Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment, Understanding the Market

Should You Study What You Love?

Most of my posts about higher education are directed toward people who are planning to go to college. What about those on the fence? Should you go to college at all?

The quick answer is, if you can do it debt free, do it. If you can do it low cost and low debt, do it. Do it and pursue your love. And I would say this on all levels, from two year degrees to Ph.D.s. If what you love isn’t practical or doesn’t provide a clear job path for you, or if it’s creative and if, in this field, being successful is like a small lottery win — still do what you love. If you can go to college debt free, or with very minimal debt, you have more to lose by not pursuing your love than by chasing it.

Now of course you need to worry about employability. One problem with higher ed. right now is perhaps best illustrated by the embedded table.

GRE Scores by Major
From the report “Educating School Leaders” by Arthur Levine, 2005. Click the image to go to the report.

This table lists the top scores on the GRE (Graduate Records Examination) by major. The GRE is typically taken by college students near graduation to qualify them for graduate study at different institutions. You can think of it like an SAT or ACT for graduate school. At the time this data was collected, it measured student competency in three areas: Verbal, Quantitative (math), and Analytical (logic). The table to the left is arranged in the order of who gets the highest analytical scores. Can you guess? No, not science or philosophy majors. English majors score the highest on both the analytical and the verbal sections of the GRE, followed by, in order, Religion, Physics, and American History.

Now of the top four highest scoring majors, only one of them seems to hold the promise of any kind of certain employment. So the situation seems to be that the least seemingly practical majors offer the highest potential for cognitive and creative self development, but somewhat lower potential for income and employment. Which is unfortunate, because of all of the people who might walk into any office to be interviewed for a job, the most intellectually capable will usually be liberal arts majors. They can think the clearest and the fastest and can learn the quickest.

The reasons for this are simple: liberal arts majors, and especially English and history majors, read the most and write the most. So do religion majors (religion is just the study of a different set of literatures). At most of my previous institutions, typical English majors will read perhaps 20,000 pages or more and write about 2,000 pages or more over the course of their study. Their writing has to be more than just summary writing too — they need to present original arguments about their topics, at least original to them within the context of limited research time. That’s why English majors were, and still are, favored by law schools. That kind of research and argument writing is great preparation for legal work.

But the problem is, employers don’t know this about liberal arts graduates, and they don’t know what to do with them. What we have is a massive disconnect, then: employers don’t know how college educations work and what they produce, and neither do they seem to know how to match employees with jobs if their education isn’t specifically vocational. Colleges and universities, on the other hand, don’t know how to sell their majors to employers. So it seems that the safe thing to do is to pursue a major that clearly matches a job, and then to get the job that your degree has prepared you for.

But no, that’s not always the safe thing to do. A highly vocational education prepares you for a very limited range of jobs, and if you hate that one job you’re educated to do, you’ll find yourself either working a job that you hate, or going and doing something else and feeling that your college education was a massive waste of time and money. And if the industry changes, or rather when the industry changes, every time the industry changes (and it will), you will have to educate yourself again. Education never is a waste of time or money, of course: it always develops you. That is an investment that never goes away. Even if you don’t use your specific skill sets, you have developed cognitively in ways you may not even know. But you still don’t want to be found in this situation.

But that brings me back to my first point: if you go to college, pursue the things that you love. If you devote your time studying what you love, you will never regret that time spent, and it will develop you in ways you never before considered possible. But as you major in what you love, also minor in something that employers recognize: marketing, PR, management, finance, coding (.html, .xml, .php, flash, java). . . there’s a wide range. I would advise all English majors to learn a programming language and web technologies. I would extend that advice to all liberal arts majors.

I have not yet made it to the central question, though: should you go to college at all? I have known many capable, intelligent, and yes educated people who have never gone to college and have done well for themselves. These people are, however, in every sense of the word, exceptional. You also probably don’t need to go to college to play pro football, basketball, baseball, or if you’re very good at making money and selling, or if you have a marketable skill and a good head for business, or if you win the lottery, but most people can’t count on any of these things.

The numbers are out there. As poorly as the job market is performing for college grads, it always performs much worse for those without a college education. Except in very rare cases, employers won’t consider your application unless you have at least a bachelor’s degree, and if you get a job, you will only go so far without a degree. Even people with some college and no degree earn more money than those with no college at all.

So if you can go to college, go to college. It’s still the smartest choice. But as I’ve been saying, study what you love, get a vocationally oriented minor, and go to school as close to debt free as possible.

