Thursday, March 17, 2011

Get Your College Education the Smart Way

This is the time of year when teenagers across America are getting their college acceptances. As they debate about which school to attend finances are often brought up. The cost of tuition at public and private colleges in 2008 was estimated at $24,000 a year by college board. It has only gone up since. And that doesn't include room and board.

Many are left wondering if this astronomical sum is worth it. Financial aid counselors are not career councilors. Their job depends on students coming to this school and shelling out exorbitant amounts of cash, making them less than ideal sources of information for young impressionable students. Parents are left in a bind, assuming schools will counselor their kids about repayment (often they do not) and assuming the future success of their child is connected to the prestige of the school he or she attends (often it does not). Students assume they have no choice but to shell out whatever cash they have and to take out loans to cover the rest.

There are other options. A smart, proactive student will instead research not only the academic rigor of various colleges but also the financial implications this decision will have on their entire life. I cannot tell you how many people struggle until they are in their 50's to pay back their hefty student debt and how many people gave up on their dreams because the heavy burden of undergraduate debt forced them to seek other jobs immediately. Think about your career goals and whether an expensive education is the best option for those goals. For some it is, for others it is not.

To get the most for your money, consider some of these tips:

1) Pick a practical major. If you want to pay off your loans, you are going to need to be employed. People who major in humanities subjects often have real trouble finding a job. A woman's studies major, for example, has limited options. Most of these option require further schooling and debt accumulation. More graduates students looking to go into academia are produced each year than there are slots to accommodate them. Acquiring a PhD is not an unemployment panacea.

Having a major in something practical can land you a job, fast. There's no need to give up your passion for American Studies or Latin. Just tack on a second major in something like accounting or physics. Yes, you read that correctly. Physics majors have some of the highest job rates post graduation. They are hired by all sorts of industries from pharmaceutical companies to wall street brokerage firms, because they are seen as high level thinkers. Most colleges charge full time students per semester not per credit, so you have nothing to lose by taking more classes, so long as you can keep up academically. You can continue to work on that great novel you proposed in your Creative Writing Thesis while your job as a math teacher pays the bills.

2) Pick the right school for you. The best educations are not always the most expensive ones. The name recognition you get from a prestigious school does not always mean you have a leg up in the job field or the graduate school admissions process. A Dance major from Harvard is going to have to audition for a job the same way a Dance major from Local Yokel University will. The better dancer is going to the job, not the one with the most student debt. Furthermore many schools that offer full scholarships actually have more challenging academic programs and better job placement, mentoring and advising than some more expenssive big name schools.

Don't get caught up in a name brand education. The right academic program, mentoring and support are more important. When you go to revisit colleges ask about student life and academics, but also about student success post graduation, internship opportunities, networking opportunities for students and career counseling. It may be that for your career name brand recognition is important, but be sure to weigh the pros and cons.

3) Look at schools with merit scholarships. Unlike "need" scholarships, merit scholarships are not based on how rich or poor your parents are. They are given to students who have high academic potential. These scholarships are an investment by the school in your future, because you are an exceptional individual. See below for a list of such programs as well as "tuition free" schools.

4) Look for outside scholarships. Don't wait for your campus scholarship office to come knocking on your door. Research potential scholarships yourself. They look great on your resume and can really help you meet the cost of education. Do not sneeze at essay contest that offer $500. How long will it take you to write that essay? half an hour? an hour? And that money can buy all your books for an entire semester or more if you shop wisely.

5) Employment is not a bad thing. In fact, it's a good thing. If you can handle a part time job during your studies, then do it. If you are studying film, go out there and get an internship in film. Any experience, even if it is working for the local wedding videographer, will be another line on your resume. Some internships even pay you. Others will qualify for college credit.

Schools with Merit Scholarship:
Macaulay Honors College: Macaulay is a program within the City University of New York school system that accepts high achieving students. Students are given a full scholarship, an opportunities fund for internship and study abroad as well as laptop computers. Students can complete their studies at any of CUNY's seven senior campuses and participate in special cross-campus seminars with other Macaulay students. The program focuses on mentoring and small classes creating a small college environment within this big university.

The Cooper Union: The Cooper Union is a school in NYC that focuses on art, architecture and engineering. Students are given a full tuition scholarships and a free dorm for the first year of school. Classes are small, hands on and students are encouraged to get experience in the field.

College of the Ozarks: This small school located in Missouri has five goals: academics, vocation, christian faith, patriotism and culture. It is named "Hard Work U" because students work in lieu of paying tuition.

Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering: This school located in Massachusetts focuses on creating the next generation of engineers. Each admitted receives a four year half tuition scholarship.

Deep Springs College:  Deep Springs is a small, all-male college located in the California desert. Students attend for two years on full tuition scholarships after which they transfer into four year universities to complete their degrees. Most go to high level programs.

Curtis Institute of Music: Located in Pennsylvania this is a specialized school for the study of music. Full tuition is scholarships are given to all students. Admissions is based solely on musical talent.

Berea College:  Berea is another Christian faith college that uses work study programs in lieu of tuition. It is located in Kentucky.

Alice Lloyd College: This small liberal arts college focuses on service to the Appalachian area in lieu of tuition.

CUNY Teacher Academy: The teacher academy is run on several CUNY campuses and focuses on creating superior math and science teachers for the NYC public school system.


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