February 24, 2014

College Applications

Credit: imagerymajestic
It’s that time of year when wide-eyed high school seniors are beginning to realize that all good things must come to an end. Their comfortable little worlds are about to be shattered, and they will soon be tested to see if they have what it takes to be a small fish in a bigger pond. Applying for college isn’t just about the applicant, though: where someone goes to seek higher education can affect their friends, their family, their family’s finances, their finances, their chances of succeeding academically, their chances of succeeding socially, their ability to get a job after college, and the range of their expected earnings for the next thirty to forty years. I certainly didn’t realize all of this during my senior year at Jonesboro High School, and luckily I came through okay, but as my ten-year class reunion is coming up, I want to pass on some things I now realize in hindsight.

I was more than torn about where to go to college; I wanted to pursue music at the University of South Carolina, I wanted to pursue theatre at Florida State, and for a brief period of time, I even wanted to be a business major at Georgia Tech. After spending a lot of time visiting colleges, talking to older friends, talking to my family, praying, and staring at my childhood bedroom’s ceiling, I became an accounting major at the University of Georgia. Looking back, I’m confident (and lucky) that I made the right decision for me, but it scares me how little I knew then about how much my chosen path would direct my future.

First, all schools do not cost the same. The extra costs of tuition and travel for out-of-state schools can really add up. The difference between four years at Florida State and four years at UGA (with Georgia’s Hope Scholarship at my disposal) was more than $100,000! I was making around $6 an hour back then, so I had no concept of what that much money really meant. I chose Georgia so I could pursue business and continue my love of music with their marching band at the same time, and because of its comfortable proximity to my family (and the future Mrs. Presley), but money had very little to do with it. Perhaps that was best, but if I hadn’t had the Hope Scholarship or had parents who were generously willing to help me through college, I could have walked out with six digits worth of debt! Now future lawyers, doctors, pharmacists and others have to do what they have to do, but I wish someone could have gotten me to understand what significant student loans would have meant to my financial situation right out of college.

Second, all schools are not created equal. Sometimes going to a top-notch, top-cost school is a great idea, but not always. I personally know many people with prestigious diplomas (or at least orientation shirts) who aren’t quite as polished as other people I know who went to less elite institutions. Now I know some ivy-leaguers who are the real deal, too, but my point is that a degree in making widgets might not require a school that costs as much as Harvard. I think the ranking and quality of the particular degree program you will be in (if you know what your major is going to be) should partially drive college decisions, not the prestige of the overall college or the ranking of their football team. I’ve already told you the four colleges I was considering back then, and they were all pretty decent in the areas I was considering studying, but I wish someone could have gotten me to understand that the perceived prestige and the overall cost of the college really don’t have as much to do with the quality of your education as you might think. 

Finally, all majors are not created equal. I might catch some flak for saying this, but I think I have a right to say it considering many of my closest friends and I graduated during The Great Recession. I was fortunate and had a job lined up before everything hit the fan, but even so, my start date was delayed several months. As for many of my friends who weren’t fortunate enough to have a degree in death or taxes (the two certainties in life according to Benjamin Franklin), some of them learned firsthand and shared with me the horrors of realizing that a “Bachelors of Underwater Basket Weaving” wasn’t going to cut it. There are a lot of awesome and very crucial majors out there, some that I probably would have even liked more than accounting and finance, but there are some that are only useful for filling up the professor teaching the major’s classroom. The whole concept of be what you want to be and do what you want to do is great to a point, but it has its limits. Unfortunately, you can’t always be hired when you want to be hired or get paid what you want to get paid!

I thought college was important back when I was applying, but I had no idea about the impact a higher education can have on employment and wages. It may be even more than you think, and I urge you to check out these J.P. Morgan charts showing current unemployment by education level and average annual earnings by highest degree earned.

I bet very few of my readers are currently applying for college, but some of you have children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, and friends who are. Just as my friends and family were kind enough to let college be my decision, I think you, too, should let someone’s college choice be their own, but I also don’t think there is any harm in gently talking to them about the long-term financial implications of going out of state instead of staying in state, the educational cost versus benefit differences of going to a “T-shirt school” instead of a “sweater with a popped collar school,” and the long-term employment opportunity and earnings capacity of being one major over another. If you talk to them it could drastically change their life, and if you don’t, it could too!


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