Are you finishing up high school and thinking about going to college? If you are in your late teens, you have probably gotten a lot of advice from the people around you about whether or not you should dive into higher education immediately after becoming a legal adult.
I am not a financial expert or a self-made millionaire, but I am twenty-six years old, so I had to make this decision myself a few years ago and have been living with the consequences since then. Historically, the type of advice I hope to give you in this article was given to people by their parents, which was all well and good… until recently. Now, technology is evolving faster than ever, and that is changing our culture (and the economy) so quickly that the advice your parents can give you about this decision is likely irrelevant to the modern world.
So here is my personal advice on what you should do with your time after you finish up high school and become a legal adult. There are four crucial considerations to make, as far as I can tell, so let’s talk about those.
#1: The Money Problem
First and foremost, as you’ve likely heard, college is expensive. But I don’t just mean “you’ll need to bust your ass the summer before it starts and you’ll be okay” kind of expensive, which is how it may have been for your parents. I mean it’s really expensive.
But what do I mean by “really expensive”? Let me give you some real-life numbers—the ones I was, and am, working with:
I went to college at Colorado State University from 2010 to 2015. I took the year off because I went into college undeclared, unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. I came back to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies, a minor in English, and a minor in Business Administration. I had no scholarships, but some financial aid in the form of Colorado’s College Opportunity Fund. My first year, when I took out loans to cover the cost of living on campus, cost over $16,000. Each subsequent year, in which I worked my way through college to pay rent, cost $10,000-$13,000 each.
By the time I got my diploma, I had accrued over $50,000 of student loans including interest. My freshman year loan was done through Wells Fargo; the rest were done through the FedLoan servicing, one of the government’s loan services for public loans.
And remember, this was from 2010 to 2015, when college cost a little less than it does now.
So college is going to cost you a lot of money. A $50,000 loan, for me, originally translated to monthly payments of $1000/month before I refinanced them. Now, I pay $600/month).
“That’s no big deal!” you say. “I’ll make $20,000/year at my local Target or Wal-Mart and have that paid off in three years!”
You haven’t lived on your own, fictional speaker, have you?
Ok, ok, I’m sure you, dear reader, are smarter than the fictional speaker. First, because a $20,000/year wage is before taxes; second, because you will have lots of expenses besides your student loans to pay anyway when you moved out of your parents’ place ($1000/month in rent is pretty reasonable here in northern Colorado, and it’s pretty easy to spend well over $500/month on food if you aren’t careful); and third, because interest.
Still, I felt it was worth pointing out that those things are all the case, and that you will be miserable trying to pay $600/month in student loans while working at Target. I didn’t feel I could comfortably pay my loans until I was reporting $50,000/year in income on my taxes, and even then it was gut-wrenching.
Long story short: life in the United States is expensive without your parents, and if you’re taking out student loans like me, you absolutely do not want to be paying student loans on top of it all.
“But what if I want to go to college and I have a financial solution?”
That’s terrific! Knock yourself out, fictional speaker. If you definitely want the college experience, definitely know what you want to do in college, and your parents can pay for your education (or you have a hefty load of scholarships helping you out), the money problem is not a problem for you.
Otherwise, think long and hard about how expensive it will be to go college. Don’t let your parents, your peers, or even me sway you if you don’t feel you’re financially ready.
#2: The Confidence Problem
The second big problem with people going to college is that they often do it, not because they want to, but because they don’t know what else to do with their lives. But make no mistake: blowing $50,000 while you figure things out is a bad way to start your adult life.
In short, you should absolutely not go to college with an undeclared major, period (don’t do what I did). That shows that you have no clear purpose for what you’re doing, and are digging yourself a massive financial hole while you decide.
“But what if I know exactly what field I want to go into, and it requires a degree?”
Just like before: go for it! If you know, in your heart and soul, that you want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher, and you have a reasonable financial solution to pay for the degree (the first two might even pay for themselves, really), by all means go get the degree.
The thing to bear in mind is that there is plenty to do in the adult world that you have likely not experienced, will likely want to do, and don’t need to take out a loan to try while you make up your mind about what “dream job” you even want. For example, it could be a great idea to get a starting job, maybe somehow connected to a field you’re vaguely interested in, move in with some roommates, and see what it’s like to pay bills and live without your parents.
That may sound simple, but it will likely challenge you in some way—the chores are split between you and your roommates rather than you, your parents, and your siblings; you have complete freedom to eat a gallon of ice cream, and to suffer the consequences of doing so; and there will be no one at all to remind you that you need to leave that money in your bank account because rent is due before your next paycheck. You even have to go out of your way to meet new people your age, where school was secretly giving this element of life to you for free.
These are essential things to understand so you can adult more effectively for the rest of your life. But interestingly, we prioritize going to college over learning these things firsthand, early, when we’re young and the stakes are low. No one is going to teach them all to you because they quickly become second nature after doing them for a year or two, but it’s better not to get slammed with them in addition to the challenge of proving to businesses that your degree is worth something (which, make no mistake, they will question, because most college degrees are not that helpful in the workforce).
