Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Advice for University-Bound (Or Not) Students

There are more students than ever going to pursuing higher education, and thanks to the recent Skepchick Census I know that most of you readers have participated in some sort of post-secondary education. Sometimes high schoolers come to me and ask for college advice, but my opinions are only related to my personal experience. Some people majored in something they like but not something they love, because they think it would be a better career choice (that’s what I did). Because of the choices I made, I am the proud owner of a lot of student loan debt. There are a lot of changes I would make if I could go back in time, but right now I’ve accepted that my life is full of a lot of “learning experiences.”

Everyone had a different experience in college, so on behalf of undecided high schoolers out there, I would like to hear everyone’s advice about higher education. Or going beyond that, discussion about deciding to go to grad school and how that worked out for you.

My cat does not regret going to college and getting a degree in being Lazy Cute. Although she does want to go back for courses in Uncomfortable Staring.

So for today’s discussion:

What advice would you give someone going to college/university? If they were interested in your major, would you encourage or discourage them? Are student loans worth it? Are private colleges better than state? Do you have a career in what you majored in? If you could go back to the past, what would you tell your pre-college self? Did you know what you wanted to major in or did you change multiple times? Did you go to graduate school part time or full time? Was college just the most expensive party you’ve been to?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm EST.

Featured Image (The cat is mine)


Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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  1. I had a wonderful experience at a public university where I majored in engineering. If you have the interest, I think engineering both is a lot of fun while you’re getting your degree (especially if your program has a lot of hands-on lab classes) and gives you a lot of career options, even if you don’t ultimately work as an engineer.

    I did change my major. I entered college with a strong interest in math and science, and I originally declared physics. I realized that all the parts of physics I liked best were in optics, and that I would get to do more optics as an engineering major. This actually meant I had to take an extra year to finish my degree, but it was totally worth it. I’ve learned that I’m very applications-oriented, and that engineering suits my strengths more than physics would have.

    I chose to go on to grad school, where I am a full-time PhD student. I’m still at a public university, but a different one. Grad school has had its ups and downs, but on the whole, I’m glad I’m doing it. One major benefit to graduate school in engineering (at least PhD programs) is that you don’t generally have to take out loans. You should be covered by research funding. There’s the opportunity cost of not having a well-paid engineering job, but you’re generally not going into debt to get an engineering PhD.

    So many questions! I think I hit most of them.

  2. I’m really not sure what advice I’d give. I graduated from the in-state flagship public university with a whopping $5k in debt, paid off by the time I finished my Master’s degree, but … I don’t know. I made my college choices entirely based on money, and even though I’m 27, debt free and working on my PhD, I’m not sure my undergrad choices were the best.

    I went on zero college visits; my mother thought it was a waste of money. I was valedictorian with a 35 ACT/1510 SAT, courted hardcore by a bunch of Ivy League schools, but I never even applied because they were immediately dismissed as being “too expensive”. And I’m sure I’d be in debt to my eyeballs if I’d gone to, say, MIT. But I’m left with this nagging “what if” feeling. I’m not sure how that compares to what I’d be feeling if I, too, were on the massive student debt bandwagon…

  3. 1) If you have options, go visit the universities you would consider attending/have gotten into. The campus tour changed my mind about more than one higher educational institution. The atmosphere of the school you go to can make a huge difference in your overall experience.

    2) If you have the option, for the love of all that is sweet and delicious in this world don’t choose your major until the end of your first year. 80% of my classmates changed their minds, because they had that option at my school, and you probably will too. Just pick a general region of interest and start with that.

    1. Oh, and I took Physics with a specialization in Astrophysics, and now I work in the field of Geophysics which is… sort of the same. I did end up sticking with the major I originally wanted, but the number two, three and four spots changed wildly within that first year.

  4. Unless you know exactly what you want to do for a degree, take a few community college courses first to find your passion. Then see if you can transfer the course credit to a university that you may be interested in. I saw too many people go into college with a general course degree and never be able to decide on a major. It’s too expensive to “discover yourself.”

  5. This is a long answer.
    Not sure this will help since my college days preceded the time when student loans became dominant.

    1. Had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So I took as many survey-type classes as possible in the first year. Found a subject that interested me w/ vague idea that it might lead to college-level teaching, work in a think-tank type org., etc.

