This is a slightly edited version of my last blog post. This is for people who are going back to school, not for parents of those attending at the traditonal age.
With graduation season upon us, there will be the usual barrage of stories in the media about the ever-escalating amounts of student loan debt. Those stories are accompanied by news of the college majors that pay the most and conversely those that pay the least. Don’t pay any attention to the advice embedded within those stories. If you want to be miserable, pick a college major by whatever pays the most when you are going to college.
Nothing could be more shortsighted than picking a major based on the earnings for it one year. You might work for 40 to 50 years after graduation. How likely is it that the major you pick based on one year’s earnings will pay well for a half century? The field might not even exist in the future. Many of the highest paying entry-level jobs today didn’t exist ten years ago. Things change.
1. 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 a field and to make money from it as an entrepreneur. There are people in every field doing that right now and there are a million ways to make a great living in this country. In my business I am always amazed at the different ways my clients have found to be successful.
You know the guy who lives in the big house on the hill in your town? He didn’t choose his major because the earnings for it happened to be high when he went to college. He found something he was passionate about and learned all he could about it. He probably got an advanced or professional degree in a subject or two and became such an expert that people were willing to pay him a premium for his skills, services and/or products.
If you are past the traditional age for starting college, you probably have a much better idea of what you like than you did when you were 18.
2. Make a plan for college like you would a business and be creative. If you go to college for four or more 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 and you will regret your decision to go back to school and finish your degree.
Consider each course as an investment in time and money, and figure out how each course will help you before you sign up for it. You don’t have the spare time of a frat boy. Juggling home, school, job, maybe kids, it’s a tough path going back to school when you aren’t a teenager. Don’t waste any time.
Yes, I know there will be some required courses. You should still 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.
3. If you aren’t sure yet what to major in, take all of their 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. 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 from working as a lawyer and started working as a financial planner. The courses that I took in tax and finance didn’t help me much as a lawyer, 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?
4. Just like your choice of a major, have a plan for how you will pay for college. Don’t just go in and hope for the best. Don’t be afraid to go to community college and state school and take a little longer if you need to.
5. 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. Debt is not evil; it’s very useful sometimes. The average student loan debt is about what a new car costs. Which one will provide them more value in the future? It’s education, by a mile.