- As a financial planner, I've helped many clients navigate mountains of student loan debt — and I know it's not always necessary.
- Not every career requires a four-year degree — going to trade school or getting an associate's degree can land you a lucrative job.
- If you're considering going back to school, see if your employer will cover part of your tuition or speak to a qualified college planner to find out how best to fund your education.
- Check out Vanguard Personal Advisor Services® to get the investment advice you need to help build the life you want »
Growing up, my family always expected that I would go to college. My grandmother graduated from what is now known as Alabama State University in the 1940s. All four of her children obtained bachelor's degrees, and three out of four obtained master's degrees. Education was of utmost importance in my family. It was seen as a requirement for the Black community to achieve economic independence.
While I broke the tradition of attending a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), I graduated with a bachelor's degree in 2004. Through a combination of scholarships, federal grants, federal student loans, and a hustle mentality, I started my career with less than $10,000 in student loan debt.
I'll admit, I was lucky that I went to a public, in-state university when college was still affordable. These days, college tuition continues to rise at a rapid rate. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the cost to attend a university increased nearly eight times faster than wages. Also, student loan debt is over $1.6 trillion in the United States, second only to mortgage debt and well above both credit card and auto loan debt. The student loan debt crisis disproportionately impacts Black borrowers, who carry more student loan debt and make less than their white counterparts.
As a financial planner, I've helped countless clients navigate their overwhelming student loan debt. In some cases, my clients' degrees are in a completely different field of study than what their job requires. They often have to obtain certifications or advanced degrees that are more relevant to their career. This added expense sometimes results in higher student loan balances without a significant increase in earnings potential. Having many student loans can affect your ability to purchase a home, save for retirement, or build wealth. So what's the alternative?
Over the last decade, I've seen growth and demand in more careers that do not require a college degree. For jobs that require a college degree, there are alternative paths that are more affordable than the traditional route. Let's face it, not everyone is built for college. I believe it's possible to have a successful career without a college degree or mountains of student loan debt.
Viable alternatives to the traditional college path
As baby boomers retire, there's a growing shortage of skilled trade workers. As a result of our culture's emphasis on going to college, younger generations are looking for work outside of important and necessary industries.
If college is not a good fit for you, consider a career in construction or engineering. Electricians, plumbers, HVAC specialists, and truck drivers can build highly profitable businesses without a college degree. Two-year colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeships offer required training without the burden of student loans.
If manual labor is not your thing, there are other options. Many technology professionals seek training through coding boot camps or certificate programs. To level the playing field, companies are emphasizing skills and dropping the degree requirement in the hiring process. Google recently announced a new certificate program to teach skills for in-demand jobs. These types of programs are a fraction of the time and cost of a four-year college degree. They also prepare students to find work in high-paying, high-growth careers immediately.
Another alternative is pursuing a two-year associate's degree. You can land a career as a dental hygienist, registered nurse, paralegal, or air traffic controller with an associate's degree. Once you gain experience in your field, you can pursue a traditional degree to open the door to higher-paying positions.
What to consider when deciding on a four-year college
Many professional career paths still require a four-year college degree, and in some cases, advanced degrees. Getting a degree may also be tied to a personal goal. If you plan to go the traditional route, it's good to have a clear idea of what you want to do. Having a clear direction before you commit to college will save you money in the long run.
Understand how going to college will affect you financially by researching the costs ahead of time. What are the income potential and potential career paths for your major? Will your income potential outweigh the potential student loan debt you take on? Try to limit the amount of student loan debt you incur. Exhaust all scholarship and financial aid opportunities. According to the US Department of Education, the rule is: free money first, then earned money, then borrowed money.
When it makes sense to go back to school
Whether you are thinking about a career change or want to increase your earning potential, you may be considering going back to school. Before you decide on additional or advanced degrees, determine if it's possible to receive similar training through certification programs.
Is a degree really required, or can you obtain the credentials you need without the expense of a degree? If your field requires an advanced degree to move up in your career, will your employer cover some of the cost? Do you qualify for scholarships? Once again, understand how going back to school will affect you financially before committing. Your future income potential should make up for any additional student debt you decide to take on.
If your chosen career path requires a college degree — or if you're considering going back to school for an advanced degree — speak with a qualified college planning or student loan professional. They can help you estimate the degree's total cost and how much you can expect to make upon graduation. They can also help you find ways to cover some of the costs so you graduate with less student loan debt.
Whether you're fresh out of high school, in a university, or steadfast in your career, explore all of the professional development options available to you before making monetary commitments. Weighing the benefits of each will allow you to make choices that will help, not hinder, your career and financial goals.
Chloe A. Moore, CFP, is the founder of Financial Staples, a virtual, fee-only financial planning firm based in Atlanta, Georgia.
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