How Not To Destroy Your Future With Student Loans

Student loans are, and probably always will be, the most recurring topic on this site (yeah, I thought it was gonna be scholarships, too. Maybe I should change the name of the site. Any suggestions?).

But that’s fine, because there are an endless number of students and parents out there with questions and dilemmas regarding student loans — and luckily for you, I have enough opinions for all of you! Bring it on, suckaz!

And so today, we continue with Amanda’s wonderfully brief question:

I read your article titled Everyone’s On Plan C, and I agree to the idea.  The only concern is when you relate student debt to Plan C.  While I understand that it is likely that I will change my career choice at some point in time (especially since I haven’t really chosen a path yet), what do you recommend doing in the mean time.  How do we get through Plan A, or chose plan A without incurring thousands of dollars of debt.

— Amanda

An outstanding succinct question, to which I have an extremely wordy answer.

If you haven’t read the post she  refers to and you don’t want to, I’ll summarize it. In the “Everyone’s On Plan C” post above, I advised that students of all ages cut themselves some slack if they’re feeling bad about not knowing exactly what they want to do with their lives. I said that if you ask a room full of working professionals how many of them are doing what they THOUGHT they’d be doing when they were in college, none of them would raise their hand. Life changes in ways we never expect, even though it happens to almost everyone.

Oh no you DIH-IH just declare a double major in philosophy and art history -- as a freshman!

No one’s on Plan A. Hell, no one’s even on Plan B. Everyone is on Plan C, at least. And some of us (yours truly included) are well into the rest of the alphabet. So don’t start feeling shitty about yourself just because you’ve come to some particular point and you still haven’t made up your mind. Shit happens. It’s the way of the world. Don’t let it beat you down.

That’s the gist of what I said. And so, today, Amanda replies: Well, sure, but how do we not go broke in the meantime while we wander through our early lives, with a bumper sticker reading “Not all who wander are lost” affixed to the back of our used-and-battered but still-serviceable car.

I’m not gonna take the easy way out and deflect the issue back to you with meaningless generic truisms like “Be Smart!” or “Know Thyself” or “Be Patient” or any of that crap. I prefer to give specific advice, at least a little bit of which I hope you can take and implement.

Let’s start with some basic assumptions.

a) Education is very expensive.

b) Whatever you want to do with your life now is, very possibly, not what you’ll end up actually doing with your life. You’ll probably change careers once or twice, at least.

c) Unless you/your family are independently wealthy, you will have to take out student loans to pay for the expensive education that you get.

d) Regardless of whether you “use” the education you get (and by “use” I mean that you employ it in the career you have, or at the very least employed it in order to *obtain* the career you have), you still have to pay for it.

e) Once you “buy” an education (whether it’s with cash or loans), it’s yours forever. That’s good and bad. It’s good because no one can ever take your education away from you, regardless of anything that happens to you in your life (barring a traumatic brain injury, I suppose).

It’s bad because, well, if you don’t use it and you still owe tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on it, you still have to pay for it and you can’t transfer it to anyone else. Unlike, say, a $60,000 used Porsche 911, which may turn out to be a foolish purchase, but at least you can post it on Craig’s List and pass it along to some other sucker and realize only a tiny loss.

OK. Now that we’ve set the tone here, let’s whip up some analogies. I think that, based on the above, it’s fair to say that the first couple years of your college life are going to have the least direction and certainty. You take general classes, you sample different majors, and a lot of you sample different colleges. Some drop out of college altogether and never come back. Clearly, many things can happen during this time.

Because of that, the early years of colleges are when you want to MINIMIZE YOUR COSTS AT ALL — WELL, COSTS.

Avoid early commitments to big, expensive programs. Here’s my poker analogy. Anybody play poker? Yeah, some of you do. OK, let’s imagine a hold ’em game. You get your first two cards dealt to you. You pick up one. It’s a king. A king’s a good card, so you don’t even pick up your second card, don’t even bother to wait for any of the community cards — you go all-in with all your chips, betting all your money without seeing one other card.

If you did this, you would be a profound idiot. Someone at the table would likely walk to the fridge, grab a full can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and lunge toward you, intending to beat you about the head and neck with the beer can.

And you would deserve this.

OK, that’s a small-stakes poker game. You would never do such a thing. But when the stakes are multiplied by 1,000, as is the case with higher education, a lot of you guys do exactly this, all the time. You do stuff like:

  • Become dead certain from day one that you want a double major in philosophy and religion at a private liberal-arts school — which will cost you $65,000 in student loans.
  • As a freshman, enroll in a bachelor/master’s combination program in political science — for $75,000 in loans.
  • Declare a specialized major when you’ve only just recently become interested in the topic (off the top of my head, I’m thinking international relations, urban planning, art history, American Literature, etc.).
  • Declare a major without thinking about or researching career options that correspond to the degree.

