Career Exploration Before Signing on for College Debt

One of my nieces is starting her senior year of high school and is stressed about college. She knows she wants to go to college, but is unsure of what she will study and how she will pay for it. This is very natural, especially for children who are the first ones faced with the luxury/burden of deciding what they will do for money as adults. A few generations ago most people grew up to do what their family did. The children of blacksmiths were blacksmiths. The children of farmers were farmers.

My niece is certain that she wants to attend college because she likes academics. However, college is not the only option. High school graduates can join the military, go to a trade school, start a business or get a job. Most high-paying jobs do require a college degree, especially if you want to move up in a company. But if you go to college just because it’s expected of you, rather than because of your own internal motivation, you may have trouble completing the degree requirements. If academics is not your thing consider trade school; the school requirements are shorter, the cost is lower, and the jobs are unlikely to be outsourced to other countries.

In my family, my parents were the first ones asked to take on the decision of what they would do once they grew up. My mom attended a trade school in Mexico and became a nurse because that’s what her cousin wanted to do. My dad attended college and became an engineer because a teacher suggested it given his great math skills since. Today they are both business owners. My dad does use his engineering background, but despite numerous attempts my mom could never stick to nursing.

My aunt asked me to talk with my niece about college because I am one of her few family members that has gone to college in the US. My biggest piece of advice is minimizing student loans by getting scholarships and having a clear path on what classes will move you towards graduation. Leaving college with mortgage size debt is many people’s reality and it can add years of stress to life. My main motivation for going to college was to be in a strong economic position as an adult. The last thing I wanted to do was put myself into a bigger debt hole than necessary.

My senior year of high school revolved around submitting as many scholarship applications as I could find. I applied to the Ronald McDonald House scholarship, the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, and all of the local scholarships in my city. My high school’s college counselor was a wonderful resource and my English teacher was kind enough to review my applications and write a recommendation letter. I must have applied to over 100 scholarships using about 5 different essays. I did receive several of the scholarships. The scholarships, my family’s very low income, my good grades, and working part time made it possible for me to graduate with a BA with only $5k in debt.

This leaves us with my niece’s main concern: How do you decide what to study to make the best use of college and not stay there longer than necessary given limited funds?

Natural Talents + Job Growth Projections = Clues to What to Study in College

Growing up I though college was the sure way to build a good life. It turns out a college degree is not enough to land a well paying job . You also need to major in something that will set you up for finding a good job. If you are going to school because you want to earn more than a high school graduate then take the time to learn what you want to do for money as an adult. Start by assessing your natural talents and compare them to job growth projections.

Why start by looking at natural talents? Focusing on what you want to do after college before you even get there can be confusing. In terms of likes and dislikes who you are today will be very different from who you’ll be ten years from now. So forget living that person’s life and live your own today. At the same time that person depends on you to make a living… I get why my niece is confused.

One of the best career advice books out there is Daniel Pink’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need. Eric Baker has a great review of the book here. A main takeaway from Pink’s book is that we cannot plan everything out. It’s about curiosity about what makes you tick. It’s about persistence in giving whatever you try a fair shot. It’s about looking at your job as an act of service to your employer and the community, rather than a burden.

As you decide what to study in college below are some great resources to lead you on getting to know yourself better:

StrengthsQuest: This assessment finds your top strengths and gives recommendations on how they can work with each other. I took this as part of a college course and have benefited from it often. Whenever I look at job prospects I take time to see how my strengths would be used in that career.

MAPP Assessment: This is a very practical look at how your natural preferences can be traced to a satisfying job.

Compare what the assessments say against what you see in yourself day to day. My assessment says I am task oriented, and I can confidently say that is true. I looove checking stuff off my to-do list. However, my assessment also says I’m not much of a dreamer, but let me tell you that this very blog is me dreaming. I dream of working with people to improve their financial well-being. In that respect, the assessment mis-assessed me. An assessment is a tool, not a life-sentence.

As a high school kid I loved my accounting class. Naturally this led me to imagine I’d to accounting in college. Once I was taking college level accounting I quickly learned I loved using Excel spreadsheets, not accounting. My natural affinity for spreadsheets is my main money maker today. Thankfully, I work with other people who understand the complex accounting rules involved in our company.

There’s a caveat to following your strengths: just because you enjoy something does not mean that’s what you’ll get to do once you grow up. As another example I also love dancing; in fact, there are videos of me really grooving out as a three year old. But dancing is not a very lucrative field, especially if you are as (un)graceful as me. I did not follow my dream of being a dancer because I did not want to wake up to a nightmare of poor job prospects. Today I am an Excel ninja (business analyst) by day and on the weekends I dance blues.

It’s misleading to look for a career that fills all your needs. You’re much better off finding out what your skills are and deciding which ones will make you money, and which ones will be for fun. The better you know what your skills are the more likely you are to be on the right path for you.

Job Prospects – Is there a crystal ball into the future?

One you have a handle on your natural talents start exploring what careers would use them. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has a career exploration guide just for K-12. It also has a description of main job categories and their projected growth in the future. Their “Charts and Tables” portion has tables for fastest growing and shrinking occupations. I was not surprised to see “Personal Care Aides” as the fastest growing job occupation given our aging society. It was funny to see that “Locomotive firers” are among the fastest shrinking occupations.

One last point, Daniel Gilbert point out in “Stumbling on Happiness” that we’re horrible at predicting what will make us happy in the future. If we never made mistakes there would be no divorce or need for tattoo removals. But we do make mistakes. So account for that when deciding on what to study in college. Make space for exploration grounded in reality.

4 thoughts on “Career Exploration Before Signing on for College Debt”

  1. Awesome Diana! I think many people could benefit from reading this article when choosing college. On the one hand, I’m glad I studied my passions, but on the other hand I’m not sure if it was the best idea given how I’m currently in a different field from what I got my degree in!

    1. Hi Mo! Whenever I think of anyone who studied their passion I always remember you and Mel. You are the few brave souls I know who went that route. On the other hand I feel like I’m going that route now that I’m studying financial planning.

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