One of my favorite activities as a pharmacist goes on outside the pharmacy walls. For years I have been asked to come and speak to high school juniors and seniors about my career as a pharmacist. They call it “career day” and I have always enjoyed these opportunities. Some of the students I have spoken to have actually gone on to be pharmacists and are currently practicing in that capacity.
But very often I find myself leaving these events feeling discouraged. I actually wish I had the time to talk more generally about college with these students. I’m frankly not sure our kids are getting great advice. They are about to make their first REALLY big financial investment and all around them are individuals who, whether they will admit it or not, have a vested interest in getting them to spend a LOT. Their high school wants them to go to the biggest and most prestigious school possible. It makes the high school look good to have Ivy League graduates. The university or college of course is pressing HARD to win their business. Just look at all the money they invest in marketing to high school students! And even parents (c’mon folks, let’s be honest) often want to say our kids wen to “such and such” university.
I’m not a college expert or a professional financial advisor. But I’ve been through college, and so has my wife. My oldest child (of 4) is in college, and our next one is almost there. I’ve also talked to dozens and dozens of high school students about their college plans over the years. I’ve read some books on college financing and money in general. But mostly my tips just come from my own observations and painfully watching young men and women bury themselves in college debt.
I guess the idea of enormous debt is something that our kids have grown up to expect. Our government is constantly borrowing money and our nation is in unbelievable debt. Many grown-ups are swallowed in debt as well, having maxed out multiple credit cards and home equity loans. It’s no surprise that college loan debt in America is around 1 trillion dollars. We live in a culture of credit. Buy now, pay later. Few are saving appropriately for retirement. Few high schools offer a class in personal financial management. We are pretty naïve about money overall.
I wish that “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” was required reading for every high school student. Most adults haven’t ever read it, or any book on basic financial management or advice. Be honest – name 1 book you have read cover to cover on money management, financing, investing, wealth or dealing with debt. There are hundreds of great ones. Most people have never so much as read the covers.
What I’m about to say isn’t necessarily going to be what you want to hear. But I’ll say it anyway. Here it is: your thoughts about college are probably based on emotional and social reasons, not rational and financial ones. The college debt you are about to start accumulating will haunt you for decades. And most of what people are telling you is wrong.
So here are my tips. Take them or leave them. It’s your life. It’s your money. It’s your choice.
8 COLLEGE TIPS FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS:
Tip #1: Don’t go to college if you don’t HAVE to. What do you want to do? If you want to be a surgeon, nurse, pharmacist or pretty much anything in the medical profession you will probably need a college degree. This may also be true for the legal professions and science research. But there are plenty of people in very high paying positions that never went to college at all. Many very successful individuals never received a college diploma. Examples include names like Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin and Henry Ford. Learning is great. College can be a great place to learn things. But don’t confuse getting a college degree and being successful. They aren’t the same. You could learn a trade and be VERY successful without a college degree. You can start a business without a college degree. You can do sales without a college degree. All these can be VERY financially rewarding careers. You don’t need to go to college for them.
Tip #2: Look at a community college to start with. Doing a couple years at a local community college can shave thousands upon thousands of dollars off your student debt. You don’t need to go right into a 4 year university and begin financing $40K per year (or more) as a freshman. Sure, it may sound like a lot of fun. But it’s pretty expensive fun, and personally I can think of a lot more fun ways to spend 40 grand. You will need to do your research and realize that some credits may not transfer to every college. But overall this is a great option. Remember, your final diploma will simply have the name of the college you graduated from.
Tip #3: Start looking for grants as a high school sophomore and junior. You will want to start developing a list of organizations that will help pay for your college bill. You simply cannot believe how many organizations have money just sitting in funds to donate to individuals who take the time to apply for it. This is free money. You don’t have to pay this back. Do some research with your high school advisor about where to look for appropriate grants and funds for your particular area of interest. Most kids simply start too late or won’t take the time to apply.
Tip #4: Shop really hard for colleges and look for a bargain. Let me be frank. You will get whatever education you want out of college. I don’t care if you go to the biggest most prestigious university in the country. If you don’t apply yourself, you won’t learn much. Not only that, but many studies have been done to show that individuals who go to the BEST colleges often fare far worse than if they had gone to a more average college where they excelled. If you really want to learn…you will learn. Your professors and your school name won’t automatically do anything for you. You’ll get from your college what you put into it. So why pay twice the price for a fancy name? Shop around. Look around the country. Get the best price for the degree you want.
Tip #5: Forget your friends. I’m sorry folks, but choosing a college simply because that is where your friends are going is a dumb move. Unless your friend wants to help pay off your loans as well, you need to make the choice that is right for you. Going there JUST because your parents went there or sibling went there isn’t too smart either.
Tip #6: Start networking now. You need to start thinking about potential places to work or build your career immediately. You need to network with individuals and companies that will help you. These connections will do much more for you than the name of the school on your diploma. Join LinkedIn. Get a job in a related field. Find connected people and learn from them.
Tip #7: Save you pennies now. Pay as much as you possibly can in order to keep you loans as low as you possibly can. Can you work while in college? Use that money to pay for school.
Tip #8: Think about the most affordable living arrangements. Do you have to live on campus and pay their meal plan prices? Can you find a way to commute or live in off-campus housing with others who will split the cost?
Tip #9: This is a freebie, since the article only promised 8. But it is an important one. Are there any jobs for the degree that you want to pursue? What do those jobs pay? Have you talked to a few people working in that field? What do THEY say about the job market? The pharmacy job market, for example, is flooded. But NO school will ever tell you that. They want your money. They’ll sell you a degree. They don’t care if you find a job. Do you like Archeology? Cool. You can get your degree but you probably won’t earn any money in it. Like philosophy? Neat. Me too. But what do philosophers sell, repair or produce? Good luck with that one. Music, fitness, art, history? I know I’m making some people very mad. But if your only aspiration is to teach history…you’ll have lots of competition for relatively few jobs.
What I have said are simply tips, observations, and personal opinions. We all have limited information and our own biases. You need to make the choice on your own. I’m just throwing my voice into the mix of advice you will get. Weigh it all out and make your own decision in the end. I’m not anti-college at all. I went to college and am glad that I did. But many I believe go for the wrong reasons, pay too much, and find themselves without a job and lots of debt.
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