Sure, there are some students who do any and all of the above, their interest stays strong and they finish the programs without any regrets. But even knowing that some do succeed, by and large I still dislike those programs when they require early commitment from younger undergrads, at exactly the time where they’re the most indecisive.

So, you get students committing to the programs and dropping out (still have the debt though!), or committing to them and finishing them, but having no interest in the subject any longer (still have the debt though!). Unless you have an uncanny level of focus and commitment to these types of programs of study (and not, mind you, just a new or passing interest), avoiding these types of programs are one way to avoid taking unnecessary student loans.

When I hear about a freshman who’s already declared a triple major — it just makes me nauseous, honestly, because I see a person who’s waaaay ahead of herself and is likely going to waste a lot of money taking classes she’s going to end up not wanting later on. Yes, sometimes I end up being wrong about that — but I’d much rather see those first two years of school left a little more free and open for exploration, rather than marrying oneself to a certain, rigorous path right away.

Consider community college. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m a huge fan of community colleges for the first two years of schooling. I say this a lot: for the general-education courses that comprise most of an undergrad’s first two years, the difference in the quality of the education at a community college is small, while the financial savings are mind-boggling.

Obviously, community colleges are not as selective as four-year schools, but if you’re a motivated student, you need not give two shits about that. If you’re motivated, you’ll learn exactly what you need to know in those basic courses, and you’ll do it for about $15,000-20,000 less per year than you would at a four-year school. And of course, at community college, you pay market prices for room and board (in an apartment) instead of ridiculously inflated prices that a university will charge you for room and board.

Lay down some rules for yourself. As in, “I refuse to go into a ridiculous amount of debt in order to get what I want out of life.” You can start with that one, anyway (zero debt might be too tough).  If you accept that as an absolute, and force yourself to find other ways to get the career you want, you’ll be surprised at how creative you can get.

Example: Let’s say you want to be lawyer. You’re thinking, four-year degree, then three years of law school. Well, the three years of law school you really can’t change — but you can find the cheapest decent, accredited law school (once you’re a lawyer and you pass the bar, you’re a lawyer like the rest of them). Then find out what your law school likes to see (which majors) in its applicants. Take the cheapest route to a degree they like to see (see the community college section above).

And backing up even further into high school, if you’re at one of the many schools that has a partnership with a local university that allows you to get college credits while you’re in high school, go for it. Sometimes you can get your school district to pay for those courses. Not always, but it’s worth looking into.

That’s just one example. Maybe you guys can give me some more in the comments section.

Test out. If you can “test out” of any required courses once you get to school, do it. Classes you don’t have to take are classes you don’t have to pay for.

Ruthlessly evaluate your risk and reward. This is pretty good advice for your entire life, actually, not just college. For any major, degree or even college whose focus is very narrow (say, a women’s studies major, an interior design degree, or an Art Institute, or something like that) — be very honest when you evaluate the risk (cost, time, narrower career options) of taking such a degree. If you look at a computer-animation degree from the Art Institute and realize that yes, with this degree, I’m going to have to stick with computer animation until the bills are paid off, and I’m ok with that — then go for it.

After all, if you end up being a risk-taker, that’s OK. I’m not anti-risk. I’m anti-UNINFORMED risk. Ruthlessly and heartlessly evaluate your risk before your proceed.

Do half of the above stuff, Amanda, and you might just avoid big bills while you figure out what you want to do with your life.

Anyone else have suggestions? Comments? Let me know in the comments below.

40 thoughts on “How Not To Destroy Your Future With Student Loans”

  1. So, I read your little chunk of advice and I became somewhat appalled by the comment “It?s good because no one can ever take your education away from you, regardless of anything that happens to you in your life (barring a traumatic brain injury, I suppose).” I am one of those people who started out on a track to pre-med, then to medical school. After the first 2 years of college prerequisites, I was doing well. That was until a catastrophic car accident. The accident gave me a traumatic brain injury, and took all of my academic and lifelong dreams away. After recuperation and constant negative comments about my ability to function individually, as well as in school, I lost hope in the academic world. This hope and appreciation for paying someone else to help me gain this knowledge continued to depreciate as I experienced constant conflicts with teachers cooperating with ADA accommodations. Struggling daily to make a dream of graduation come true; I changed majors, coped with the reality that dreams are really only dreams and should be kept in the bedroom, and graduating with a BS in Health Sciences and AS in Interior Design. After obtaining a college education, I only hoped to assist in health care facility planning or homebound remodeling for individuals with disabilities. Now, I pay student loans on an education that isn’t really helping me to go anywhere. I refuse to go back to school because of the trouble I experienced with ADA accommodations and I feel that I have wasted over half of my life. I work full time, own my own home, am a licensed Certified Nursing Assistant, college graduate and I am going nowhere. Society needs to change and paying for an education is a waste of time when you have the motivation, mind set, and working brains to get somewhere but are being held by social labeling and hypocrites?.

