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College Choices: How Should Money Factor In?

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With graduation season upon us, the media is flooded with stories about the ever-escalating amounts of student loan debt.  Those stories are almost always accompanied by news of the college majors that pay the most — and those that pay the least. In reading all of this, those bound for college might be moved to choose the major based on today’s pay scale, or they may want to avoid college altogether so they don’t take on student loan debt.

However, while money is a very important factor to consider, it’s not the only one.

Let’s start with your future career path. Bottom line, if you want a life of misery, pick your college major by whatever pays the most when you are a high school senior. Nothing could be more shortsighted than picking your major based on the earnings for it in one year out of time.  You might work for 50 years after graduation. How likely is it that the major you pick based on one year’s earnings will still pay relatively well for a half of a century? The field might not exist then. Many of the highest paying entry-level jobs now didn’t exist even 10 years ago.

Things change. Pick something you love and find a way to make money from it. With the rise of the Internet it is easier than ever to become an expert in your field and to make money from it as an entrepreneur.

Create a Plan

There are people in every field doing that right now as you are reading this. You just need to plan for college like you would a business, and you need to be creative. If you go to college for four years, taking courses with no plan, and then start sending out your resume in the spring of your senior year, then yes, you will struggle. You need to consider each course as an investment in time and money, and try to figure out how it will help you before you sign up for it. (Yes, I know there will be some courses you just have to take. You still want to figure out how to get the most out of them. Maybe it’s the content; maybe it’s the connections with the professor or other students. There will be something.)

If you aren’t sure yet what to major in, take all of your required courses first and see what you like. I was an undecided business major for almost two years. Then I became hooked on finance and went with it.

Then, in my MBA program, I stuck with finance because it was familiar. In law school, I figured I might break from business and finance, but guess what? I found out that it really was what I liked so I took courses in finance, tax, and estate planning. I worked for a couple of years as a lawyer and I hated every second of it.

Fifteen years ago I made a break and started working as a financial planner. The courses that I took in tax and finance didn’t help me much when I was a lawyer back then, but have come in handy ever since. Now I get paid very well to do a job I love where I get to help people every day. What could be better than that?

Don’t Run From Debt Entirely

Don’t be afraid to take out student loans just because you will have debt. It’s hard to go to college now without loans or semi-affluent parents who are generous. And debt can, in fact, be very useful sometimes.

However, just like your choice of a major, have a plan for how you will pay for college. You can’t just go in and hope for the best. Don’t be afraid to go to community college and state school. Take a little longer if you need to. The average student loan debt is about what a new car costs. Which one will provide you more value in the future?  It’s education, by a mile.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not represent the views of the company or its affiliates.

Image: iStockphoto

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