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Does the degree justify the debt?

Planning for college can become a high school student’s top priority. They, and their families, can spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on SAT prep and college applications. They likely believe a college degree will lead to a good career with a higher salary than those who do not attend college.

There are plenty more benefits to attending college: networking, campus-offered job opportunities and the ability for a student to leave home and broaden their horizons. A college degree can mean a bigger paycheck — but it can also mean crippling debt. Today, more students, and their parents, are becoming aware of the high cost of college and wondering if the expense of college, along with debt, is worth the higher salary.

When college may not be the best option

Someone who is uncertain what career path they wish to take is not the ideal candidate for going straight to college, especially if money is a concern. In these cases, it may be best to spend a year, or more, in the job market exploring opportunities. Taking a gap year (or two) to gain experience and figure out career goals can increase college acceptances and decrease the likelihood that the student will find themselves preparing for a career that they hate.

Options that do not run up high college debt

There are other options — besides deciding to work for a while — that a student may wish to consider. For example, attending community college is less expensive than a four-year, private institution and allows students time to explore their options. For some, a two-year degree program will provide enough qualification for them to begin their careers, while saving precious time and money.

Another option is enlisting in the armed forces, which allows students to learn valuable skills, earn pay and exposes them to new challenges. Students could also benefit from going to school only par ttime and working part time. This allows them to keep their debt to a minimum and earn money for future school costs.

When college is the best option

College is a great option in two specific cases: first, when the debt you are incurring is in line with the money you could potentially earn. Approach college with an understanding that you should not be burdened with student loan debt for decades after graduation. So, if you have an opportunity to go to school on a hefty scholarship, or if you are going to school to prepare for a well-paying job, you can rest easy knowing that you won’t be drowning in debt when you graduate. Another option that has to be considered is whether you can do your dream job without a degree. If your heart is set on becoming an English teacher, going to college is a worthwhile endeavor that will help you land your dream job. However, try to pick a program that will leave you with a debt level that you can pay off with your expected salary.

Understand the value of a degree

According to Forbes, degrees are a valuable investment — if you have the right degree. Biomedical engineering, computer science, software engineering and civil engineering are among the most valuable degrees one can have coming out of college. Graduating with one of these degrees will likely make student debt much more manageable. However, there are numerous career options which pay more than $50,000 annually that do not require a degree, which according to US News include:

▪ Paralegal

▪ Iron and steelworkers

▪ Plumber

▪ Executive assistant

▪ Real estate agent

▪ Respiratory therapist

Today, the job market is increasingly competitive, student debt is at record highs and many students and their parents are wondering whether going into debt for higher education is worth the investment. One of the most important things to consider is whether or not the debt you are incurring attending school is something you can ever pay back.

Parents and students should consider the financial aspect of college over the long term. While there is nothing wrong with being proud or excited about acceptance to a good college, it is critically important to ensure the degree justifies the debt. If the degree is not going to pay for itself in terms of salary, it may be worthwhile to explore other options.

Ash Toumayants is the founder of Strong Tower Associates, a central Pa. retirement planning firm.

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