    1. I don’t understand your need to take what Josh said about a brain injury as a personal insult – it seems a valid argument that, in the context provided, people can’t take away the education that you’ve received.

      All teachers are required by law to fully facilitate students with disabilities. In terms of the conflicts that you faced, that sounds like a problem with our educational system above all else. There are countless problems with the system right now, and I don’t that many will disagree with this. I think that things really need to change if we have any hope of reaching a sustainable future as a society. Though you have clearly experienced conflicts with the ADA that you should have not, given our country’s regulations regarding students with disabilities, I don’t think that you would disagree: these people cannot take away the education that you have received, even if they [serve as] deterrents to your continued education.

      It does not seem that your situation serves to disprove the point of the statement that you take offense with. That being said, you make many valid points in regard to the limitations of our educational system in its current state, and I wish you luck.

    2. So, I read YOUR little chunk of advice and I became somewhat appalled by the comment.

      All you’re doing is bitching about what happened. Im in no way saying that your accident is nothing, or brushing aside… but if you truly want something… GO GET IT. Sitting on the internet and bitching about how schooling is too hard and you struggled to get through classes without feeling discouraged isnt gonna do anything. Everyone feels that feeling at some point no matter if they have a disability or not. And to say that you arent going anywhere because of not having an education HAHAHA thats such a joke. Half the stars you see on tv and made a name for themselves didnt have anything going for them and through hard work got somewhere in life.

      So sir I say that you’re appalling for even posting your pathetic excuse on the internet for everyone to see and hopefully feel bad for you. Grow up and work for something, aka your dream. Instead of bitching about how it got taken away from you… cuz you’re still alive and it most certainly did not get taken away.

  2. Amanda (but not the one mentioned here!)

    Yes, I am another Amanda. Sorry about the confusion, lol!

    I was at first one of those people that sneered at community college. I don’t know why I thought that it would be wiser to go to a four-year college for all of my years…granted, I was younger then and didn’t know that you could use it to knock out your first two years and then transfer over. And that’s exactly what I’m doing now.

    Our income is low enough to where my FAFSA said that my family didn’t need to contribute anything to my intuition and such. Also, my college very nicely offers grants and those grants are AMAZING!!! I’ve gotten two for this summer semester, totaling to over $2000. I’ve spent over $1000 so far on my books and such, and what I don’t spend will be sent back to me in a check (for 13 credits, it doesn’t even take more than two grand. How awesome is that?). Then I can simply re-register with a new FAFSA (the info isn’t really going to be any different than the first) and re-do the grant process and as long as I continue taking a full-time schedule, I’m likely to be accepted for grants during my entire two years there. I’m actually pretty darn lucky to be knocking them out of the way scott-free. It’s not set in stone of course, but it’s a great possibility.

    Anywho, thanks Josh for all the advice here! I’m happy my mom knocked some sense into me to make me go to community college!

    1. Gerardo Hernandez

      This is a great site thanks. And darn only if I had read this sooner. I’m going to a pretty pricy school and I didnt really take the time to find out how much money I could have saved, I’m already done with most of the general ed and now I’m starting the main courses pertaining to the major, which is in electronics and computers technology. Well I hope people actually read this stuff so they dont make this same stupid mistake i did! XP

  3. I’d suggest to Sue and Sarah looking into joining the service because of their great benefits, including paying for education. This might not always work out this way, but my brother managed to get into a fix where he entered the army with the agreement that they’d pay his $60,000+ student debt, probably largely because they were interested in the degree he had and were able to place him in a specific area to work. You should at least look into it

  4. Judge said mostly everything I would have shared. I’d also recommend starting to look into schools freshman year and seriously consider the benefits of in-state tuition if you’re eligible. If the school is below your level, the worst that can happen is becoming valedictorian which makes you eligible for more perks in scholarships and graduate school options. I like to say that college is the new high school. Plus, once you know what the university of your choice looks for you can take the correct general education credits that transfer. I wouldn’t trust the community colleges to tell you because sometimes they accidentally advise you wrong in a way that benefits their finances. Also, I know it sounds like a drag, but don’t underestimate how helpful scholarships can be. Talk to the school about scholarships they offer. And get experience. It’s not enough to just know a sport, have a club, or have a hobby on the side. Schools are now looking for leadership potential and experiences. Also, get to know a few of your teachers VERY well. Good recommendations can make up for lower scores. But you also want to take your standardized tests pretty seriously and prepare when you can. There are also tax free school savings accounts, programs like Upromise. Oh and instead of living on campus look for student housing (it’s much cheaper and helps you to establish credit). If you get a credit card in HS, make sure you set up automatic payments, and only use the money you already have so you can pay it back in full. Good credit makes your loans cheaper if you actually need any. Have healthy curiousity, and ask questions, and before you know it, you’ll have manageable investments towards your education.

