Hiding from the Economy With Loans

Dear Student:

I know that the American employment landscape is quite frightening and has been for a while. Friends of mine are moving home to regroup and figure out how to survive while looking for work, or even as full time employees! It is tough for everyone and I want to fully acknowledge that. However, despite how safe school feels you have to go ahead and get out there.

I’m quite saddened and, quite frankly, startled to see young people staying in school unnecessarily to avoid facing the economy. Most colleges only require 120 credits to graduate, but I am seeing students with 150 and more. Some of these students say they are adding a second major to be more competitive. However, I implore you to figure out the long term costs.

Tuition at my institution is quite expensive. Tuition, fees, room and board tops 56 thousand dollars. 56 thousand dollars is more than many Americans earn per year. Staying in school to add extra credits at a cost of 56 thousand dollars does not make long term fiscal sense. Even if your university expenses are less think about what your starting salary may be and how you will pay off that extra year of schooling.

Even though the economy is tough it is better to get out there and start your career and build experience. You may have to live at home and that’s okay. You may have to share an apartment or house with several friends. Again, doing so is okay, and actually pretty fiscally sound if you put away the money you save on rent and pay down student loan or credit card debt contribute to your retirement or put it in a good old savings account.

If you insist on staying in school then I suggest that you earn another credential. Adding credits to your bachelor’s degree does not help in the marketplace. Also, employers may question why you did not graduate on time. Earn a certificate or master’s degree if you can instead. You may not be able to use the graduate education right away, but at least there will be tangible evidence of your extra time in school.



What are your fears about graduating and getting out there? Maybe we can offer some solutions. Leave a comment.

Square Peg – Round Hole

As a practitioner in higher education I see students at all stages of growth simultaneously. It is not unusual for my day to begin with an undeclared freshman and end with seniors ready to tear into the world. One thing I’m noticing across the spectrum is a disconnect between desired occupation and the requisite skills needed to join the occupation.

Most recently I’ve seen students interested in prestigious companies, agencies, or titles, but with little desire to learn the skills necessary to reach those positions. For example, one may want to work for the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund, and yet, not want to travel abroad, not want to experience a culture that does not speak English, and yet wants to train workers who may go abroad. Another example, is a student who wishes to go to law school but hates writing. In fact these students typically emphatically dislike any course that includes writing. In discussing options with these students it can be challenging to steer them toward their interests and aptitudes while not appearing to crush the dream they’ve had since they were seven. However, we must challenge these ideas if we are to be of service to our students.

The disconnect between skill and desire is coming from multiple aspects of a student’s life. Some students are pressured by parents to get a “good job.” Other students are listening to the reports that say if they do not major in science, engineering or mathematics (STEM) then they are doomed. Other students are looking at their student loan balance reports and are trying to head for the sure bet come hell or lack of interest in a field. Inevitably these students fail miserably in their courses or eventually in their ability to get a job because they cannot articulate a true purpose for why they are interested in their subject of study. These students are outperformed by those who actually want they thing, whatever it is, that they are going for.

It is debatable whether the United States really needs more STEM graduates. It is certainly debatable that humanities and social science degrees do not pay off. The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Handbook shows art students doing fairly well: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/home.htm. These students are not wealthy, but they aren’t impoverished either. What I see in my work is that regardless of the degree, if the holder is not enthused about the work then the job hunt is merciless as they are beat out by passionate and skilled individuals. Toning down the rhetoric that one must be in one field to do well would go a long way to ensuring that students choose majors and careers that are a good fit.

Getting Entrepreneurial with Your Major

A student came in this week interested in one of the great, though struggling industries – magazine publishing. This student is quite bright and curious, but I had to caution that the publishing industry is struggling and jobs are scarce in the field. While choosing the right major is important, the student is interested in journalism, I suggested that what is more important is obtaining the right skills and standing out. The student may be able to do that through the journalism major, but that isn’t the only option.

This particular student is interested in fashion magazines. Since Sex and the City many young women dream of heading to NYC to write thrilling articles about fabric, accessories, and trends. That dream is doable, but no major alone is going to produce that result. To even land the internship that leads to that kind of job this student will need experience. She’s landed an internship for the summer, but I also stridently urged her to make a name for herself. With all of the resources on campus for funding, and the world wide web, a fashionista without clips or a web presence is doomed.