    2. Key point: worked my way through a top public university. 2 jobs. 60 hrs. week. ½ course load but 12 mos./year. Took me 7 yrs. to get degree. But I was totally self-supporting. Graduated with no debt and some savings.

    3. Midway through undergrad studies, realized I was unlikely to work in the field due to a lack of appropriate temperament. But I also decided I would never again have the chance to study what interested me, so I stayed the course. I was, again, self-supporting and paying my own tab.

    4. Graduated, moved to another state, got a job akin to one of the ones I had used to support myself in college.

    5. Couple years later, went to grad school full-time. Another major pub. univ. Worked half-time. Paid my way with savings and half-time job.

    6. Got the Masters but continued to work in same field I’d been in when I started. Different company but no increase in pay. So, if I were calculating the opportunity cost/benefit of those two years, it would probably have come out negative.

    7. But, in grad school, I discovered a skill I didn’t know I had, indeed, a skill I would have asserted I couldn’t possibly have or want. It came in handy and contributed to my future income.

    8. OK, now, re the debt. I think a student whose parents can’t pay the full tab and can’t make up the difference with a part-time job (the most common situation, esp. these days) should do some solid number crunching. If you know what you want to do with your life, calculate how much you can expect to earn vs. the debt you will incur. Think seriously about how much of your paycheck can be used to pay down the debt after you’ve paid for food, housing, clothing, transportation, etc. If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, this type of calculation is doubly important. Could you get work with a high school degree that would let you save up for college in a year or two? Is there a community college you could start at to help you sort through your strengths and weaknesses?

    I know it’s hard for teens to think about the future, but I’d use every possible opportunity in your pre-college days to learn what interests you, what you are good at, what kind of life (city, country, laid-back, intense) you want to live and what you are willing to give up to get that life.

    I’ve never regretted my non-career choice of study. I’ve worked in 3 very diverse fields none of which had anything to do with my undergrad degree.

    Two commonplace observations:
    1. Globalization matters. If a job can be outsourced to another part of the world (i.e., if you can do the job with an internet connection), it probably will be. The most secure long-term jobs will be those that require a physical presence – which also means they will generally be lower-paying.

    2. You are unlikely to work in the same field for your entire life. So, keep your eye on the job market and consider retraining as soon as the opportunities in your field seem to be shrinking.

    3. Bad things happen to good people. I don’t care how good you are at your job, how valuable a team member you are. Organizations change, shriink, die. The boss who thinks you are worth your weight in platinum will move to another company, and the new boss will bring in her own team. So, 6 months of savings is not enough, even with a partner. Plan for at least a year of savings and, as you get older and have more responsibilities and expenses, increase those savings (maybe another year for every decade of life).

    Don’t know if any of this helps. I’m immensely grateful to the unknown millions o f parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who paid sufficient taxes to keep costs at the universities I attended down to a point where I could do what I did. I honestly don’t know what decisions I would make if I were starting out today.

  6. Have a plan. Dipshit older Gen-X-ers (like me) and earlier generations had the luxury of just studying what we wanted where we wanted and worrying about the consequences after the four years were over because we weren’t in danger of emerging with six figures of debt. You are not in that position. Older generations rigged the education game against you Millenials. Be pissed off at us, and don’t listen to the horseshit most of us talk about education. It is easy for us to talk big; we’re already out the other side. If an education revolution starts, join it. It may be starting even now, and I hope so because we need one.

    Education can be a great thing, but it isn’t worth a lifetime of debt. A lot of students do not think about money or debt until they are close to getting their degree. A lot of this is the fault of us older shitheads because that’s what we mostly did, so we tend to encourage similar thinking. But this is not the same world as when we went to school.

    Don’t do this. Think about price. Don’t just go to the most prestigious university you can get into. Graduates of top universities are having trouble paying down the debt from the astronomical tuition.

    If you decide to go to school, go to school to get an education not to receive the most prestigious diploma. Above all, don’t go to college/university just because that is what you are supposed to do. Education comes in many forms, and many of them don’t come from a traditional campus.

    I look forward to a future where young people can study what they love without mortgaging their futures, but that isn’t the reality now. Look out for yourself.

