I graduated from Oswego State in May, started an internship that paid $15 hr in June which ended in August, and in October I’ll be starting a full-time job in the field I studied for. I took out about $40,000 of federal loans during my three years in school since I had zero financial help from my parents. I’ll be paying about $300 a month for my student loans come November, which will be a little less than 10% of my income. I’ve budgeted for this and by making smart decisions that saved me a lot of money on housing expenses, I don’t anticipate having any problems paying back my loans. For me, the system worked.
That being said, if I had not found a job that paid a middle-class salary so soon, I would have been in a boatload of trouble. The salary I was offered was above-average and the time it took me to find a job was below-average. Because of this, I consider myself somewhat lucky. I have friends that graduated before me with a higher GPA than me that have yet to find a job in their field and are being crushed by student loan payments.
1. Your major matters. Some people have a passion for a certain subject and absolutely can’t do anything else with their career without being miserable. If that’s you, then be prepared to work very hard and go through some hard times before being successful. Majors like art, music, journalism, psychology, anthropology or religious studies will likely never lead to a high-paying career. If you are prepared to suffer for your art, so to speak, go ahead and pursue these degrees, but don’t expect life to be easy. I have tremendous respect for those that know what they’re getting into and go for it anyway because they have a passion for a certain subject, but don’t pursue a low-paying major and expect a high-paying job. You’ll have to find your life’s fulfillment from things other than money and there is nothing wrong with that. If you are open to more than one option, you should strongly consider which majors will be more financially successful and which ones won’t. Degrees involving science and mathematics are generally good bets. Instead of psychology, perhaps you could major in behavioral economics. Instead of business administration, try majoring in finance or in risk management and insurance. Research your major, see what career paths are possible and see what people earn with that major. Some majors sound flashy but have terrible prospects, while some majors sound terrible but are actually pretty decent. For example, a philosophy degree can often provide better results than a degree in civil engineering.
2. Minimize your costs. If mom and dad are willing to pay for your whole education, then I am absolutely happy for you. But if you are part of the cohort whose parents are either unable or unwilling to pay for school, you have to find ways to minimize costs. Private school really is not an option for you unless they offer you a full-ride or close to a full-ride. Unfortunately, you also don’t have the luxury of spending six semesters deciding on your major and another six semesters actually completing that major. You have to complete your degree in four years or less if possible if you don’t want to get crushed by debt. Moving off campus can sometimes save a lot of money too. Avoid private loans whenever possible.
3. Network, network, network. I know you have heard this before but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (in the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey), about 70 percent of all jobs are filled directly or indirectly as a result of networking. About 40 percent of all jobs filled aren’t even advertised. Just having an employee’s recommendation can go a long way sometimes. Sometimes things might fall into your lap, but most of the time you have to aggressively seek out the right person with the right opportunity for you. If your uncle works in the industry you want to work in, hang out with him and his colleagues and find out who his friends are. Don’t stay on campus 24/7 and expect a job to come find you. Talk to professors that still have connections to the “real world” and get connections that way. Impress the professor and then ask him or her to recommend you for a position at a company he or she has influence with (not all professors have influence, so first find a professor who does).
4. Be flexible. The job you will be working at after graduation likely did not exist when you started college. Create a five-year plan and be prepared to completely rework it often. Separate which things are important to you because you actually want them and which things are important to you because they fit in the plan. If your plan is too specific and rigid, you may miss out on amazing opportunities along the way. Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities and you may be surprised what you find. Be prepared to start at the ground level when you get out of school. Be prepared for the unexpected.
It’s still a rough world out there for college graduates, but keep in mind that it’s even rougher for those that didn’t get a college degree. If you are determined to make college a good investment, it can still be one. Fortunately for me, it turned out to be a great investment.