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As the school year is drawing to a close, young men and women in high school are considering their future. What college or university do they go to? What should they study? What career should they pursue? These are all heavy questions to ask a teenager who barely knows themself well enough to know where they fit in the world. Yet about this time every year, we drop these questions on them.
A lucky few have known their path for a long time, but the vast majority are just like I was in my Senior year of high school. It wasn’t until my second semester that year that I took a Psychology class and discovered something I was interested in besides history. I was decent at math, but not exceptional. I could follow along in science but was never the kid setting the curve. I excelled in language arts and the social sciences. I knew that if I were going to college and wanted to graduate, I would have to study something in this area. I had no idea about anything beyond college, like whether there was a market for someone with a degree in Psychology? I didn’t even know about the different fields in Psychology. As a soon-to-be high school grad, I figured I’d be that guy sitting in an office with someone lying on the couch telling me about their problems and I’d be able to fix them.
I can’t say I would change any of my choices. I enjoyed learning more about the human mind and all the bizarre things the mind does. I appreciated how efficient our mental processes are, but also discovered how faulty our thoughts and memories can be, realizing how most of what we believe to be reality is not in fact reality, but rather perception. It truly is a fascinating area to study. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to work with people who were of the abnormal variety. Then, in my Junior year of college I discovered Industrial/Organizational Psychology, where business and Psychology meet. I took a natural liking to it as it wasn’t about anomalies, it was about what motivates and compels a typical person to act in a certain way in a work setting.
Unfortunately, in this field, you almost always need to go on for further study and get at least a master’s degree. So, I did. Seven years after graduating high school, I was finally done with my formal education and began my struggle to find a job that was related to my field of study.
It took several months to finally land my first job. I was making a whopping $24,000 per year. If you calculate that for a 40-hour work week, it equates to $11.54 per hour. At the time, that was about $5 more per hour than minimum wage, but it was a far cry from what I thought I’d be making with a master’s degree. Eventually, I managed to work my way into better jobs with better salaries, but it took a while to get off the Ramen Noodles diet.
Meanwhile, I had classmates who graduated high school and went straight into a job that was paying on par with what I was making after I graduated college; some of them even made significantly more. They did this all the while having little to no debt to their name. So, it got me to wondering, who was the smart one really? Was it me with a couple of extra diplomas to hang on the wall or them, with a jump-start on their career and life?
The point of my little story is this: there’s no one right path for you. I’ve met thousands of people in my lifetime who have done some incredible things. Every one of them started on their journey thinking they’d be doing one thing and ended up doing something entirely different. Something that was even more interesting and fulfilling than what they first planned on. So, don’t put too much pressure on yourself, in the end you’ll figure it out. Until then, here are a few pointers that will get you started.
1. If You’re Not Sure, Don’t Rush.
I think one of the biggest mistakes most kids make is that they feel like they must go to college immediately after high school. Granted, there are some benefits to getting formal education out of the way earlier, it also comes with some pitfalls. I remember my campus days and meeting so many people who majored in “Undecided.” They literally started paying for an education and had absolutely no clue what to focus on. You might be able to get away with this for the first year, but past that, you’re just wasting time and money. Likewise, a lot of kids change their major multiple times; each time they do this, they set their graduation back by a year. There are full-time students who take six or more years to graduate, all because they didn’t know what they wanted to do when they graduated high school.
So, if you don’t know what you want to do, don’t commit time and money in something, hoping you’ll figure it out along the way. I can guarantee you that you won’t figure it out sitting in a classroom. Instead, use the time after graduation to work, travel, volunteer, and meet people outside your high school circle of friends. Learn about the world, what options are out there, and how you might be able to contribute with the greatest impact.
2. College is an Option, Not a Requirement.
The mantra drummed into our heads, almost from the day after we were born, is that you need to go to college to be successful. Sure, many college grads do lead very successful lives, but there’s also many who aren’t any better off with a degree than without. Just look at all the people we admire in the business world today, you’d be surprised how many never went or dropped out of college.
I’m not saying, “don’t go to college.” What I am saying is, “college isn’t for everyone.” If you know what you want to do, you can determine if getting a higher education is the right course to take. You might conclude that a four-year degree isn’t going to be a great return on your investment, and choose instead to try entrepreneurship, or get an associate degree, or get certification from a trade school, or become an apprentice. All of these are just as viable of an option as college. Additionally, except for a few select careers, much of what you need to learn, in terms of skills, can be accomplished through online offerings and experience.
3. Choose Your Career BEFORE You Pick Your Major.
If you choose the four-year degree route, make sure you are getting educated in something where there will be a reasonably good paying job available after you graduate. Otherwise, you’re going to be stuck trying to pay off a sizeable student loan on a barista’s wage. So, my advice to you is to do your research first.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s O*Net is a great resource to learn about different career options out there. The site gives you salary information, the outlook for jobs in various field and industries, and what you need to learn and study to make yourself a viable candidate. Study this and use it to plan out your time in higher education.
4. Don’t Fall for the Prestige of the School.
Choosing the right school for your field is nearly as important as your choice in major. Don’t get sucked into idea that you should only get your education at a top-tier or ivy league school. Even if you are smart enough to get selected, it can sometimes be a foolish decision to enroll if it doesn’t also come with a sizeable scholarship. This is especially true if you’re majoring in a field that promises a starting salary below $50,000 per year. Not to knock any degree but getting one in something like journalism at a school where tuition is $50,000 per year or more, is probably not the right option, given the prospective salary post-graduation. Find a solid school that gets you the same degree with a more reasonable price tag where you have an easier time paying for it once you are working. In other words, be a conscientious consumer of your education.
The prestige of the school will not offset the market conditions of the career you choose. All you’re doing, when you have this mistaken idea that going to a fancy school will get you further ahead, is chaining yourself to a bunch of debt for the sole purpose of feeding your vanity. You’ve bought into the brand of the school and that you’re somehow special if you graduate from it.
5. Go to Community College First and Stay In-State.
You’ve probably noticed a lot of talk about debt in this blog. It’s incredible how much student debt is out there today. It is the second highest consumer debt category in the country after mortgages, and totals over $1.5 trillion. Nearly 70% of college graduate have student debt, with the average person taking out over $29,000 in student loans. The amount depends on where you go and what you study.
To avoid as much student debt as possible so that you don’t begin your life in a deep hole, start your education in a community college. This allows you to get all the general education credits out of the way without having to pay an exorbitant amount. In the State of Missouri, students can also get a scholarship through the A+ Program to reduce costs even further. Additionally, even though I know you want to get as far away from your parents as you can, it’s always smart to go to a college in the state in which you’re living rather than pay out-of-state tuition.
Finally, make sure you’re going to a school where you’re paying for the education and not the amenities. When you are making those campus tours, try not to get swept away by the amenities they offer and other frivolous things on which colleges and universities are wont to spend. Get the biggest bang for your buck by finding the schools who make their faculty and students the primary focus.
These are just a few suggestions to help you as you begin your adult life. There are probably more eloquent speeches you’ll hear and sage wisdom you’ll be given, but these are what I wish I was told when I graduated back in the Stone Age.
Best of luck Class of 2019! Do great things and make us proud!