  7. Jumping in to speak to Canuck Skepchick readers:

    What advice would you give someone going to college/university?
    Don’t. Unless you are damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn sure that you know what you want to take, or that you know you’re going in there just to try out various programs. Anything else is a waste of your time, your parents’ time, and your professors’ time.

    If they were interested in your major, would you encourage or discourage them?
    English is learning the fine art of complete bullshit. Combine it with a minor in theatre and you will come out a fine young professional liar, all set for your glamorous career selling used cars. Or perhaps just washing them.
    In all honesty, in idea-based courses (as opposed to fact-based ones), it is not that hard to pull an idea out of your ass and make it sound good. In fact-based courses, study your ass off.

    Are student loans worth it?
    I was in the exceptionally fortunate position of not having to worry. But unless you fit in the first category in my answer to the first question, I would say probably not. And even then, I would strongly qualify that with, “and if you have carefully studied the realistic job prospects upon graduating.” But I am speaking from a privileged position of not having had to worry about it. I had savings and a very generous grandparent.

    Are private colleges better than state?
    Not very relevant to Canada. Private career colleges are rare and prohibitively expensive up here.

    Do you have a career in what you majored in?
    Yes, although I’m self-employed and have sought out that career rather than having it facilitated by a regular employer. And this is a new development. I spent years at a generic office job any monkey could have been trained for.

    If you could go back to the past, what would you tell your pre-college self?
    Your instincts are right, and it is not the place for you. You’ve slacked through high school, what makes you think you’re going to be any better in university? Wait until you’ve grown up and developed a work ethic.

    Did you know what you wanted to major in or did you change multiple times?
    I initially went for a science degree (psychology) and upon discovering just how deep my utter confusion around science really was, I jumped into English as the program I’d be least likely to fail. I was under pressure to decide fast and didn’t give all my options thorough consideration.

    Did you go to graduate school part time or full time?
    No time. Stopped at my bachelors.

    Was college just the most expensive party you’ve been to?
    University was a pretty miserable time for me, truth be told. I was mediocre academically, but I wasn’t the least bit social either. I spent most of my time working, or sitting at home, cutting classes and being depressed, and by third and fourth year, a substantial amount of time with a hugely abusive boyfriend.

    University sucked.

    1. While I respect your experiences, I think it’s terribly unfair of you to tar the whole Canadian higher education system because you had a terrible time in it.

      Higher education in Canada has a lot going for it, not least of which is the accessibility that allows students to try it on for size without making an enormous financial commitment that might contribute to a kind of sunk-cost-fallacy-driven determination to suffer through to a degree. Better to be out $5k for a wasted year than $30-$50k at an equivalent institution in the US.

      1. I’m not at all saying that the Canadian post-secondary system is bad. I actually think it’s quite good, and I think we’re in great shape compared to the US. But I still think that high school students in Canada (and elsewhere, but we’re discussing Canada here) are being given an extremely skewed idea of what university actually guarantees, and the pressure is put on to go to university right out of high school (it was not, and nor was it discussed when I was a classroom volunteer, the fact that it is actually possible to enter university after having been out of school for a year or more, and that there are actually some benefits to enrolling as a mature student). Then the problem is the same as everywhere else. Graduates lacking direction, still no clear idea of what they’ll do for a career, and who ultimately spend a few years working, figure out what they actually wanted to do in the first place, and then spend more money going back to school for what they actually want to do. That first degree still turns into at least $20 000 of wasted money. Yes, it’s better than the U.S., but the result’s still the same.

        As I said in my original post, I think it would be better for students to not automatically head to university unless they are either extremely sure of what they’re going to do, or are not sure, but are planning to take a wide range of courses to see what they like (not just immediately commit themselves to a program). To expand on that, I think Canadian high schools need to be more forthcoming about the fact that there are options beyond college or university. Knowing what I know now, I would not have gone to university straight away, and while my social circle is not representative of the population as a whole, of course, I am definitely not alone in thinking that way. I wish I had that money now to go back and get the education that would actually be useful to me now.

        1. In Quebec I think CEGEPs solve a big part of this problem, in that they allow students a bit of time to experiment academically along with the ability to get a terminal certification in a skill without going on to university should they not desire to do so.