How can you go to school debt free? Attend a state school. They’re cheaper. Start at a community college and transfer in state — that’s even cheaper. I had a student once describe taking out student loans so he could party during Spring break: okay, don’t do that. I had friends in high school who worked Alaskan fishing boats over the summer, made a lot of money, and then used it to pay for college during the year. And most importantly, go before you get married, and especially before you have children.

Do you need to go to college to be educated? No, of course not. I didn’t start college until I was 23, and by that time I had done more reading on my own than I was required to do for my all of my undergraduate college classes combined. I read a lot. I only went to college because, I thought, if I’m going to do all of this reading and writing I may as well earn a degree with it. So I know what it’s like to be self educated, and I also know what it’s like to go through an educational system (I have a Ph.D. in English). The only thing you need to get educated is enough of an education to get you started, a willingness to work hard, and a library.

The advantages of a college education, however, are that your knowledge is structured, that you have some guidance and confidence in your knowledge, that you have credentials, and that you’re learning with other people, which makes the educational experience that much more intense, rewarding, and meaningful. And perhaps most importantly of all: you have a sense of what other people know. You know what knowledge to take for granted. That’s part of being socialized into the knowledge that you gain, and you learn not just a bunch of information, but how to arrange that information — you learn what’s more important and what is less important.

Ultimately, what will matter is what you can do. There are plenty of useless people out there with degrees, and the people I know working at the highest levels care about what you really know and what you can really do, not so much about your credentials. Credentials are just a way to weed out people less likely to perform — they are a way for the people holding the keys to the doors to hedge their bets. But credentials are no guarantee, and too many people waste their time in college, squeak by in their classes doing minimal work, and graduate almost as useless as when they went in, usually after taking some kind of vocationally-oriented major.

How do you avoid being one of these useless, credentialed people? Study what you love.

I’d like to add that there are many two year degrees offered through community colleges that are vocationally oriented and lead to good paying jobs. Again, your training will be very narrow, as will be your skill set, but some of these jobs pay better than most four year grads make right out of college. This may be an option if you don’t know what you love, or if you know that what you really love will never be something you can do for money. But you will find if you choose this path that you will peak early in your career unless you finish a B.A. and Master’s degree, so the upper end of your earning potential — at least as far as your degree will take you — will usually be limited compared to those with more education. This path is, however, a quick way to a good paying job if you choose the right A.S. degree.

Still not sure what to do? Contact us at home@brightfuturesedconsulting.com for a free one hour consultation.

Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment

Thinking Through Degree Choices

Quite a bit of educational consulting is focused on getting students admitted to college, but not enough is focused on what students do when they get there. In my years of experience in higher education, I’ve learned that you’re getting the cart before the horse by thinking that way. Choose a major first, and then choose the best college for it. But how do you choose a major? I’d like to encourage you to think about your degree choices in terms of three central questions:

  1. What are the emotional facets of your decision to choose a specific college or major?
  2. What are the professional facets of that decision?
  3. What are the economic facets of that decision?

Let’s explore these one at a time.

  1. The emotional content of your decision to pursue a major or college matters. While not every major will set you on a predetermined career path, your study still defines you and the doors that are either opened or closed for you in the future. Your choice of a college or major does not mean everything, but it still means a lot, so you want to spend some time thinking about who you are and what you really love before choosing a college or major. Engineers tend to be the highest paid graduates right out of college: are you that good at math? Do you love it? Are you really able to pursue a vocation that you don’t love just for the money it might make you?  Some people make this decision, find their happiness outside of work, and live fulfilling lives. Other people make expensive and time consuming mid-career shifts from jobs that they hate to courses of study that will lead them to jobs they love. What do you think you can live with? If it’s at all possible, pursue a course of study that you love. You will do better in it, and your skill sets and enthusiasm can open doors in skills-appropriate fields. If that course of study doesn’t lead to a clear career path, minor in something that does, like being an English major who minors in business or web development. It will make you easier to place in entry-level positions.
  2. The professional content of your decision to pursue a course of study should be considered as well. Some degree programs are essentially vocational schools: programs such as law, education, and engineering focus your education on one specific industry. You may be able to switch career paths down the road, but your skill sets will be fairly narrow and limiting. Liberal arts majors such as English, history, art, and philosophy, on the other hand, tend to be trainable across a wide range of fields and find success in many different industries, but they sometimes have a harder time getting initially placed because their degrees aren’t clearly associated with a job function. They have much better soft skills than the hordes of B.B.A. and M.B.A. graduates produced every year, though, so they can distinguish themselves once employed. It’s usually smart to pair liberal arts degrees with something like programming or business minors to help employability right out of college. Remember that a degree does not get you a job. It only makes you eligible to apply for certain jobs, and different degrees make you eligible to apply for different kinds of jobs.
  3. The economic content of your decision to pursue a degree is related to the following factors:
    1. Cost of the degree.
    2. Income potential for the degree.
    3. Age to retirement (related to no. 2) — your income earning potential is limited to your age at graduation. So, obviously, the best financial decision in the degree seeking process, or the best return on your investment for the cost of your degree, is to pick a degree that is pursued cheaply and yields high pay as soon as possible. In the current market, that would be a degree in petroleum or chemical engineering with no debt at graduation. But probably less than 5% of all high school graduates have the math skills to be engineers of any kind, so what do the rest of us do? We try to avoid going into high debt for low paying careers, especially late in life when our income potential is limited. You can save a lot of money by starting in community college and then transferring to a state university, or at least starting at a state university. Keep in mind that the economic value of a course of study is not a measure of its inherent value: that is only a reflection of market conditions at the time, and they can vary. The highest paying fields right now would hit bottom if saturated with more graduates than available jobs. People aren’t paid what they are worth. They’re paid on a supply and demand basis. Pay is only driven up when employers have to compete with each other for employees. Pay bottoms out when graduates are a dime a dozen, and especially when there’s not a lot of money in the industry.

