Consumer Comeback Blog

Getting the best value from College

It’s that time of year. High school seniors are getting college acceptance letters and are already starting to think about where they will be going to school next year. College seniors are thinking about their next step as well: Employment or more school? Decisions… decisions.

A little while ago, we did an article breaking down whether college was still worth the investment with the rapidly rising costs of tuition. And while we touched on some ideas for making the most of your time at college, we wanted to elaborate on some key areas students and potential students alike could focus on in order to make sure they’re getting the best bang for their tuition buck.

Choosing College

For most of you, the single most important decision for your financial future is that of your college education. Not only how much it costs, but also how much that education empowers you to earn money doing your craft for the rest of your life. Those who don’t take this decision seriously enough are most likely to find themselves either lacking employable characteristics or with more debt than they can handle; or both. Those who consider the choice like the important investment that it is, are much more likely to come out on top. So like most investments there is initial investment (cost), potential return (salary), and risk (joblessness). Here are some variables to consider:

Consider employment rate & mean salary over “reputation” – This doesn’t just go for the schools you’re considering, but the specific program/focus/major as well. Some of the top schools may not have a great program for what you’re interested in. Not to mention, some local state schools and/or community colleges may have very good programs for your area of study. This is a great place to start, but be sure to further research specific programs you’ve been accepted for.

Explore program options – More than just picking the program that’s best for your career (and this SHOULD be the focus) consider some options that may cut costs. 3 year degrees, 4 and 1 Masters degrees, or even other programs that allow transfers to save money. I had the option of attending a community college transfer program with my choice school. They allowed local students to spend 2 years at the specific program and have automatic placement in the (much more expensive) university for the final 2 years. It would have saved me almost $50,000 in tuition costs for the exact same degree. In retrospect, I really wish I had done it…

Negotiate with the Financial Aid office – If you can, sit down with a financial aid officer for your school of choice and go over the package they’re offering. Inquire about any other financial assistance, grants, scholarships, etc. Be polite and make it clear that you want to attend their school, but could use more financial help for it to make sense. Sometimes, schools have extra grant and/or scholarship money they could offer or that you could qualify for. Most of it is need based, and this isn’t always the case, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask. It worked for me. Not only did I get some extra grant money, they eventually gave me a work-study job in the financial aid office!

Calculate and understand student loan debt – This one is on the parents. Make sure your child understands their financial responsibilities they will have when they graduate. Not enough students understand what they’re going to be responsible for, in terms of loans, when they take them out. Then as the enter the workforce, they’re shell-shocked by how much they owe. Before they make the final choice of where to attend, sit them down and show them how much debt they will accrue in 4 years (at each college). Not only will this help them prepare for the inevitability of paying loan payments, but it will also make them much more aware of the financial decision that is before them.

While In College

The choice of what college to attend isn’t the only factor for making sure you get the most from your educational investment. The rest is on the student to follow through by doing the hard work to earn those A’s. But grades aren’t the only important part of the college experience, especially as employers are concerned. Employers want to see focus, career oriented students. But perhaps most importantly of all, employers want to see experience.

Start thinking about your career – If you aren’t already fully focused on a career by the time you sit in your first classroom, it’s time to start considering it. The further you go into college, the more important this becomes, so the earlier the better. That’s not to say you can’t enter school as an undeclared freshman, it just means these students should spend the most time exploring those options than the rest.

Get to know your academic adviser – This is perhaps the most important faculty-student relationship you will have at college, so make the most of it. Make an early appointment and be one of the first students he gets to know as early as possible. They can help guide you to programs, classes, and other professors that are best for you. And theirs should be the first letter of recommendation you hand out when applying for relevant jobs, co-ops, and internships.

Spend time at your school’s career center – Another great resources at your school is the career center. They usually offer resume/cover letter help, information on job fairs, open positions, and have the best connections for those key first foot-in-the-door opportunities. Don’t miss out on the help they can offer.

Gain relevant work experience – This means internships, co-ops, work-study, and summer jobs. Any way shape or form to get hands-on experience doing the things you want to do as a career. I turned down a summer internship with real work experience because it was unpaid so I could earn some cash delivering Pizzas. After college, my resume lacked that one thing employers really look for to get me an interview for the positions I really wanted: hands-on experience.

Secondary degrees

Going for a masters degree, P.H.D, or M.D. is another huge financial decision. This time, however, the student must have already be goal oriented. There also needs to be a clear financial benefit to going for the additional degree either in the increase in salary and/or financial assistance to make it worthwhile. And you must weigh this decision with that of entering the workforce (or attempting to) with the degree you already have.

Must have a goal/career in mind – For most Medical Doctors, this is a no-brainer. There is a clear salary advantage as well as job demand for doctors in the medical profession. And for the most part, these students have known this is what they want to do since high-school.

For the rest, however, the decision isn’t so easy. Especially, it seems, for would-be lawyers, a profession that for the longest time seemed to be “recession proof”. But again, the more specific and focused your goals are, the better off you’ll be when you enter the workforce.

Calculate ROI – It’s essentially the same way you would calculate ROI for undergrad you take into consideration the potential differences in salary as well as chances for getting a job vs. the cost of the additional degree. Perhaps the one x-factor in this equation is the potential to be considered “overqualified” for entry level positions but lacking work experience for upper level experience. That’s why in many cases, delaying the choice and potentially going back to school is wise for some disciplines.