I’m from Houston originally, but I don’t know much of the city. When I moved back in February, I purposely drove on familiar roads so that I could get re-acclimated. On one particular street I noticed a common, exasperating trend. The driver in front of me would put on his LEFT turn signal, then slowly and methodically turn RIGHT.
The first time it happened it caught me off guard. There was no major consequence, I just missed my light. The second and third times were a little more frustrating because the cars they cut in front of weren’t prepared, and I was almost side-swiped. Upon discovering this was a common trend, I chose a different route.
Coming to the realization that college isn’t the answer felt much like this. I came to believe that if I’d had the correct information the first time, a) I could’ve been better prepared, b) I could’ve been more prepared for others’ reactions, and c) I could’ve had the freedom to take another route.
I want to make it clear that I’m not anti-college. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t go to college, that we shouldn’t encourage others to go, or that college isn’t valuable. (I loved school so much, I went four times!)
When I graduated from college, I decided to become a teacher. Since I made the realization late into senior year, I enrolled in an Alternative Certification Program that required joint enrollment in graduate school. After a failed attempt at teaching, I started looking for brighter pastures. Unfortunately I discovered, much to my dismay, that it’s rough out here on these mean mean streets.
Eight years after college, I struggled to find a job where I could earn more than $35,000 a year. A few years later, I learned that some friends of mine (who’d graduated from ivy league schools) were actually earning similar salaries– ten years into their professional career.
- Now, I don’t presuppose that people with degrees are more capable, more competent, or more intelligent than those without them. I also don’t presuppose that college graduates should make more money BECAUSE they are college graduates. But here’s the thing: my diploma came with a cost, one that I was prepared to pay. I just didn’t realize that after acquiring it, I wouldn’t actually have the means to pay it.
- I also feel inclined to say that I don’t actually care about money. I know that it’s important because I’ve probably had more roommates than all The Real World cast members combined, but I don’t aspire for wealth just for the sake of having it. (No disrespect to anyone who does.)
When I chose to return to graduate school for the second and (eeeeek!) third times, I did so because I hadn’t been earning enough money in my chosen field, and I thought an advanced degree would help. I decided to take on more debt so that I could be in a better position to pay off my debt. (You see what I did there?)
Knowing what I know now, here’s what I’d say to those planning to enroll who lacked as much info as I did:
1: Plan for the worst, just in case. First and foremost, make sure that the school you attend is accredited and not in danger of losing its accreditation. Know whether your college is for-profit or not-for-profit. There’s been some controversy associated with for-profit schools. Know the potential risks before you sign on the dotted line.
Learn the retention rate for students at your school. Are they vastly different for men as opposed to women? Are students of color graduating at much lower rates than their peers? This data might be reflective of the school’s culture or climate. To the extent that you’re able, learn this before you enroll.
Learn about your school’s policies for transferring to a different university. Will all your credits transfer? If not, which ones won’t? Lost credits mean more out-of-pocket expense, lost time, and lost opportunity cost.
Learn about your school’s policies for deferring enrollment or taking time away due to personal issues or tragedy.
2: Develop solid relationships with your professors. Your professors can be your greatest assets in school, and your greatest advocates outside of school. If you’re considering graduate school, these relationships are essential. If you’d rather just work after college, these recommendations can be instrumental for advancing your career.
3: Become an entrepreneur. To whatever extent that you’re able, learn how to manage a business. Think of an issue or problem that needs attention. Create a viable solution. Research competitors. Learn how to build a brand; market it. Develop a solid product or an exceptional service, and learn how to troubleshoot. Make a profit.
(I still haven’t figured this out by the way; I’m just here to recommend stuff that works.)
4. Develop a consistent savings plan, and save as much money as possible. Learn as much about money as you can. Take Accounting, Economics, Statistics, and anything related to money management. Learn about investing, and start early. Bring your lunch, and limit how much you spend eating out. Limit how much you spend on alcohol, supplies, and textbooks. Don’t get an unsubsidized loan. Ever. Under any circumstances.
5: Become an expert. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Expertise is valuable and highly marketable. You can use it; you can sell it. If you’re ever lacking for opportunity, you can rely on it to distinguish you and set you apart.
Use your alumni network, and visit your Career Center religiously. Get as much experience as you can through internships and externships, and use social media to your advantage when building your brand.