With tuition reaching $20K – $50K per year, and colleges seeming to offer degrees in everything from Mathematics and Business Administration to Medieval French Literature, it seems to me that college education isn’t as good an investment as it was when I was a kid. I do believe in academics and education, but are Universities the only and best option these days? If they are, what degree may give the best bang for the buck? With two of my three kids now in college, it is something that is often on my mind.
I would even argue that the need for traditional campus based education or degrees is diminishing in our brave new world. For example, MooCs (Massively On-Line Courses), served by sites such as Coursera, Udacity, Udemy offer free courses, on very diverse subject matters. There are even Nano Degrees at Udacity, in subjects such as Front End Web Development, where you pay $199/Month, and in 6 – 9 months, ($1,200 – $1,800) you can qualify for a job that pays $65K+. Pay a bit more, and they will give you a money back guarantee that if you don’t find a job, they’ll refund the money. Getting into no-brainer territory with that idea. My Boss At Home (Licia, my lovely wife), firmly disagrees, but what if you just graduate from High School, sign up for the Udacity Nanodegree, and give it a spin? A trade school skill set can be just as lucrative and cost a lot less.
A nano-degree could pay for the increasingly over priced University degree a lot easier. Of course, Little Johnny (or Chris in my case) may not feel the need, but it is an interesting development. Why not just opt for a short schedule in the 12th grade. You can still get your childhood (Prom, etc.) and get a Nano degree with the rest of your time. As Universities ramp up spend to build brick and mortar tributes to old school traditional education, causing an ever increase in tuition costs, it is that very behavior that is making the MoOc’s, without real estate holdings (and without job for life, tenured professors) more and more attractive.
The Good Old Days
I may be dating myself (a lot), but when I went to school, tuition was $800/Semester at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP). And no, candy bars were not 5 cents when I went to school, as my kids often believe. A Hershey bar was 50 cents. On that comparison, given Hershey costs about $1.50 now, by my calculation, school should cost $2,400 per semester. At UMCP, the tuition is now $5,790 per semester (In state), and $16,722 (out of state tuition). Thank goodness, my kids can get in-state tuition (if you can get in, UMCP is unweighted 3.87 GPA, 1400+ SAT, and good extra curricular activities now). I won’t tell you the requirement to get in when I was a kid, but it was a lot less competitive. Add to high current costs, yearly tuition increases seem arbitrary, without any directly discernible increase in education quality. Yeah, there may be a new building going up, but does that really give you a better education?
Case in point, this year, one of my kid’s colleges, increased their tuition by $4000/year. I don’t know about you, but no, I generally don’t get $4,000 raises on demand from my employers. I also have a conscience, and don’t think saddling my kid with $4,000 additional loans is a great answer either. Oh yeah, it also would be nice to retire someday. So, no, I don’t want to pay you, the university bursar, $4,000 more. Sorry. Nothing personal. I live my family more than your University.
Targeting to make $75K or more per year is entirely under our control. You don’t need Albert Einstein like intellect. Simply pick a career and major where the average pay is that amount, and where there are plenty of jobs.
I went to school, got my BS and MS in mechanical Engineering, and even went back for my MBA. In the mean time, I’ve continued earning certifications (PMP, CSM (Certified Scrum Master), EIEIO,…). Like many in the technical fields, more often than not, you probably will end up not doing what you went to school for.
For example, by that reasoning, I should be doing Mechanical Design. I am currently doing Information Technology management, instead, which I do enjoy. And if I went to school for Information Technology, I am not sure I would be more capable, as the Engineering background serves me well. The engineering degree provided some intangibles (e.g. we are generally good problem solvers), and complex concepts don’t scare engineers away.
Simple Career Advice From An Old Guy
I won’t claim this is the best career advice, just that it is my advice. I’ve given the same advice to young co-workers who have asked what would be the best thing to learn to maximize income and job opportunity. For example, a recently graduated Bioinformatics engineer, asked me what would be a better software to master. We are using a Business Intelligence software (think of it like Excel on steroids), called QlikView, and another popular software is Tableau. You can weed through the morass of opinions on the internet and consulting houses, but it becomes painfully obvious by just typing in QlikView, or Tableau into Indeed.com job search site. Winner? Tableau, with 9,841 available jobs nation wide, versus 1,801 for QlikView. When selecting a major, your next skill area, or certification, consider three key questions:
Do I Like The Work?