          Having come to the Canadian system from the US I’m actually struck by how many more mature students there are in Canada, and I think it’s a credit to the system that it is designed in such a way as to allow adults to be able to afford to go back to school while still having adult responsibilities.

          The high school dogma about university is, unfortunately, universal and inescapable. I think a lot of progress could be made if we as a society were finally honest about what higher education is for and to whom it is really useful. Funneling students into the system who don’t want or need to be in it is not doing anyone any favours.

          1. Ah, to be fair, I’m from Ontario, and I don’t know anything about the CEGEPS.

            Yeah, there are a lot of mature students in Canada, which I think is great. As I said, if I knew then what I know now, that is definitely the root I would have taken, and I am very upset by the pressure (which, as you pointed out, is universal) to go to university straight out of high school without fairly representing the options.

        2. As a fellow Canadian – I do understand this pressure you speak of – Pretty much all of my classmates felt they HAD to go to university, regardless of cost or interest, and very few of them considered taking an extra year before they started.

          At least when I was in highschool, there was this sense that there wasn’t actually another option – your option was go to university or live your life working minimum wage jobs. When I was in grade 12, there was a weak attempt to say “Oh, trades are good jobs too”, since there was a huge skilled worker shortage where I lived, but it felt a bit of “Too little, too late” to me.

          It was really unfair to students who were not really suited to a university degree. I knew a couple of people who were pushed into applying to a university – ANY university, in whatever major would take them, out of this fear that they would otherwise come to nothing in life.

  8. Like others here I think it is hugely important for prospective undergraduate students to visit schools and get a good sense of the campus before making any kind of commitment to attend. In a lot of ways finding the right fit is much more important than going to the school with the best reputation (even in your field). You can always get a graduate degree from a high-level department later on if that’s what you want.

    There is a huge difference between small liberal arts colleges and large universities both with respect to academic culture and with respect to student life. If you are the kind of student that likes to mix a range of experiences and disciplines, it is probably best to avoid larger schools where flexibility in coursework and scheduling is often much harder, if not impossible, to accomplish. If, on the other hand, you’re more focused on your intended major and have less concern for breadth, a larger school can sometimes provide a larger department with a more defined framework to work in.

    In any case, be aware that only a tiny minority of fields lead directly to employment, and that the true purpose of higher education is neither to get you a job nor to increase your lifetime income (and I firmly believe this correlation is based mainly on other factors and not on the education itself). If you are going to college because you want to make money, don’t bother. You will make more money as a skilled tradesperson than in 95% of the jobs that “require” a college education. This means that NO college degree is worth massive debt. If you can’t afford the sticker price and they aren’t offering significant aid, don’t do it.

    As for graduate school, I got two pieces of advice from my undergrad advisor that served me extremely well, and I think they’re all you need:

    1) Make sure your advisor is a good advisor. It doesn’t matter how famous or brilliant they are; if they are bad at managing and helping their advisees you will have a horrible time and are much less likely to finish.

    2) If they’re not going to pay you enough to live on without hardship, don’t do it. A PhD takes a long time, and morale is important.

  9. I second the suggestion to not go to college right away, unless you have a clear idea what you want to do there. Even if all you do is flip burgers for a year or so, being out in the real world will help you unlearn some of the bizarre attitudes and behaviors that high school trains you to do.

    Once you decide to go, base your choice of school on how compatible the values and interests of the people are with yours, especially those of the other students, rather than the courses in the course catalog. More than half of the value of being in college is being around lots of people who care about the stuff you want to learn about. Besides, just because a course isn’t in the catalog doesn’t mean they wouldn’t put one together if enough students are interested.

    Don’t assume that big name private schools are financially beyond your reach. The (US) Ivy League schools in particular are so obscenely wealthy they could afford to let every student come for free. If they are interested in you (and you in them), ask them how they can make it affordable for you.

    On the other hand, there are hundreds of other schools (including state schools) that can give you just as good an education as Harvard or Yale, for a much lower tuition. The main downside is that you won’t be able to impress the snobs. An Ivy League education simply isn’t worth it if you have to pay for it yourself, and especially if you have to go into debt.

    If, after college, you think you’d like to go for a PhD, I’d suggest trying to work in the field you think you’re interested in first. It will give you some idea of whether you’d actually like doing what the PhD will prepare you for, and it will help you focus, once you get into grad school, on what you need to get out of it. Plus, you may make useful contacts.

