Comparing Colleges: What Is the Right Path for You

Comparing Colleges: What is Your Path to Success

It was Stevie Nicks who told us to “go our own way” all those years ago. The question is, when it comes to college, why don’t we listen to her advice? When it comes to college, everyone should choose the path that’s right for them, and what one person may do may not be right for someone else.

So how do you decide? There are a few things to think about, like the living situation, class size, and of course, the ever-daunting cost of college expenses. But the most important question you should ask yourself is this: what do I want to do with my education?

Answering this question will help you find the most productive, cost-effective use of your time in the world of higher education.

College Experience: Find Your Path

As a senior in high school, I knew I was destined for a four-year university. I wanted to be a teacher, and I knew that, in order to make that happen, I would need a bachelor’s degree. My older sister thought the same way. She wanted to be a nurse, and a bachelor’s degree was her ticket to a good-paying nursing job. My younger sister was a different story.

My younger sister thought she wanted to be a cosmetologist before she graduated from high school. But by the time she graduated, she decided that she wanted to study physical therapy. She enrolled in a four-year bachelor’s degree program focusing on kinesiology knowing she would need an additional three years in a physical therapist program. A year and a half into her degree, she became unsure if she wanted to follow that path. So she switched her major to business, but ended up back in kinesiology.

Eventually, she realized attending a four-year school experience was not for her, and she moved back home to attend the local community college. She completed her associate’s degree in the Physical Therapy Assistant program. Now she has a job that she loves doing that also pays well and supports her young family.

Moral of the story? The cost of the four-year school was what my older sister and I needed to accomplish our dreams. My younger sister? Not so much. The money she spent attempting to get that four-year degree that she didn’t really need could’ve been put towards other things. Honestly thought, that was her path and she learned a lot about herself during that period of exploration.

The point is this is, the first step to answering that question of what to do with your education starts with dismissing the notion that all success hinges on a four-year degree. This is where you have to think about your circumstances. What are your dreams, what you need to achieve your dream, and of course, your budget.

Cost of College

A known truth, college can be really expensive. According to CollegeBoard, “Between 2008-09 and 2018-19, average published tuition and fee prices rose by $930 (in 2018 dollars) at public two-year colleges, by $2,670 at public four-year institutions, and by $7,390 at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities.” Most four-year school tuition's cost anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 now, but luckily, there’s an alternative that can allow you to get a four-year degree for a lot less that has become increasingly popular recently. 


Community College: The More Affordable College Path

Why not start out in a community college and transfer? Take your general education classes for much cheaper than you would be paying starting out as a freshman in a university - sounds great, right? Absolutely. However, cost aside, consider: am I motivated enough, once I’ve gotten two years out of the way to transfer and finish? Or would I let myself be satisfied with just the associate degree?

Many students look at this option and immediately take it for cost effectiveness, but then, after two years, they take their associate degree and decide they don’t want to continue. Inside Higher Ed says, “Only one in five community college students transfer to a four-year institution.” If they’re happy there, then that’s great, but do some of those same students now regret that they didn’t go on to finish their bachelor’s degree? All of these are important questions to ask yourself as you consider college costs, because if you spend that money, and then you can’t really do anything with it in the career department, was it worth it?

How to Pay for College

Most people can’t afford four-year schools outright with no help, and so what do we turn to? Hopefully tons of help from scholarships, but let’s face it, in reality, the answer to that question is student loans. Once school is over, people spend pretty much their entire working life paying back those loans. The U.S. Department of Education has provided data has reported that Americans hold more than $1.4 trillion in federal student loan debt.

If it pays off, and you can afford to repay your student loans, it’s probably worth it. But if not, was it really worth the debt, when the career you really wanted to do could’ve been achieved with a community college, two-year degree, or even a certification program that would’ve cost less than half that?

I wouldn’t be offering the right advice if I wasn’t throwing out questions that matter more than just considering the cost of school. The bottom line is this: if you want a four-year degree, no matter the cost, there are ways to make it happen with FAFSA, scholarships, and all kinds of financial opportunities. You just have to look for it.

If the number of years on the degree doesn’t matter in the career you’re going into, then go to the school that prepares you for what’s ahead, despite stigmas. The question is not whether the price difference is worth it, but more so, what is your future worth to you?

These are all questions to consider, but when it comes down to it, it will take time and planning. Research your options when it comes to paying for college. Understand what you can afford now, and what you will need to afford later (like rent and those student loan bills). It’s all about smart decision making and a drive for success.

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