Over the last few decades, obtaining a college degree has become more encouraged than learning technical skills. Seeing as many hot-shot careers require a bachelor’s degree or higher, high schoolers are often told to consider a college education above any other life course.
When I was a high school senior, all the neighboring colleges tabled in my school’s library to recruit the juniors and seniors. Many of my friends knew they didn’t want to go to college. Unfortunately, unless you wanted to enlist in the military or go straight to college that next fall, just about everyone and their mother gave you grievance.
Baby boomers are especially harsh judges on teens who do not want to go to college, not taking into consideration that tuition costed them a couple hundred dollars back in the day but costs current students about $20,000 a year (assuming you attend a public university- don’t even get me started on private university tuition).
“You need to go to college or else you’ll end up flipping burgers.”
Here I am now with seven years of college under my belt. You’d think I would be “pro-university”, right? Well, not entirely. Too many teenagers are being pushed to go to college without being given all the information. From years of personal experience and having worked two university student affairs jobs that have given me insider perspective, here is my two cents on what you should know before enrolling at university.
1. A university degree is not the only path to a successful career
Have you even looked at the average salary of a plumber? Or of a mechanic? Or even a Waste Management employee? I remember hearing, “if you don’t get your grades up, you'll end up like the person who collects everyone’s trash.” For an average starting pay of $60,000 per year and upwards of $130,000 per year, give me all your trash! Pfft, I’ll hand deliver each trash bag to the landfill for that pay.
Technical and manual jobs are crucial to our society and often have entry level opportunities. Some may require you to have certifications, but they are usually affordable. Oftentimes an employer will even pay to put you through the certification course!
Not everyone is an academic star, and that’s more than okay. If everyone on the planet were book smart but no one could install piping or change an engine, we would be utterly screwed. Technical jobs are important, pay super well, and are always in demand.
Plus, the average American will change their career about eight times in their lifetime. If you get a degree in biology and decide you hate the field ten years later, there goes thousands of dollars down the drain. Of course, you can apply to and work in other fields even if your college degree is not in that new field, but it can sometimes be more difficult. With a technical career, you may lose a few months of training if you decide to switch careers, but it is not as detrimental.
2. Take that gap year, or several
All too often, teens are told that if they take a gap year, they will never go to college. Or that they will struggle when they finally enroll because they'll have forgotten everything by then.
So not true!
It is okay, and even healthy, to take some time off school. Students in the United States are in school from the ages of five to eighteen, with as little as two months off in between academic years. You are human. If you want to give your brain a break, do it. Colleges will always be there. I promise you won't forget everything you learned.
Some time off school is also a great opportunity to work and save money for college tuition, if going to college is your ultimate goal.
3. Consider postponing university until you know what you want to study
This is a huge one.
I’ve worked with too many students who don’t know what they want to do and enter university as an “exploratory” or undeclared major. If this is truly what you want to do, no one is stopping you! But the year these students spend taking random classes as undeclared majors do two things.
One, they’ve now spent thousands of dollars figuring out what they like. Two, once they finally pick a major, most of the classes they took usually don’t count towards the degree. This equates to thousands of wasted dollars and a year of time gone.
Instead, figure out what you like in the real world. Volunteer somewhere. Get an internship or entry level job in a field you think you might like. The only bad thing that could happen is that you don't like the job. On the flip side, you made some money and gained professional references that many other eighteen, nineteen, even twenty-two year olds do not have.
4. Go to community college first
There is no shame in going to community college! I completed my first three years at a community college. This was easier, more personable, and much cheaper for the same exact courses.
Let's break it down. A biology course with lab at community college was four credit hours. At $101 a credit hour, that's about $405 for that course.
If I would've taken that same exact course at university, it would have costed at least $850. Why pay more than double for the exact same course?
Pro tip: courses at community colleges tend to be a bit easier with kinder professors. All of my favorite classes and professors were from my community college days.
Work smarter, not harder.