  10. If you’re not sure it’s always better to work and develop a skill (cooking, waiting tables, bank teller) where you can get a job that can also put you through university a year or two after high school. My wife is a university prof and she is constantly amazed at how clueless many students are when they arrive and how many are still clueless when they leave. Always remember that most universities float their financial boat on the freshman and sophomore class. New students arrive in large numbers and at most universities you’d be very surprised at how few actually ever graduate compared to the number of incoming freshmen. If home is cool and there is a good local university stay at home and save a ton of money. Remember that a more general degree can often lead to more job opportunities down the road unless you have a specific career plan. My wife is an education and communication prof and she’s had comm majors get some amazing jobs over the years including selling jets for Boeing because they had outstanding speaking and communication skills. And as others have said do what ever you can to avoid debt (unless you don’t care about buying a house or decent car before you turn forty). And this includes attending the fancy pants private schools unless you have some great scholarships. Most private school are a waste of money if you’re paying the full amount compared to state schools and this includes getting your AA/AS at a community college and transferring to U of [insert your state here]. Any college student who allows their parent/s to take out a second mortgage on their house to pay for their education better show up for class and get decent grades. Also never accept a drink from a stranger and if you get drunk more than three times a quarter you need to stop drinking or get professional help.

  11. I chose medicine because it has lots of science but also people stuff, but it is so broad that anyone can find their niche I think, whether you want to be a pathologist and not have to talk to people, or work in palliative care if you are amazing with people. It is also easy to travel with. Also feel like it gives me a good base to do other things, such as research etc. Would definately advise working hard to find out about all available scholarships, and apply to them all, even if you dont think you are likely to get them, because you are often surprised! Work experience or shadowing someone is also very valuable and they should do this more in high school! My partner on the other hand dropped out of high school early and started a software/website business when he was a teenager and taught himself everything, and is in a very good position compared to those that have done years studying comp sci at uni, so for some areas I think life experience> formal study, but really depends on your level of drive and confidence I suppose.

  12. I graduated a couple weeks back with a BA in biology, so this is from somebody fresh on the other side, but I like to think I have some experience with this.

    First some backstory, I started college planning on getting a doctorate in pharmacy and attended a state university with their pre-pharm program. I changed my mind in the first semester due to stress and switched to biotechnology. I loved that major. It was just as difficult, but getting a B wasn’t something which would ruin my future career plans so my stress level dropped. I was very busy and spent a lot of my week in the lab and more time analyzing the data from the lab.

    Due to personal reasons which are irrelevant for this topic, I left with an AS and moved. I found work working at a quality control technician for a couple different food companies. From this, I learned that it’s not a good idea to settle with an associates degree. It might be different if the associates program is vocational in nature and you’re not competing with people who have a bachelors, but I wasn’t in one of those areas. I went back to school last year to finish, but at a different university.

    This time, I was going for a BA in biology instead, I got the BA over the BS because I didn’t want to retake a physics class I already completed. I did enjoy the switch from the narrow biotech program to the broader biology one, I learned a lot more about ecology and environmental sciences to complement my background in molecular biology and microbiology. I even managed to get a research project, which I highly recommend for any science major.

    Currently, I’m working in food again, this time I’m doing internal auditing. I see a lot more opportunity to advance within the company and to move elsewhere if I desire. There are jobs and respectable career paths available to science majors without needing to go to graduate school.

    My advice to potential college students is to be willing to look at all your options. I really wish I had looked at more than just the pharmacy program when I started. I’m not upset with where I am at all, but I should have taken the idea of majoring in something like chemistry, medical technology, or bioengineering more seriously. Ultimately, I think you need to go with what you enjoy, even if it is difficult. The job market right now is shit, the only reason I got a job quickly is because I had previous work experience with an AS, and it took a year to go from graduate to employed. Besides, the economy is fickle, you never know what skills will be in demand in a decade and which won’t be in demand. Looking for a “practical” major isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it is if you can’t stand it.

    A few last things, which I think are the most important. Student debt is terrible and public colleges give you good education for a fraction of the cost. While you are in college, get the most out of your experience and actually learn. You will probably hear the saying “C’s get degrees,” but I highly doubt those who live by it make it to graduation.