What I’ve just described are the three factors that you should consider when selecting a degree program at any level. While I can’t tell you which of these are more important to you personally, Bright Futures Educational Consulting does have an extensive proprietary college choice survey that can guide you through your decision making process. If you’re independently wealthy and don’t have to worry about lost income or student loan debt in your pursuit of a degree, pursue what you love and forget about everything else. If you have to worry about debt, think about the other two. But no one can tell you how much each of these factors will weigh in your own decision making process. Be careful about using an emotional logic for financial decisions. That doesn’t usually turn out well. Be careful about being purely financially motivated as well, unless that’s who you are.

In other words, if you’re like most people, seek a balance between the three. Your ideal degree program at any level would be where your passions intersect with your best professional identity and your most viable financial position. Most of us have to make compromises, so be careful about compromising any one of these too much.

Educational Consulting, Understanding the Market

Latest Scandals in College Admissions

If you’ve been following the news lately, you may have heard about the latest scandal in college admissions. Fifty people were recently charged by the District Attorney in Massachusetts for illegal activities intended to guarantee their children admission to a number of elite colleges around the country. Some of these activities included illicit aid in college entrance exams such as the SAT, while others included bribing college coaches to guarantee a spot on their college team.

I think this recent scandal deserves the attention it’s been getting, but I think some of the commentary has been misguided. I’m going to offer a few thoughts here to help us think through the anxieties revealed by these scandals and better ways to think about them.

First, college admission is indeed a very stressful time for both parents and prospective students. It does matter which college you attend. It’s not true that education is the same across the country, and you do want to attend the best college that you can. Colleges with higher endowments do provide better education, hire top faculty and actually provide them support, provide better networking opportunities, and provide better facilities and other opportunities.

However, it’s not true that you or your child needs to get into any one particular college to have a good future. It’s not even true that Ivy League colleges are necessarily the best colleges in the country for any given area of study — your state’s public college may have excellent programs geared towards yours or your child’s interests. While some educational paths are certainly better than others, there isn’t just one right educational path for you or your child. There are many ways to do it right.

Next, there’s nothing wrong with doing every legal thing you can to improve test scores to help you get into a better college. Take SAT test prep classes. Get tutors if you’re weak in some areas. Take the test multiple times if your first score isn’t your best one. Hire services like ours to advise you, and seek out advice from guidance counselors as well. But you don’t have to be rich to get this help. There are a lot of free and inexpensive aids out there. You just need to know how to find them.

Finally, I would like to take a moment to distinguish Bright Futures Educational Consulting from other services out there. We are priced to help working and middle class families find their best paths into college. It’s not just about getting in, but about avoiding debt, finding the right colleges and majors for you or your child, and knowing where to find the information you need about all the decisions you have to make when choosing a college or major.

You might notice that many other services like ours are staffed by former college admissions workers. Bright Futures Educational Consulting has background in college admissions, but also in financial aid, course and curriculum design, instruction, and college administration. We’re not just thinking about getting you in to college, but about what you want to do while you’re there, the kinds of decisions that you need to make to avoid high debt (such as how to avoid switching majors, which can be very costly and time consuming), how your personality, personal strengths, passions, and interests can translate into a meaningful degree, and how that degree can translate into a living. We’re not just thinking about admissions, in other words, but about making your college education work for you in your life after graduation.