Our campus newspaper doesn’t have a fashion writer. I suggested she pitch herself. Maybe she should start a blog, or a podcast. Whatever the method one chooses for distinguishing herself she should know that employers are indeed looking for go-getters. Employers haven’t had training programs for new employees since the 1980s, and especially not in competitive fields. They want people to be ready to go on day one. This reality is not always fair because job seekers then must shoulder huge costs trying to get their foot in the door, but knowing that the market is as it is helps one to plan accordingly.

In choosing a major, and job seeking, the world is almost like seeking out a romantic partner.

  • Employers want someone interesting and different, and not just another person like the one they already have or the one they just fired. BE YOURSELF.
  • Just like a particular outfit can get you noticed on the quad, so can the great internships or experience get you noticed in a pile of resumes. If you created a job for yourself then even better! You’ve already shown leadership. Continue to amass experiences that fit your interests and the type of work you want to do.
  • There is no set formula for snagging the job. An employer likes what they like and there is no guaranteed combination of major or experience that does the trick.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

To Grad School or No

Is Grad School Worth Losing Income?

This morning I met with a lovely young woman who will be graduating early.  This student is ahead of the game because she 1) saving herself money by graduating in 3.5 years, and 2) she is already weighing her options for graduate school.  At present she has decided to take some time off to gain some work experience and possibly apply later.  I wanted to give her a standing ovation.

I always say, and I’m sure I picked this statement from one of my own professors, that “graduate school is not the place to find yourself.” Graduate is school is not only expensive, but, as any reputable economics prof will tell you, you have to consider the sunk costs.  What happens when you don’t work full-time for two, three, or even seven years as the case may be when earning a doctorate?  Have you saved enough money?  Do you have parental support?  Does the school you’d like to attend give fellowships, assistantships, or scholarships?

I hate to put a kibosh on anyone’s dreams, but graduate school may not be in everyone’s immediate future.  It may be a dream that you have to put aside for a period of time until you pay down a bit of your undergraduate debt.  Furthermore, you may not have the work experience necessary to truly benefit from graduate education.  Many master of business administration (MBA) programs require you to have at least three years of full-time work experience before they will even consider you for admission.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with working a bit before going to graduate school.  Your first years after you earn your undergraduate degree are sometimes similar to your freshman year in college; you have some knowledge, but maybe you need to learn how to apply if you even care to.

Explore Early

The chance to open your mind is in fact what a great deal of what a college education is supposed to be about. However, that doesn’t mean that you should not also consider your future.

Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory
Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

College is a great and wonderful place to discover new things. You may not have known that you were interested in geology until you had to take it because it was the only class available that fit into your General Education Requirements.  The chance to open your mind is in fact what a great deal of what a college education is supposed to be about.  However, that doesn’t mean that you should not also consider your future.

Students who plan on going into specific professions have very specific requirements.  For example, the student know absolutely knows that they are pre-med must take classes such as organic chemistry early on in the collegiate careers so that they can get to the more advanced courses that are required of students who want to take the medical school entrance exam in their junior year.  Also, engineers must take several courses in mathematics before ever starting courses in their major.  The student who discovers that they are interested in either of these majors well into their college careers could be forced to spend longer than necessary at school.

As an English professor, I can only hope that you take the time to enjoy some fabulous course in literature if you’re into the sciences.  Conversely, I hope that all of the humanities and social science majors find the time to take more than the required number of courses in either the natural sciences or a professional program like business.  However, exploration also has it limits.  In order to ensure that you can graduate in four years, be eligible for internships, and start building a relationship with a faculty mentor it is important to make the decision in what you want to pursue at least for the first phase of your life.

Not all education is good education

In “Education is the Key to Success” I discussed the merits of the argument that an education should guarantee you a job.  I contend that it is important to obtain some form of college education.  However, it is imperative that students know exactly what type of education they are getting, and from whom they are receiving it.  As the New York Times points out in “In Hard Times, Lured into Trade School and Debt,” not all schools are created equal.

How much is too much to pay?

There are many “schools” out there promising students the opportunity of a lifetime.  They recruit, and recruit hard.  They call you constantly. They email you daily.  Yet, what they are offering may actually be fools gold.  Before signing up to go to any college or university you need to do serious homework.