  5. All really good advice. Thanks! One thing, though: “I’m not anti-risk. I’m anti-INFORMED risk”… aren’t you pro-informed risk and anti-uninformed risk? Not to be nitpicky, but those are two quite different things…

  6. Okay, I read your article and here is my question. What if a person is already into the ridiculous amount of student loan debt? How can one survive when those payments start rolling in? That is the position I am in. Had the economy not tanked, I should have been able to have gotten a well paid job in the career of my degree program – Information Systems Security. But, alas, the economy did tank and now I owe all those thousands of dollars and am terrified of what is coming down the chute.

  7. I am a graduating high school senior. Just earned 6 credits through dual enrollment in Accounting 1 and 2. School paid it all….almost $1000!!! I only paid $90 for my AP test in AP US History and I’ve already earned 9 credits. 3.5 years of college here I come!

  8. Hip, Hip, Hooray for Community College!

    I went to a CC for my AA, Cal State for my BA, and just finished with a private school for grad school (MFT Marriage Family Therapy and Art Therapy). Grad school was much more expensive, for it’s a specialty program (only 2 in southern cal), and the super high quality experience has me prepared to be a leader in my profession. I am really glad I spent the money where I did!

    ALSO: USE YOUR SCHOOL HEALTH CENTERS! I also encourage people to get informed about all the services available at community colleges and state colleges. I did my clinical traineeship as a new therapist at my local community colleges, and we saw students for no cost (only their health center fee paid with tuition, out here in Cali it’s about $12-$20 per semester). We have an excellent supervisor who has guided us in our first experiences really applying our clinical training, and I’m proud to say we have really helped some students (of all ages) in their recoveries from difficult families, abuse, assault, and other mental health issues.

    If everyone took advantage of this service while they were in college, we would have much more peace and contentment in our subsequent lives… and sometimes even decide to pass on the career you would have hated, anyway, and get right to the one that’s more fitting for you!

  9. How is International Relations a specialized major? If anything, it sounds more general than other, more traditional areas of the social sciences (e.g. political science, economics, history). And I was unaware that IR generally requires earlier/more commitment than other majors, unless there’s a few prerequisite classes before one can declare the major.

    (Disclaimer: I’m an IR major, but I have a full scholarship to my school, and quite a few community college units.)

  10. I have to agree with Sue! I’m in the same position. I ended up with a degree in Spanish and a ton of student loan debt, and I can’t find a decent job – not to mention everyone keeps saying I should be able to get whatever job I want, but that’s so not true! All the job postings I see that require a degree are so specialized that I’m not qualified. What do people in our situation do?

  11. Even though your suggestions are helpful, they’re not useful to anyone who has already graduated. I’ve got my degree, taken all my courses – so trying to test out or go to community college or redeclare my major isn’t exactly going to help me.

    Maybe you could do something that explicitly addresses the concerns of recent undergraduate graduates and how to deal with debt during those first few years out of school.

    However, I think this site is just mostly for undergrads. Which is also really unhelpful.

  12. Thanks for the advice- advise for highschool students-if u graduate hs at 16-any university willtake you and pay all 4years and check back. im 18 now 2 years done at ASU- going to comm college

  13. Student debt is probably the worst thing about studying. Surely you can manage the payments in small sums. I thought that depending on how much you earn would decide how much you pay back in each installment?

  14. My daughter wanted to go to school for what up until now she loves and does best–dance. However, she’s a realist and understands that it won’t support the lifestyle to which she is accustomed and takes my warning seriously that all women should stand on their own two feet financially. So, she intended to double major in dance and accounting. She took her first accounting class early in her sophomore year and hated it from the start. We did some soul searching and research and found she LOVED and was a savaunt in math, so she’s now a double dance and applied mathematics major. The dance was good too because it gave her the confidence she needed to get into school and become a success early on. As for loans…there are programs in the Federal government where they pay for or forgive loans if you join the Feds. That is our game plan for my daughter.

