Many of the degrees that are now available online can lead to some highly lucrative careers in a variety of different industries. For example, you can complete a nursing degree online, which puts you on the fast track to paying for your education and earning a very nice living. There are always jobs available in the nursing sector, as hospitals, private clinics, and many other facilities require trained workers. The industry is expected to grow by 22 percent by 2018, since the country’s population is aging, giving you even more chances to find a great job.
Here’s what I told a man who had been downsized out of his retail management position: At the end of the day, you are going to get a solid education at an accredited school, and land a job that pays well. Your interviewer will not disregard your application because you went to a school with an online component. He went after a business degree from one of the most well known online schools in the country and now he’s making three times what he used to make.
Get on the Fast Track
Another thing that I tell everyone I work with is this: If you have the option to get it done quickly, get it done quickly. The longer you are in school, the more it is going to cost you. It’s good to look for programs that have an accelerated option. If you already have some college credits, see if you can CLEP out of the core. That could save you two years, and thousands of dollars. One of my students was looking to transfer from a community college to a four year university. We found her an accelerated program that let her finish the last two years of her bachelor’s degree in just one year. Her current employer was impressed that she took such initiative and even listed it as part of the reason my client was hired!
Let’s face it: College is expensive. But if you do it right, it is one of the best investments you will ever make.