Check out our Contact Page for more information. We provide a range of consulting services. You only have to pay for the ones you need, and your initial consultation is free.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Graduation Rates, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment

Understanding Four vs. Six Year Graduation Rates

If you’ve been shopping for colleges you might have read about four and six year graduation rates. These rates are indicators of what percentage of entering freshmen finish college four years after starting and what percentage finish six years after starting. Graduation rates beyond six years aren’t followed very closely, as most students finish within six years or not at all, and from the numbers I’ve seen, five and six year graduation rates tend to be very similar.

Time-to-Graduation too Often Overlooked” by Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos addresses the issue of time to graduation as a significant concern for students considering a college. They are concerned about the added costs involved in graduating six years after starting rather than four. Akers and Chingos provide a lot of useful data indicating that four and six year graduation rates can vary widely among institutions regardless of the institution’s quality on other measures, including the strength of incoming students’ ACT or SAT scores. Apparently, there’s no clear correlation among student scores, institutional quality, and differences between four- and six-year graduation rates:

One might assume that general metrics of college quality are good proxies for all sorts of outcomes, including time-to-degree. For example, perhaps institutions with good six-year graduation rates also have good four-year graduation rates so it doesn’t really matter which one students use.  But it turns out that this is not the case.  The average time-to-degree varies widely, even within institutions that seem to be of similar quality based on other measures.

What I would like to do here is help students think through why graduation rates might differ from school to school and how to evaluate those differences.

First, I agree with the basic point of this article: students need to do all they can to graduate in four years, because by doing so they’re saving money. These cost savings take the form of not paying for two years of additional tuition, room, board, and fees, and also in the form of two fewer years of lost income. The sooner you start work after college, the sooner your investment in college starts paying you back.

But it’s very important that we understand the range of possible reasons for these differences. Time to graduation is always just a matter of basic math: any four-year college that requires 120 credit hours to graduate requires 30 credits per year, or 15 credits (typically five classes) per semester. If a student passes five classes per semester every semester they will graduate in four years, period. So if 15-20% of a college’s students need an additional two years to graduate that’s not because of the degree structure or the college itself, unless significantly more than 120 credits are required for graduation.

Typical reasons that cause students to take more than four years to graduate include:

1. Failing or dropping classes — do this four or five times and you’ve added a semester to your completion time.
2. Sports injuries, if they cause you to drop out of school for a semester or more.
3. Serious family issues or illnesses, if they cause you to drop out of school for a semester or more.
4. Switching majors during or after your third year.
5. Adding minors, especially multiple minors.
6. Double majors.

I have had students in the past who fit all of the above categories, often multiple ones at once.

Institutional reasons include for extended time to graduation include:

7. Credit-intensive majors. Typically, colleges can’t do much about these requirements, as they are field-specific and usually designed to meet state or federal requirements. For example, secondary education majors are often required to do coursework about equivalent to a double major. Those requirements are imposed by the state. Just know what you’re getting into if you select one of these majors.

8. The school doesn’t accept many or any transfer credits or students (i.e., most students start as freshmen), which raises the likelihood of more than four years to graduation. Transfer students will finish in two or three years, and if they graduate in four, they may have done it in four years at that institution but have taken much more than four years to get their degree.

9. Time to graduation may be increased if an institution has a significant population of non-traditional students, such as working adults. Working adults are often unable to attend full time so take longer to complete. My own alma mater, Rollins College, has an undergraduate evening program called the Hamilton Holt School that is largely populated by non-traditional students along with graduate programs with a similar student population. I suspect this school contributes to the 15% increase in six year graduation rates over four year graduation rates at Rollins College. I was one of these students. It took me nine years to complete my B.A. at three different institutions. I just happened to finish at Rollins College.

10. A college with a high population of remedial students will have longer time to graduation, as these courses often do not count for credit toward graduation. If a student has to take four remedial classes in two or three different subjects, that’s a semester added to their time to graduation. This problem may not be a negative if the college serves its remedial students well.

11. Are the college’s general education courses filled to overflowing? Do they offer too few sections for the students who need them? This problem is institutional and can extend time to graduation.

12. Does the college serve many veterans or those in the military? They often have to take a semester or more off for service. It’s a good thing that the college does so, but serving this population will affect a college’s stats on time to graduation.

So even if you see that there’s a big disconnect between four- and six-year graduation rates, you still don’t know what that means. If it’s because many students fail their classes, that means the school has meaningful academic standards but a weak student population, which is a mixed signal (bad in that students are weak, good in that at least the school has academic standards). If there’s a big difference between four- and six-year graduation rates because many students take credit-intensive majors or double majors, that’s a sign that the school has a high population of very motivated students, or very strong programs in credit-intensive majors, so that’s a good sign. Schools with a high four-year graduation rates may have low academic standards, and faculty may be pressured to just pass everyone through, in which case a high four-year graduation rate can be a sign of a bad school. If the school has an evening program populated by working adults, then differences in four- and six-year graduation rates don’t tell you anything at all.