  15. Josh, I really enjoy your blog. It is so helpful. I am currently a fourth-year archie student with one more year of school to do. I am a little afraid of what awaits me out there next year seeing what the economy is. I am around 42,000 dollars in debt already (school loans), running low on cash for basic needs (rent, food, materials for school) and don’t think I will be able to last until next year with what I currently have in my account. Could you maybe talk about those of us going out there next year or even this year in an unstable economy with thousands and thousands of dollars in debt and no job offers in sight? Do you have any advice?

  16. I’d also like to say that this is why I don’t think we should encourage 18 year-olds to go to college. Obviously most of them don’t know what they want out of life. It is a little different, as a 25 year-old, or perhaps I just like to think this. I feel that for me, I am much more sure of the choices I have made because I have spent so much more time making them. Of course, I am only human, life changes, and so my plans are bound to change. Hence why I really appreciated this article. Definitely though, if I ever have children [because I feel like the world has not escalated to a point where I would feel guilty bringing someone else into it (thus making it very likely that if this were ever to occur, it would be through adoption)], they will not feel expected to go to college and plan their whole life at 18 years old; it’s much too expensive.

    This is why kids are so reckless and irresponsible in college. Of course they want to let loose at some point in their lives, but I am not really comfortable with paying someone else’s tuition while they are doing beer stands every night and just barely making it to class. You can do that while you’re NOT in school and paying thousands of dollars for it. Well, obviously no one does this if they ARE paying paying for their own schooling because no one wants to waste their own money.

    Sorry but I have to rant about the senselessness of assigning such responsibility to an age bracket that is hugely irresponsible. Obviously they are not all like this, but there is part of me that hopes that if we were sending more people who REALLY WANTED an education to college, we would live in a less vapid society. I can dream, anyway.

  17. This basically answered the question I just asked you in an e-mail. This may just be because SO many people who are worried about student loans write you. Thank you very much. This was very helpful.

  18. Wow, ok, so I am totally an example of what NOT to do. I was an AP high school graduate, got accepted into my favorite college, and had planned out what I wanted to do with my life for the last four years of high school (Environmental Ethics major), so I thought I had it ALL figured out. That was until I started taking the classes. I was 1000 miles from home, taking classes that I hated, and had a lovely mental breakdown. $6000 in debt after only two years, I dropped out. It took two years of counseling, becoming delinquent in my loan payments, requesting defferment after defferment, and working a minimum wage job before I found my real calling, accounting. I had no idea I was good at math. I never really had to try in all my AP math classes, but I never realized that was an unusual and marketable talent. Fast forward to eight years later and I’m working full time, paying my loans off $75 a month at a time, and going back to community college part time for my associates in Business. I have a real plan now, and I have researched my field. I know how much I can expect to earn, and I have a much better handle on my finances. If you’re in debt and you’re not making much money due to this economy, TALK WITH YOUR LOAN HOLDERS! They would much rather be getting something rather than nothing from you, and they will work out lower payment plans. I also have an adopted 14 year old daughter, and I’m attempting to pass my “lessons learned the hard way” on to her. She now visits my college classes with me, and has a REAL idea of what college is like. You’d be amazed how many night classes are offered by your community college, and it’s a great way for high school students to “audit” classes to see what it’s like. I’ve spoken with many of my professors and they ALL agree high school students have NO IDEA what college is really like. If you want to know, audit.

  19. @Sue and Sarah,

    Look into the repayment options available through your lender. You may be able to consolidate, or to set up a graduated repayment plan, or to receive a deferment of up to 10 months for unemployment, or even to set up a repayment plan that fluctuates based on your income. There are tons of options out there when it comes to paying back your student loan debt; the big ticket here is: PAY BACK YOUR DEBT.

    I don’t want to sound harsh, but we as students choose to accrue debt toward our education. Student loan debt is nothing to be trifled with, and it is the REFUSAL or LACK of debt repayment (in all forms) that has caused the economy to “tank.” Food for thought there. The only way to get past that debt is to pay it off. Here’s a few tips:

    (a) Find out if your lender will allow you to pay ahead on your monthly payments. If you can, then PAY WEEKLY instead of monthly. Divide your monthly payment amount by 4, and then pick a day that you are going to pay faithfully, once a week.

    I am so dead serious about this. You are not likely to find a bank that does not put a higher percentage of your payment against your interest than your principal because this distribution makes the bank more money.

    If you pay every week, it will only take you about 1 month to get on top of your accruing interest — which means that your payments will be chipping away at your principal balance, rather than allowing that balance to balloon with capitalized interest.

    P.S., If your lender doesn’t allow you to pay ahead on your student loan… Then you need to switch banks. Unfortunately, I don’t know all the ins and outs of that. My lender is SallieMae, and I even have the option of extending the time period between required pay dates by paying ahead of my balance due.

