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Looking at colleges? (11/13/2011)
By Frances Edstrom

Governor Dayton has declared this “College Application Week.” “In order for Minnesota to continue to be a leader in education and economic development, experts and business leaders agree on the need to significantly increase the number of students pursuing and completing a certificate program, associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree,” the press release says.

Well, perhaps that is true. But I’d like to put in a plug for going to college to become more educated about our language, history, and culture, and to pick up an understanding of economics and general science. There are a few 17- and 18-year-olds who know exactly what they want to do for a living, and they can go off to community or four-year colleges for training in those fields.

But how about the rest of the students who go off to four-year colleges each fall, with no clear idea of a future job, but with a new wardrobe, a TV, a computer, a microwave, a cell phone, an I-pad, and an incipient disaster hanging over their heads in the form of college loans that they will be expected to pay back? So many colleges have become so expensive, and the lifestyle of many college kids so lavish (compared to those of their parents’ or grandparents’ generation) that going to college for the sake of learning has become, sadly, almost laughable. College graduates expect, for no good reason, to jump into a $40,000 a year job just because they have a diploma. But often a diploma is not enough, as many recent college grads have discovered in the recession. And a $40,000 starting salary is totally unreasonable in most professions. What then?

It’s too late for many recent graduates, but for those kids who will be marking “College Application Week,” it may be time to take a deep breath, pause, and think hard about the future. Is it worth it, they should ask themselves, to fall in love with an expensive college that they can only afford by having their parents struggle when they should be saving for retirement, and saddling themselves with debt that will follow them not only through their twenties but probably their thirties?

They should ask themselves not what a computer programmer makes working for Microsoft or Apple, or an NFL player can bring down, but what sort of job they can reasonably expect to get, and then check out the local market and see if there is a call for that occupation or profession and what companies are paying.

Students can still go to college with a liberal arts focus, but they should research what sorts of jobs are available to history and English majors and be prepared and open to all possibilities. My daughters graduated with liberal arts degrees in Political Science and History. The political science major works at corporate Best Buy as “Director, Business Relationship Management, Appliances.” The history major, before having two children and moving back to Winona, worked for Hyatt Hotel Corp. as assistant to the Senior VP of Marketing. Her husband studied geography and is now a recruiter for a national IT recruiting firm. But directly out of college, none of them made $40,000. It was only after being in an organization and proving themselves that they were able to start making serious money. The more widely educated you are, the more able you are to learn new things and adapt to employment opportunities, the more successful you are likely to become.

Kids and parents should ask themselves if it is reasonable to live high on the hog while in college. Do you really need a car? Do you really need to party expensively every weekend? Do you really need all the extras that you had at home because your parents could afford them for their family? It might be better to live simply for four years and graduate with a manageable debt load. Four years goes fast!

We have learned during this recession, when people got into homes and credit card debt that they couldn’t afford, that just because you are able to borrow money doesn’t mean that signing on to the debt is the right thing.

So when looking at colleges, it’s time for parents to be straight with students about their ability to pay. And it’s time for students to realize that they have many choices available, and they should choose one that will allow them to graduate in four or five years with the ability to live independently, hold a reasonable job, think about starting a family and not be dragging around a ball and chain of college debt. 


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