Some schools are known as “diploma mills”.  These are schools where you do very little to earn your degree besides pay tuition.  While this might appeal to some people, they are highly upset when the realize that these “degrees” have no weight in the business world.  Employers and graduate schools know a fraud when they see it. Diploma mills are often nationally accredited if accredited at all.  Keep in mind that it’s not national accreditation you want; instead you’re looking for regional accreditation.  This is important.  Accreditation is a process through which schools recognize each other.  It means that the school has been evaluated and it is agreed upon that the members of that body will accept each others credits.  Look up the schools you have heard of and you’ll find that they are regionally accredited, not nationally, and this means that these schools only recognize other regionally accredited schools.  If you try to apply to let’s just use Harvard University for graduate school, and your degree is from a nationally accredited institution, they will reject you without looking at any of the rest of your application.  Be sure to ASK about accreditation because even major schools have lost it before.

However, other schools that are properly regionally accredited schools still promise the moon and charge you the sky to deliver.  As discussed by this article, people who are going for trade school certificates are starting to be fleeced, and often they don’t even have a final credible credential to show for it.  One rule of thumb I tell prospective students is that if the school is trying too hard to get you to sign up quick, fast, and in a hurry then the hairs on the back of your neck should stand up.  Look for what they aren’t telling you.  What happens if you decided to sign up for classes and want to drop them?  Can you get your money back?  What is the refund policy? What is the institution’s placement rate after graduation? (Although in this economy everyone is having troubles in this area.)  How much is the tuition in comparison to other colleges and universities?  A 40 thousand dollar per year education, from a little known school may not be worth the sticker price.

A successful college experience centers within your ability to be sure that whatever college you attend, whatever degree or trade school certificate you earn that you can come out of the experience with a debt load you can manage, and a credential that has some long term potential for growth.  You’re going to have to get out there and ask tough questions, filter through long-winded answers, and with hope, find the right fit for you.

Education is the key to success?

The newest trend in higher education seems to be that students and graduates are blaming professors, their alma maters, and the universe for their inability to find jobs in the Great Recession.  They state that someone should have told them that their degrees were not going to guarantee them anything, and that someone should limit the number of people who can go to college because the job market is cluttered.

One blogger cries: What does it say about the state of our nation and the effectiveness of our educational system when a first generation college student with dual degrees from the best universities in America believes the only option left for her is to take out yet another private loan to get her PhD because she is unable to find a job – any job – even as a barista at the local Starbucks?

Well, I still believe in educating yourself to better yourself.  However, that doesn’t mean that I advocate not doing your homework.  You have got to spend time researching your industry.  I hope the above blogger realizes that the job market for PhDs is worse, and has been for a longtime, than the market for lawyers.  At some point you have to take charge of your education and make smart choices.

It may not make sense for a first generation college student to take out massive loans to fund their education.  While it is the dream of many to attend elite institutions, you may have to earn your degree at a less expensive one.  If that’s not the option you want then while still in high school you need to be stellar and earn scholarships.  Tons of schools are reaching out to first generation college students now, so there is money out there.  Those of you who have already graduated with your undergraduate degree may have to seriously reconsider pursuing an unfunded graduate degree.  Colleges operate like businesses, which means they aren’t in the business of handing out free education.  Nor do they come with a money back guarantee.  So before you gamble on earning a professional degree DO YOUR RESEARCH.  Try to talk to people in the field, talk to professors, talk to past alums, spend some time in the library, do a google/bing search.  There is plenty of information out there now.

Also, watch out for diploma mills, and schools that promise the moon and charge you the sky to deliver.  As discussed by this article, people who are going for trade school certificates are starting to be fleeced, and often they don’t even have a final credible credential to show for it.  One rule of thumb I tell prospective students is that if the school is trying too hard to get you to sign up quick, fast, and in a hurry then the hairs on the back of your neck should stand up.

Finally, there are plenty of people out of work right now.  The Great Recession has claimed professional and trade jobs alike.  It is semi-arrogant to believe that a few college loans and a newly minted piece of paper in hand will make you immune to what is happening globally.  Those of us who are working have had to take paycuts, accept furlough days, have dealt with the disappearance of our retirement contributions, live with roommates, etc.  Everyone is trying to make it work, and no one wants to hear about your “fancy” degree and why it entitles you to anything but the ability to look for a job like everyone else.

I’m not saying it isn’t difficult.  I’m not saying that things aren’t frustrating for those of you who do have thousands of dollars in debt and cannot find work.  However, I am saying that you may have to accept a job in a field you don’t love and doing something that you merely tolerate just until it gets better for all of us.

Spring is recruitment season

Spring semester is the time when students beg professors to hold classes outside  if they go to class at all!  It is super easy to go from stellar student in the winter to spring slacker because you are  dying to get outside after being bundled up in a coat for months.  Your

Spring Fever

friends may be hanging out in front of the library or in the grass on the campus quad.  However, the wise student knows that the spring signals an even more important time of the year – recruitment season.