5. CLEP out of courses you already know
Regardless of whether you start at community college or university, you will have to take general education courses. Many of these are easy and you may already know. With a little bit of studying, you can test out of these courses for a fee of about $89 and get full college credit for them.
College Board administers the CLEP test for fantastic prices. You can save hundreds of dollars by testing out of a course. More importantly, this can save you time. Let's say you CLEP out of Composition, American Government, Psychology, and Algebra. You just saved yourself a semester of sitting in college classes and thousands of dollars.
College Board also offers study materials for about $25 per subject. This way you can prepare yourself with material that will be on the test!
Word of caution: don't go CLEP crazy. You still have to pass the test, so only register for CLEP exams that you are confident you can pass.
6. A degree from a community college and a university are worth the same
There is room for debate here. Yes, a degree from a community college may not hold the same weight as a degree from Harvard or Stanford, but we are talking your more traditional colleges here.
If your local community college or state college offers a four year degree in nursing and prepares you to pass the nursing certification exams, it is no better than a $100,000 degree from a public university. In the end, you will still be a successful nurse.
Again, work smarter, not harder.
7. If you attend university, you don’t have to do it in four years
If you attend a public university, you may be pressured by advisors to finish your degree in four years. I'm here to tell you that this is not a requirement. Universities push their students to graduate in that four year time frame so that they can maintain their preeminent statuses. Graduation rates are a huge factor in university rankings and funding.
If you are pressured to finish your degree in an amount of time that is not reasonable for you, ignore them! You are the student and you are the one paying ample amounts of money. Let the school worry about their rankings. You worry about you.
8. Don’t get complacent in applying for scholarships
Even a five-hundred dollar scholarship is five-hundred dollars you didn't have before. That can help pay for books, rent, or part of your tuition. There are scholarships available for just about anything. Many upperclassmen get caught up in school and become complacent in scholarship applications. Who can blame them? Who really wants to write an extra essay when they already have three term papers fast approaching.
I'm here to remind you that they are out there and they are helpful. Don't discredit yourself and think you won't get it. You really won't get it if you don't apply.
9. Know the difference between unsubsidized and subsidized loans
This is where many students go into more debt than they anticipated.
If you are offered both subsidized and unsubsidized loans, always accept subsidized loans first! Subsidized loans typically don't begin accruing interest until six months after you graduate, whereas unsubsidized loans begin accruing interest immediately!
Four years in college after accepting unsubsidized loans means an extra four years of interest you'll need to pay off later.
10. Only take out the loans you need!
Free money, right? Wrong. You need to pay it all back later, plus interest. Just don't put yourself in a hole that you will regret later.
Come five years after you graduate and you are ready to buy a house or new car, your hands may be tied to put an adequate downpayment if you are paying off thousands of dollars worth of unnecessary student loan debt.
11. Gain professional experience while in college
Even if you do not need to financially, work while you are in college! This can even be an unpaid internship or a volunteering gig. You want to set yourself apart.
Once you finish college and have the degree hanging on your wall, you'll likely want to apply for jobs. Your degree helps you qualify for them, but the degree may not always be enough. Once you get to the application sections of “Previous Employment” and “Professional References” you will need to list something to show your new employer that you are a diligent worker.
I suggest that when creating plans to attend college, incorporate working a job or internship into those plans so that someone else doesn't look like a better candidate than you after graduation.
The path is not always linear
Don't get me wrong, I have personally loved community college and university. However, I would have approached it differently if I knew some of these tips. Only you know what is best for you. I hope that these considerations offer insight when deciding whether to attend university.
Whatever success and happiness mean to you, pursue it relentlessly and without fear of judgement. There is more than one right path, even if it isn't always as straightforward as you may initially think.
If you found this helpful, I would greatly appreciate a heart/share/tip! Follow me on Instagram for more: @nani.quint
About the Creator
As a 23 year old grad school student, I spend a lot of time writing academically. Now I’m taking time to write creatively and enjoy creating stories about whatever makes me happy.
Follow my journey on instagram too: @nani.cruz.writes