So finding out why these differences exist is what matters. The best thing to do is to consider this measure alongside many others, and compare your potential college’s graduation rates to national averages and other potential colleges. If they’re above the national average for their cohort, you’re on safe ground.

In general, four-year private non-profit institutions have the best four- to six-year graduation rates, and for-profit institutions have the worst, running at about half the rate of public and private non-profit institutions.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment

How to Choose a College Major

 I’d like to encourage you to think about your choice of a college major in terms of three central questions:

  1. What are the emotional facets of your decision to choose a specific major?
  2. What are the professional facets of that decision?
  3. What are the economic facets of that decision?

Let’s explore these one at a time.

  1. The emotional content of your decision to pursue a major matters. While not every major will set you on a predetermined career path, your study still defines you and the doors that are either opened or closed for you in the future. Your choice of a major does not mean everything, but it still means a lot, so you want to spend some time thinking about who you are and what you really love before choosing a major. Engineers tend to be the highest paid graduates right out of college: are you that good at math? Do you love it? Are you really able to pursue a vocation that you don’t love just for the money it might make you?  Some people make this decision, find their happiness outside of work, and live fulfilling lives. Other people make expensive and time consuming mid-career shifts from jobs that they hate to courses of study that will lead them to jobs they love. What do you think you can live with? If it’s at all possible, pursue a course of study that you love. You will do better in it, and your skill sets and enthusiasm can open doors in skills-appropriate fields. If that course of study doesn’t lead to a clear career path, minor in something that does, like business or web development. It will make you easier to place in entry-level positions.
  2. The professional content of your decision to pursue a certain course of study should be considered as well. Some degree programs are essentially vocational schools: programs such as law, education, and engineering focus your education on one specific industry. You may be able to switch career paths down the road, but your skill sets will be fairly narrow and limiting. Liberal arts majors such as English, history, art, and philosophy, on the other hand, tend to be trainable across a wide range of fields and find success in many different industries, but they sometimes have a harder time getting initially placed because their degrees aren’t clearly associated with a job function. They have much better soft skills than the hordes of business majors and M.B.A. graduates produced every year, though, so they can distinguish themselves once employed. It’s usually smart to pair liberal arts degrees with something like programming or business minors to help employability right out of college. Remember that a degree does not get you a job. It only makes you eligible to apply for certain jobs, and different degrees make you eligible to apply for different kinds of jobs.
  3. The economic content of your decision to pursue a degree is related to the following factors:
    1. Cost of the degree.
    2. Income potential for the degree.
    3. Age to retirement (related to no. 2) — your income earning potential is limited to your age at graduation.So, obviously, the best financial decision in the degree seeking process, or the best return on your investment for the cost of your degree, is to pick a degree that is pursued cheaply and yields high pay as soon as possible. In the current market, that would be a degree in petroleum or chemical engineering with no debt at graduation. But probably 3-5% of all high school graduates have the math skills to be engineers of any kind, so what do the rest of us do? We try to avoid going into high debt for low paying careers, especially late in life when our income potential is limited. You can save a lot of money by starting in community college and then transferring to a state university, or at least starting at a state university. Keep in mind that the economic value of a course of study is not a measure of its inherent value: that is only a reflection of market conditions at the time, and they can vary. The highest paying fields right now would hit bottom if saturated with more graduates than available jobs. People aren’t paid what they are worth. They’re paid on a supply and demand basis. Pay is only driven up when employers have to compete with each other for employees. Pay bottoms out when graduates are a dime a dozen, and especially when there’s not a lot of money in the industry.

What I’ve just described are the three factors that you should consider when selecting a degree program at any level. However, I can’t tell you which of these are more important to you personally. If you’re independently wealthy and don’t have to worry about lost income or student loan debt in your pursuit of a degree, pursue what you love and forget about everything else. If you have to worry about debt, think about the other two. But no one can tell you how much each of these factors will weigh in your own decision making process. Be careful about using an emotional logic for financial decisions. That doesn’t usually turn out well. Be careful about being purely financially motivated as well, unless that’s who you are.

In other words, if you’re like most people, seek a balance between the three. Your ideal degree program at any level would be where your passions intersect with your best professional identity and your most viable financial position. Most of us have to make compromises, so be careful about compromising any one of these too much. If you’d like personalized advising that can help you think through these factors, consider retaining the services of Bright Futures Educational Consulting. We’re here to help, and we’re experienced at it.