Every year college career service offices work hard to bring employers to campus to work with their students.  A college’s reputation rests on many things, and the rate of employment placement  of its students is one of the most important.  Right now employers are looking for their final hires for summer internships and new permanent hires.  Don’t wait until May graduation to begin looking for a job!

These tough economic times call for students to be super proactive, and there are a few keys to being successful.  First, get to know your professors.  Every employer is going to want recommendations.  If your professors don’t know who you are then they are going to give you lukewarm references if they agree to give you one at all.  Professors you’ve had in the past are great as well.  Go visit them and update them on how you’re doing. If you’ve been a classroom wallflower then bone up on how to impress your instructors here.

You should also visit the career services office.  These offices typically have the counselors who can help spruce up your resume, and

Time to Visit Career Services

provide you with the latest information on who is hiring on your campus.  Show the initiative by making an appointment, and dressing well when you stop by.  Remember they are trying to sell the college to employers, and not necessarily you.  Make it easy for them to recommend you instead of the next person.

Lastly, check in with your network.  Do your parents have contacts they can introduce you to?  How about your neighbors?  What about your high school teachers?  Landing a position in a down economy is about having both the right credentials, and then having those credentials reviewed by the hiring manager.  If someone recommends you for a internship or job then your resume may go to the top of the pile.  Don’t be obnoxious and demand that someone help you, but it can pay off to shoot a well crafted email or pay a visit to those who have known you and helped you along the way.

Still searching for the field you love?  No worries, see “Preparing for employment” for ways you can begin thinking about building the experience and knowledge necessary to compete.

6 Ways to Save Thousands

Everyone needs to save money these days.  Although it may seem like financial aid will pay for your entire education, student loans must be paid back.  In fact it is easier to walk away from a home loan than a student loan.  So what is a college student to do?  Get creative when it comes to maximizing a minimal budget.  Here are a few tips.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/disneykrayzie/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

1) Learn to cook.

College meal plans are great if you absolutely cannot feed yourself. However, many students do not eat all the meals on their plans and end up wasting money. A meal plan can cost over $2000, so either eat every meal in your plan or learn to cook what you need.

2) Get a job that has dual purposes.

While it may be fun to work for the school’s athletic teams, unless you want to start a career in sports then find a position that matches your needs or work interests. If you can’t cook, then get a job at the cafeteria. You can earn a paycheck and eat! Keep your grades up so that you’re eligible to become a residential advisor. You can save several thousand dollars in room and board, and gain valuable leadership experience. There is a reason that the saying “time is money” is an overworked cliché. Make the most of every hour.

3) Rent or borrow books.

As a college student I stopped buying books after my sophomore year. I got smart and began checking them out from the library. My institution had a consortium agreement with area colleges, and the books that weren’t available from my library I borrowed from other schools. Sometimes a great public library will have the books you need for your humanities classes. Now there are companies such as Chegg.com which will allow you to rent textbooks for about half of their normal cost. If you absolutely must own your books then be sure to check half.com to see if you can buy them cheaper than at your school’s bookstore.

4) Take general education courses at your local community college during the summer.

You may have to pay for these courses yourself, but at prices such as $50 per credit for a three credit course it is worth the investment. Obtain a copy of the catalog of your local college and sit down with your academic advisor to be sure that the classes will transfer over and save yourself not only money, but free up time to explore interesting courses at your university or graduate early and go start earning cash.

5) Move off campus.

If you are at a university that is located in an inexpensive area it may actually be more economical to move off campus with friends than to continue to stay on campus. Living on campus is great for freshmen who need to learn the campus community and meet new people, but once you have established your circle why not save? Keep in mind that you may need to sign a 12-month lease, so be sure you aren’t planning to go home for the summer or have a summer sublet lined up.

6) Buy a refurbished computer.

Many schools are scaling back on the number of computer labs they have, and the hours these labs are open. Also, many classes are now solely online. Instead of buying the latest and greatest machine, consider buying a used laptop or desktop. Craigslist has many deals as tech junkies often want to sell their old computers. Just be sure that whatever you buy is compatible with your university’s systems, and that the computer isn’t damaged in some way.

You may not need all of these techniques, but utilizing one or two could seriously cut your college costs, and allow you to have more income when you begin working instead of handing your whole paycheck over to your loan company!

This post has been cross-posted on higheredlifecoach.com