    (b) Get a job. You can keep looking for your dream career, especially thanks to online job banks. In the meantime, you have repayment coming, and you NEED to have gainful employment — whatever repayment option you work out with your lender — in order to accommodate that bill along with the rest of your daily expenses. Teach, substitute teach, join the service, get into customer service or technical support, manage a McDonald’s; it doesn’t matter. You need a job.

    (c) Speaking of job banks, hit up the civil service! IS and bilingual? Are you for real? Go to and look for work in your area — I think you will both find yourself pleasantly surprised, EVEN IF you don’t find a position that requires your particular level of expertise. And here’s the other thing about civil service: once you’re in, you’re in. All those internal-only positions are suddenly available to you, even if you are a GS-4 doing admin work and assuming the job you’re looking at doesn’t require a special clearance.

    Anyway, ladies, I hope this helped you and others. There is hope, and one day at a time, that debt can be paid off!


  20. I’m all in favor of educational frugality. I attended a local state university on a free ride + some extra cash while a lot of my friends went off and earned themselves some debt. It was a very stress-free time for me and I had the chance to complete 4 programs (3 BA, 1 MA) almost all for free. Now, I’m on a funded ride to an excellent doctoral program without an ounce of debt.

    That said, I thoroughly researched my options as I was considering both law school and a doctorate. Your law school example is a bit wishful – due to the massive oversupply of law school grads where you get your degree makes a huge difference to your opportunities after graduation, so not all lawyers who pass the bar are built equally. And even a very far way down the ranking line, you’re still paying loads of tuition if you don’t manage to swing a full scholarship, plus you’re really suffering through 3 nasty years of law school. To do what, be a public defender for $40-50k a year? Seriously, check the empirics: becoming a lawyer sucks these days – not only is it a high-stress career with lots of job dissatisfaction, it also doesn’t bring guaranteed financial rewards anymore like pop culture tells us.

    The same applies to PhD (in economics, at least) – in a lot of cases, it makes more sense to take an unfunded offer at a great program (e.g. Top 20) and gun to pass the qualifying exams and secure second-year funding, than it is to just take a funded offer at one of your safeties. The reason is that the placement opportunities and the effect that your first placement will carry throughout your career dwarfs the cost of any debt plus interest you would pay to attend.

    So, I’d say that there are a lot of opportunities to avoid student debt while in undergrad but still launch into a great career, but your graduate/professional choices generally hinge much more strongly on the quality of the program you attend and hence debt should be less of a factor. A graduate or professional degree is no longer the meal ticket it used to be.

  21. I have to take offense at a few of the comments here Judge Josh. While I agree that it is nice to take some time to figure it out and I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t take 2 years CC or something. It’s your examples that aren’t that great. I agree with the commenter on the law school and IR.

    International relations and women’s studies are some of the most applicable majors that are there. With IR the jobs are almost endless: civil service, governmental work, non-profits, relief organizations, etc. IR teaches you to observe the world around you and to try to figure out what makes it tick. Women’s studies allows you to study relationships between people and how people relate to each other. You also have tons of options upon graduating.

    I find your comments offensive at the least and uninformed at the best.

  22. Something you didn’t mention, that kind of goes along with AP exams…try CLEPing out of classes if you can once in school. Combine that with AP courses and you may be able to knock off a number of classes and go part time a semester or two. I’m graduating this spring and no one ever really considered that.

    Also…as an art school kid… yes, our focus is exceptionally narrow (perhaps why so few of us actually continue on as artists) but we have the benefit of being able to sell all the work we create while in school to help pay our tuition :o)

  23. I love the fact that Community College is so inexpensive — I chose to go to a junior college for the very reason that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in and would just finish my general ed until I figured it out….

    ….the down side of that, however, was I didn’t finish my program until 4 years later! It wasn’t that I wasn’t motivated, it was the culture there. A lot of slacker kids who are also lost go there and you find yourself in a void of thinking you have all the time in the world. Everyone there thinks on the same wave length and before you know it, you’re 22 and still haven’t set foot on a university campus.

    I think Community College is great if you DO know exactly what you want to major in. You’ll get in, get out, and save a ton of money in the long run. But beware of the environment and influences that comes with going to college with a lot of people who are either not bright enough or motivated enough to get accepted to/commit to a university.

    But at the same time, I’m kind of glad I had more time to see for myself what the workforce is like and what I want out of it so I really did choose my major, not my parents or my peers. But I also could be further in my career if I had finished my Bachelor’s sooner……its a give and take.