Although I do buy into the idea that you are truly passionate about a specific field, something you really love above all others, pursue it. Persevere. Even if you don’t like all things about the field, you can probably get through it. Don’t let go, but ….
Really liking something may be the closest we’ll get to a career that can actually pay the bills, and have plenty of jobs available. Being an old guy, I do recognize that there is a difference between “Loving the Idea” of being an Astronaut, and “Really Loving” being an Astronaut. When I was a kid, I can still remember the grainy black and white live televised “One Small Step for Mankind” moment. My thoughts, like many 5 year old’s, fell immediately in love with the idea of being an astronaut. What wasn’t to like? You got on TV. Everyone was talking about it. You got to travel. You could be weightless. But, what if I understood liking Calculus level math, physics were part of it, do I really love that? Can I even tolerate it, and persevere to get through it (Yes, I re-took a couple of classes, but did get through it).
So, advice number 1, make sure you at least like the job (loving it would be better), and most of the work it will take to get there. I would try to understand what a typical work day may entail, and what the big picture objective of the job is. Consider many options. There is no short answer here, you’ll have to read up on it and ask a few questions. Interested in Law, talk to your Uncle Jimmy the Lawyer on what they do during the week.
Are There Jobs?
This is one question I don’t think we hold our Universities and College accountable to. Are they offering Medieval French Literature because they are the last bastion of hope on Planet Earth for this (probably) near extinct major? Will the class of 150 2016 Medieval French Literature majors really have a job, or is it a fast lane to a a receptionist job one could have probably got out of high school? Don’t expect the Universities and Colleges to be accountable to this requirement. They aren’t. It is up to us to ensure there are jobs in the field we are investing in and studying.
I couldn’t find a French Medieval Literature job (check if the University offering that degree is offering a job, if not, ask why they are offering the major). But for French teacher, there 168 jobs nationwide. So make sure you really love it, you may not find it in high demand. (For the record, I took French in school, but wish I had taken Spanish now, it would have served me better).
Does It Pay Well?
If you were like me as a kid, I didn’t really know what it took to provide for me money wise. If I wanted the same life style when I was a kid, what would it cost now? What does an “OK” 1 bedroom apartment cost in the area ($1,500/Month). How much is Food? How much does Uncle Sam, and Miss Maryland keep (about 45% ( 30% Fed, 7.65 Social Security, 6% state, and 3.9% local/county tax). So, is $40K really enough ($22,000 after tax), or do you need more like $50K – $75K? Compensation isn’t the most important thing, but we are no longer cave dwellers, that can get by on hunting and gathering. No, you cannot live in the park in a tent, they will kick you out. No, you cannot decimate the squirrel population, DNR will fine you. No, I haven’t tried this, but you’d be surprised about some of the ideas the kids have.
Also, if you hate the job, you won’t be around long, so high pay in a field you don’t like is probably a bad decision. Instead, make sure you make what you want. So, no, there probably are no $75K French Teacher jobs to be had. And, no, if you really love french teaching, I wouldn’t suggest you pursue Java Development. But you probably like a few possible careers, so see which ones pay well.
Remember – Targeting to make $75K or more per year is entirely under your control. Simply pick a career and major where the average pay is that amount, and there are plenty of jobs.
So, advice #3, target a job that pays what you want or need it to pay, and select your education investment accordingly. Using the same search in Indeed, scroll down a bit to see compensation levels.
Java Developer $80K – $110K+
French Teacher $30K – $55K.
But What If I Really Love It, But There Are No Jobs or Good Pay?
You always have the option of pursuing your passion as a hobby and/or side business. I really like brewing beer, but don’t believe I’m going to be the next Flying Dog or Fat Tire. Brewing a batch or two is satisfying enough for me. I also love travel, so travel writing is of interest. I can do that as a side business or even just as a blog. Do you love Medieval French Literature? Take an on-line course or two, and enjoy it that way. Better yet, take for free at Coursera. You’ll save about $100K, and avoid the struggle of always searching for that scarce job.