Choosing Your Path
College can be a wonderful experience, but with rising costs and a difficult job market, it may not be the right choice for everyone. Before you go on to get another degree, use this section to test your college plans, consider your options, and become more confident in whatever next step you choose.
We all know what some of the pros of higher education are, at least in theory: you have more independence, you get to be around lots of like-minded people with a ton of social events to enjoy, you can focus only on the subjects you want to study, and ultimately you walk out with a degree that ensures you a good leg up into the career of your choice. It's a plan that works for lots of people!
But, let's take a moment to look at some of the very real downsides:
- First, no matter where you go or what you do, college is a big time commitment. YEARS of your life here.
- College tuition (particularly at 4-year institutions) continues to go up. Starting out independent life with tens of thousands in debt and no discretionary income is nobody's idea of a good time.
- College can be a place where you have a great time, meet friends, and 'find yourself', but considering the time and money you're going to have to spend, think carefully if those are the only reasons you want to go. Part of the goal should always be to give yourself the tools you need to build the life you want afterwards, so don't hemorrhage money just for fun.
- Trying to get a degree even for the right reasons (again, especially at 4-year institutions) is becoming a real 'rock and a hard place' situation. On one hand, more and more jobs are requiring that you have a degree (and often a degree + experience) before they even consider you; on the other hand, with so many students who have degrees flooding the market, having a degree is no guarantee that you'll get a decent job anymore.
- Very few traditional fields, if any, are 'safe' anymore. Law, business, finance, you name it — almost nothing offers a guaranteed job anymore, much less a job you'll actually like.
- AND, if you can't find a well-paid job and get desperate for work, you can also find that having a college degree may actually "over-qualify" you for lots of positions, so you may have a hard time finding lower-paid work as well.
...So that's the unpleasant stuff. The good news is, none of it has to stop you from pursuing just about anything you want, if you go in with a plan. The 'starter questions' below are meant to help you develop that plan. Not all of the questions will apply to everyone, but if you want to test whether you're on the right track for yourself, find the questions relevant to you and decide whether you're satisfied with your own answers.
As above, the most obvious goal of college/higher education is to give you the training you'll need to go after the jobs you want. So let's start with a simple one:
1. Do you have any jobs you're already interested in?
If your life will not be complete without getting a particular type of job, then by all means determine what degree and/or certification that will require and proceed accordingly. If you have a solid idea of the sorts of jobs would be a good fit, that's a great start. If, however, you don't have even a vague idea of what you'd ultimately like to do, it might be worth visiting our tips for the undecided; college can be used as a time to try things out, but that's a really expensive way to soul-search. It's always best to have some direction you're interested in before committing to higher education, as you'll spend a lot of time flailing around if you go in with no idea whatsoever.
2. How sure are you about the 'direction' you'll be pursuing in college?
Obviously, many people do just fine knowing that they want to go into something like politics, English, or agriculture. You don't have to know the exact job you'll end up in (and you can always become more interested in a different field over time), but you should at least feel a pull towards some fields over others, and the earlier you can commit to a path the more likely you are to be successful in pursuing it.
You may need to be more certain about your choices depending on the following two things:
1. If your first plan doesn't work out, can you afford to continue attending college while you complete a different degree? Or do you only have one shot at this financially?
2. Will your education only be applicable to specific careers after college (as in, the education won't transfer to other types of jobs)? If your degree you're looking at won't be flexible, make sure you've given plenty of thought to the job it will lead to.
3. If you're not sure what you want to *do* at college, but still think you'll want the degree at some point, are you familiar with your immediate options?
It's becoming increasingly common for people to wait before attending school, or even to take time off partway through to figure out exactly how they want to use the rest of their time there. There is zero shame in not wasting lots of time and money until you have a better idea of what you're doing, and sitting down to think through what your goals really are at this point might be worth your time.
If you feel like you'll be wasting time (or losing out on teacher recommendations/scholarship opportunities/etc.) if you don't get started ASAP, you could always choose and attend either a community school (most cost-effective) or another school of your choice to begin working on general education requirements. Hopefully this will help cement an idea of what you'd like to pursue. If it doesn't, you might want to take time off to think it over before you finish a degree. However, be aware that if you spend more than a short time away from college once enrolled, you could be forced to enter into repayment of your loans, so consider lining up short-term work to help pay down loans/save money towards re-entering school if you take this route.
If you're just not willing to commit to college at this point, but want to be doing something productive, just try getting a full or part-time job, or even volunteering if you have the financial means to do so. It's great to be able to show an active history on your resume no matter what your next step is, so try building up some skills and experience. The opportunity for further education will always be there if you're willing to go for it, or you may find avenues into work that you enjoy without getting any more degrees.
4. If you're pursuing a degree because you know you want a better-paying job, do you have a plan for which degree to get?
Obviously, not all degrees lead to high-paying jobs (4-year arts degrees, teaching degrees, social work and most of the humanities are frequently used in jokes to this effect). If you want a college degree so you can get a job that pays well, it's bets to have a specific job/job type in mind first, as most require fairly specific training. Vocational degrees/certificates* would be an excellent thing to look into, as they often minimize educational debt in addition to boosting income. Professional degrees* would also be an option, but as these often lead into careers that are better described as 'lifestyles' than simple 'jobs', you might want to consider carefully before pursuing a professional degree if your heart's not really in it.
*See the next question for more information.
5. Regardless of why you want to get a degree, are you familiar with all the types of degrees and certification programs out there? Are you confident that you're aiming for the one that will meet your needs best?
For a general overview of the basic degree/licensing/certification paths you can follow, see Types of Degrees. For more particular information, look into any of the career books available at the library, try your own search online, or feel free to Ask a Librarian for information-gathering assistance.
6. If you know you want to go to college, but are worried about the expense involved, do you know what your options are? Do you have a plan for dealing with the cost?
Check out our financial aid section for more information.
If you've made it this far and still feel like college is the right choice for you, then proceed to:
If you're a little less sure, revisit our Post-Grad Prep home section for more information about your options.