  24. Community College really is a great option. Through high school dual-enrollment courses (each class worth 6 credits each) and going to a community college the last semester of my senior year I was able to obtain 32 credit hours (approximately half of what I would need for an associates degree). However, I wanted to go straight to my dream school (The College of William & Mary) right out of high school. Well, I planned to go until I recieved my financial aid notification from them. Not only was I going to be in over $8,000 of debt that year, but I also would have needed to take out additional private loans. So, I had to attend a local community college for another year until I could get my associates degree. So I worked extremely hard to ace all my classes so that I would be eligible for more scholarships and I applied for more scholarships and assistance. Now I have my A.A. in liberal arts. But the thing was I didnt have to incur any debt OR have any out of pocket expenses; in fact, I was able to recieve leftover grant and scholarship money back which I am saving for my junior year. So I applied to W&M again and there is a HUGE difference between what they were going to give me as a entering freshman and what I will get as an entering junior (HUGE; 1,000s and 1,000s because aid often increases the longer you stay in school since schools dont want to waste money for your freshman year if you decide to dropout your sophmore year). So now I am debt free going into my junior year and I still get to graduate from the school I always wanted to go to. I said all this to say that if you are a high schooler with limited funds, consider a community college.

    P.S. I would rather take my harder general education classes at a community college than a university.

  25. ok, i never wanted to do electrical engineering but i did it anyways, because it pays well and because everyone expected me to. I actually love fashion. but like someone saiad before, im a realist in west Africa. fashion wont pay my bills. Im looking at doing Engineering management (its liek a masters of Business and engineering combined) in England because its somewhat cheaper but i still dont know how im going to find the money. so , what to do? to keep working for another year in a job i dont particularly like, enjoy or understand and save up, or to get a loan and go to England and maybe find out something i actuially like in engineering? maybe. or maybe not. im 25 and still confused. is this normal?

  26. So I went all the way to plan C as well and now I’m back to plan A. How often does that happen? lol. Started in physics, then art ( tried to go to an Art Institute, was accepted but changed my mind) Then I wanted to be a screenwriter, couldn’t get into the film department cause it was crowded so I got an English Degree. Now I am one semester away from the physics degree I began with. I don’t regret my English degree at all. It really makes me feel educated, enlightened, worldly, etc. The best part is that my parents could pay for it all and I had zero debt, albeit it was in-state tuition. Now I have a hefty loan to show for my physics degree and then add that to my husband’s own loan debt. Not a pretty picture!

    Anyway, here’s my small tuppence of advice: Stay in-state unless you are certain about a program your state’s school does not offer. In addition, many universities reward their local students for staying around through resident-only scholarships. Florida and Wyoming are the two states I am familiar with. Each offers a merit based scholarship that is guaranteed if you graduate high school with a good gpa. Add a good ACT score to that and the scholarship pays everything. Otherwise, it still pays a good chunk of it.

  27. One way to get an education with minimal student loan debt is to slowly work your way through literally. Start at the bottom of an organization and volunteer to help with a task or project to see if doing that type of job is suitable for you. Practice “benevolent selfishness” in that you need to think about how you work best (a lot of contact with people?), when (are you a night owl?), and what you would like to see changed in your corner of the world. If you’d like to become a psychiatrist, perhaps you could find a mental health organization that hires people to cover hotlines as well as offers tuition assistance as you plug away at your education. Consider the difference in earnings between getting your degree with student loans that you have to spend a chunk of your income to pay back and taking longer to get through debt-free. An employer that sees your commitment (no pun intended!) may be willing to financially invest in you unlike an employer who merely sees your desperation to prove it was all worth it.

  28. Everybody graduates with at least some loan debt. Me personally, I’m applying for scholarships like it’s a part time job! When I get accepted, I’ll get a part time job and do the work for credit program thing.

  29. I think for some people it’s better to start chasing a triple major their freshman year of college, because in the end it will cost less( at least under my circumstances). I’m going to graduate high school with all 50 credits of my core class requirements done, and I want to chase a triple major, but if I dont start imediatly then I’m going to have another 30,000 to pay for having to go to college another year. I believe in being able to graduate and go out and be able to immediatly apply for a job, so I’m going to get a degree in Art Education, even though its not what I want to end up doing, which is why I also want an MFA, incase I want to be a proffessor, and an Apparal Product Development degree so I can get the education to be a Fashion Designer, which is what I really want to do. Take a triple major wont cost me a whole lot extra because my majors all relate to each other, and for the most part the classes overlap. Anyway my point is, for some people going for a triple major from the start is the better option.

