According to recent data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Americans now owe more than $1.2 trillion in student loan debt nationwide. And with college costs continuing to rise, it's more important than ever to make wise decisions regarding higher education.
Choosing a college major is something that could affect the rest of your working life. Unfortunately, it's a decision that is met too often with wide-eyed optimism, but a sincere lack of understanding when it comes to long-term consequences and results.
Before choosing a major, it's important to know what you're getting yourself into. That doesn't just include program outlines and enjoying your "college experience." It includes your marketability and financial outcomes as well.
Here are 5 questions to ask before choosing a college major you might have to live with your whole life:
Will This Major Lead to a Job?
Before choosing a college major, consider the end-goal – finding a job. Research what types of jobs are available for graduates in your intended field of study, then map out a realistic plan to get there. This is especially important if you're pursuing certain types of degrees. While programs for skilled trades usually have a clear career goal in mind, degrees in fine and liberal arts are more muddled. Some fields may not need a degree at all, while others might require further schooling to secure viable employment. Don't just choose your major on a whim. Have a clear plan and follow that path accordingly.
What Is My Future Earning Potential?
Paying for college should be considered an investment in your future earning potential. Like any investment, the most important thing to consider is what type of return you'll receive. Too often, young college students follow an educational path based on their current passions. Students fall victim to "the dream" and disregard whether their passions are actually profitable. It's important to choose a major that is enjoyable, but the expected outcomes should be anchored in reality. Luckily, it isn't hard to find reliable numbers. You can quickly research current wage and employment data using official numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics here.
Does My Field Require a 4-Year Degree?
Not all degrees are created equal. While some professions require a 4-year degree, many do not. For example, careers in dental hygiene, diagnostic medical sonography, and construction management can often result in high-paying careers after earning just a 2-year degree. These fields of study don't only save valuable time; they save money too. In 2013-14, students at public 4-year institutions spent an average of $24,706 on tuition, fees, and room and board. Compare that to the $9,888 spent at public 2-year institutions, and you can see why a 2-year degree might provide a much better return.
Can I Afford My Payments?
Unfortunately, if you use loans to fund your education, you actually have to pay them back. Failing to understand how much your loans will cost after graduation can lead to serious financial problems. Again, research how much money you should expect to make in your desired career field once you find a job. Based on estimates of your future take home pay, create a mock budget. Include things like your rent, living expenses, and student loan payments. Before committing to your new major, decide whether you'll be able to afford those payments on the salary provided by your intended career.
Would This Major Be Better as a Minor?
Dedicating your career to something you're passionate about may seem like a good idea at the time, but passions often flame out. Before putting all your eggs in a leaky basket, consider minoring in that subject instead. Picking up a minor or double-major may allow you to study the subjects you love while still completing a degree with serious earning potential. Minors in subjects like communications and performing arts are excellent compliments to more flexible business-focused degrees. Take a look at your options, and make your decision accordingly.
If you are beginning your college career, or you know somebody who is, it's important to carefully consider your choice of major. Be sure to research the return on your investment and the prospects for your future earning potential. Most of all, try to envision your future goals, ambitions, and lifestyle.
Also remember that the things you value now may not be as important later in life. Starting a family, buying a house, and other major life events may seem abstract now. However, they are often just a few short years away, and they may completely change your perspective.
Going to college can be a wonderful learning experience, but it's about more than that. College is an investment in your future earning potential, and your choice of major has huge consequences that could last the rest of your working life.