Plus, if you do get a job in a field you’re interested in, excel at it, and enjoy it, it’s still quite possible to work your way up the ladder to the job you actually want—and that path doesn’t cost $50,000.
#3: The Value Problem: “What if I want to be a writer, a welder, or a software developer?”
Another major problem I see with how people decide on going to college is that they often assume they need a college degree for a field that absolutely does not require one.
Yes, you can get a degree before pursuing any of the jobs I listed above, but none require it. I don’t need my degree to write this blog, even though the writing practice and tutoring helped; my coworker’s spouse is a welder and didn’t need a degree for it; and in the entire software consultancy I work for, Radial, there are several employees with college degrees, but none with Computer Science degrees.
For all of these endeavors, I absolutely suggest getting training to pursue the career path. It is likely worth it to pay a mentor to teach you a craft like writing or photography that could (eventually) pay better than Walmart or McDonald’s, and will certainly be more fulfilling and flexible. It is also worth considering the idea of pursuing a semi-formal education online (by going to a coding bootcamp, for example, if you want to learn to code). Some career fields, like welding, plumbing, or construction work, will even pay you on the job to learn the craft.
Some of these options cost money, but none cost $50,000 in inescapable student loan debt—which is to say, if you decide to take out student loans despite my warnings, you can’t escape them by declaring bankruptcy. It’s totally fine, maybe even encouraged, to spend money to educate yourself, because it will give you that “well, I did spend money on this” feeling on the days when you’d otherwise give up. But a $10,000 six-month coding bootcamp is an absolute steal compared to a $50,000 four-year college degree, and many come with money-back guarantees.
#4: The Urgency Problem
Clearly there are several scenarios where it’s still worth it, in my mind, to go to college. As long as you have a financial plan, know exactly what degree you want to pursue, and that degree is necessary for the job you want, it’s totally fine to go to college. You’ll probably like it more than high school. But even with that possibility in mind, there’s one final caveat to consider: there’s no rush.
None at all. Not even a little bit. You’ve likely felt like there is one, because you have a busy schedule and lots of well-meaning adults telling you to hurry up and “figure out what you want to do with your life.”
But rushing it is maybe the worst thing you could do. What career path to pursue and whether or not you should go to college are big, momentous life choices, now more than ever because college is so ridiculously overpriced in the U.S. Making a snap judgment about them is a great way to wake up when you’re fifty with a job you despise.
Besides, you have over forty years in the workforce in which to make something of yourself. Now is a great time to experiment, to screw up, to figure out what you enjoy. You could literally spend the next ten years trying different jobs and ideas out, messing up every single thing you do in the process, wake up at twenty-eight, and still be the youngest person in the room at most companies you’ll work for (at twenty-six, I’m the youngest full-time developer at Radial).
The thing is, you can only truly know if you’ll like a job if you’ve done it, which is why you’re likely struggling to pick a career path—I sure was. I return to my earlier advice: start at the bottom of the career field you think you’ll really love, work for the experience, and supplement it with a shit job at a retail outlet or restaurant if you must, because they usually don’t pay the guy who gets the coffee very well.
Then, when you find out you actually hate working at a music studio and your real passion is photography, you haven’t spent $50,000 on a music degree.
Closing Thoughts: High School Will Not Be the Best Time of Your Life
I’m not sure about you, but while I was in high school, I kept hearing this mantra that I should “cherish” it, because it’s the best time of your life. Guess what?
That was a load of horse shit. Complete, utter, horse shit. Every year since I was nineteen, my life has gotten meaningfully better and more fulfilling.
Honestly, every time people told me high school is the best part of life, it’d make me feel miserable about the future. I didn’t like high school much, so it sounded like there was nothing to look forward to.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some perks to being in high school that you’ll miss. You probably have some free time, you don’t have to worry about bills or paychecks, and school made it much easier to meet people your own age (honestly I’m not sure where twenty-six-year-olds hang out).
But for my part, I would never, ever trade my life now for my life in high school. In high school, I might be wealthy. Next week, I could be broke. I might be able to buy that video game I want right now. I might not. I might be able to get the food I’m craving. I might have to wait. None of that was my choice; it was all my parents’ decision, and I felt I had to deal with the consequences whether the decision was good or not.
Now, whether I make the right decision or the wrong one, the choice is mine. I can just drive somewhere, or go on a walk when I’m stressed, or eat ice cream when I had a rough day. There’s no curfew. Oftentimes there isn’t even a penalty.
Of course, as the adults will say, these freedoms come with more responsibility. If you make too many bad decisions, you run out of money, you don’t pay rent on time, and now you’re homeless. If you don’t take the time to take care of yourself (pro tip: always give yourself at least one day a week off), you’ll find yourself stressed and exhausted on a regular basis, caffeine or no.
But let me tell you, when you get used to the difficulty spike, being an adult is way, way better, as long as you can do basic math and are moderately responsible. So get really good at it, then decide if college is really what you need. The answer is probably no, because life’s too short to pay $600/month in student loans for fifteen years.
Post number 59.
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