  30. I understand how hard it is to pick what you are going to study and hopefully have as a career. The best thing I can recommend is going to a Community Collage and at least get your Associate Degree. In most Associate Degrees there is a lot of wiggle room where you can still knock out your GE requirements and take classes that don’t relate to anything in particular. I call these classes exploratory classes. It gives you a chance to try a lot of different fields without the added expense of switching Majors later on. Good Luck and I hope that this helps.

  31. I really enjoyed reading this post. As a high school senior, I’ve been able to get through thirty credits (by Dec. 2010) of my AA degree at the local community college. If you, high school students, ever get a chance to do that, DO IT! It’ll save you SO much money! My tutition for one semester alone was almost $2000. At a four-year university, that could have easily been about $10,000. It’s, also, a great opportunity to get “your feet wet” in the college atmosphere. You don’t have to go crazy with taking a lot of classes, even one helps. 🙂

  32. Thanks for this article and the others that have been posted!
    I’m a high school senior planning to get a doctorate (yet to decide what it’s in…) as well as a masters in business as a secondary degree (to open doors related to employability), and I would like to use my doctorate to become a teacher at a university someday. Is that a realistic goal? I was also thinking that going to a community college for the first 2 years would work well if I get a BS (which is transferable) and then continue at the university which I’ve been accepted, but at the community college I would have to take placement tests. The problem with this is that they’ll most likely put me in class levels below the ones I’ve tested for. As a result of this method by the college to generate more revenue, I’ll end up taking classes which aren’t even transferable. I was thinking I should go to the university for one year and then return to the community college so I won’t have to take placement tests.
    My last question is about how financial aid significantly diminishes after a person aquires their first degree (my BS). Is there any way around that? You have to have a bachelors before entering graduate school, right? :/
    Thanks for any help with these questions, (and telling me if I’m wrong about the placement tests)

    1. Casey,
      Yes you have to get your bachelor’s degree before grad degree. As far as I know there is no way around this.

      As for placement testing for community college–the ones I no of do this if you haven’t got your high school diploma or GED. They do it so they don’t put you in a class level that you don’t have the prerequiste classes for. For instance, you need solid basic math courses before you can go into Algrebra or Calculus. So depending on your major for your AA degree you might have to just do the tests. The upside is if you happen to be good in certain subject areas you might get to skip some courses, and get placed in higher level if you score well on the tests.
      Also colleges have enterance tests, too. SAT, ACT… So testing into courses is just part of the process. There are tests for grad school application as well. The GRE, MACT, LSAT–which you take depends on what grad program you are going into.

      There is also an order to getting your degrees. Associate, Bachelor, Master, and then PhD or Law–depends on what you go for.

      It is also true that you usually get less aid for going for a second Bachelor or Master degree. I think it is assumed that once you have a Bachelor degree that you should be at a level where your income covers your life expenses. But funds vary depending on what you are studying, so check out the options for your chosen programs.

      A MBA (Master’s in Business Adminstration) is a good general degree. However, it is hardly one that shores up your chances for landing a good paying job these days. It is a generatl business degree and there are almost as many MBA holders as there are lawyers these days. So be certain that you need the MBA before you go spending the money to get it. I used to be a business major and realized that getting a BA in Business, then an MBA would not get me hired anywhere that would cover the loans.

      What do you want to teach with the grad degree? Does it related to business? If not don’t bother with the MBA unless you are going into business. If not go for a Bachelor degree that you can later get a Master/PhD in to get to the teaching at the university level.
      Most businesses hire folks with no degree in business. Almost all do actually since there is usually more jobs open than business grads in a given year. This means that people with English, History, Liberal Arts, Economics, foreiegn language bachelor’s degrees get hired to middle management positions as often, slithly more, than business majors. MBA degrees are also terminal degrees, which means there is no related degree that comes after it.

      So what do you plan on teaching later? Is it business related? Or are your interest focused elsewhere?

      Advice: Take your general ed courses at a community college. Check with the university/college you hope to go to so you can make sure your necessary courses transfer. Also take a few courses that are just interesting at this level so you can have a well rounded AA/AS and try out your options. This way you get both your 2 yr degree and you transfer courses done, while exploring what is out there.

      Good luck:)

  33. This is a good piece of advice. I personally had to do my exploring a few years earlier than most, because at the beginning of my junior year I entered a program that let me attend college full-time while earning dual credit for high school. I went through plan A (English major) to plan B (Business major, then library science program), and am now attending a four-year university with plan C: mechanical engineering. I’m only seventeen, but the two years at the community college really did help me discard a whole bunch of ideas. Because I went through so many plans, I chose engineering because of the challenge and the versatility of the major itself. In my area, a mechanical engineering degree can get you into a lot of different, barely-related fields. So, even if I do end up further into the alphabet, I won’t feel that my degree is wasted.

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