  13. I would not recommend working for a year before you head off to college unless you intend not to make any money at all or your parents are already so wealthy that you are not going to get any financial aid. It’s all well and good to claim working before college is a good experience, but in the United States it could seriously jeopardize your chances of getting good financial aid, including subsidized loans. If you were to find a job with a $25,000 salary for the year before college, it’s quite possible that you will be paying full tuition at public colleges or be paying every cent of your salary to a private school.

    Working through college these days is a lot harder than it used to be, though I can’t say I’m speaking so much from experience as from number crunching. Tuition increases have far outpaced increases in wages. I admire those who still manage to work their way through college, but it’s not a particularly feasible thing to do in 2012.

    I majored in economics. It’s a great major, but I would advise all prospective econ majors to seriously consider grad school very early on. I would also advise them to take a lot of math while in college (even if they do not intend to go to grad school), including calculus I and II and linear algebra.

    It is important to choose a school based on “fit” and “atmosphere,” but most people find a niche in college no matter where they go. Don’t let the admissions counselors and tour guides bs you into thinking a school is the right place for you. They want your money or the aid you get from the government. Seriously, I worked in Admissions. I’m not saying they’re never trying to help, just be wary.

    Finally, college/university is what you make of it. Regardless of where you go (except maybe Bible College, ha!) nearly all of your professors will have phds. Even if you’re surrounded by a bunch of forever-partying people that never do their work or learn anything, YOU can learn a lot. Just like high school (and pretty much every other part of your school career), college is what you make of it.

  14. I had the great luck to be born in a large and poor English family in the 50s, so I got lots of free education (eternal thanks to Lord Butler).
    I was always an independent spirit so I knew I had to pick a career which would pay my bills and get me away from farm work forever. Being good at maths and stuff I studied Engineering and am still an Engineer and loving it. I got industrial sponsorship, which was wonderful, so have a look at that if you want to do this too.

    There were days when I envied the kids doing archeology or English lit, and they laughed at us because we aere actually doing work. But in the final year the laughs stopped because we had jobs and they had nada. If I want archeology I can read books.

    My eldest sister retired and then studied archeology, and she is a grey-haired digger now, I could always do that, because as an Engineer I have serious money in the bank and a house that belongs to me.

  15. The education system is a little different in Canada. University is where you get a degree, college is where you get a diploma. College courses are usually set and short (2-3 years or less). You go to college if you want to take a quick course and get a job, which is what I did. I took Child and Youth Care at Red River. I had a student loan and they were actually really great about working with me to get my payments done. I chose to live off my student loan and not work while I was in college and I am glad I did. There is always more work than you think there is, you need to give yourself a lot of time for homework. A LOT. School is stressful, you’ll also need a little time to relax.

  16. I majored in biotechnology, after initially entering college with dreams of a degree in pre-pharmacy then chemistry.

    My number one advice for science people is intern and research. Look for local businesses that hire interns, or have programs that accept college students to work in their labs. I was accepted by a huge local company to work in the lab. It was that experience and networking that got me my job with pretty much no help from my degree. I’m an analytical vibrational spectroscopist now which is nowhere near my major, but I really love my job.

    Not only will interning or finding a job in your major actually let you see what life will be like when you’re out of college it lets you see if you’re suited to the work. It also provides you with valuable job skills and experience, enough for me to be hired one rank higher than normal after college.

  17. I went to a state school and majored in Engineering more or less on a whim and the general idea that I could always find a job. Four months before my May 2011 graduation I had a nice job with good benefits in the exact geographical location I wanted (and was far from top in my class). I would encourage anyone thinking about engineering to give it a shot because it has job security and still makes it easy to transition into other fields as well. Some disciplines of engineering are much easier to find careers in than others: Chemical, Mechanical, Electrical, and Computer Engineering are pretty standard – anything new or very specialized gets more difficult such as Environmental Engineering.

    Something to note: It is far easier to change a major from engineering than to engineering and it might be worth it to start off in engineering if you’re not sure what exactly you want to pursue.

    I got enough scholarships to cover a nice chunk of tuition, and my parents paid the rest. I have a friend who works at the same company but has tens of thousands of dollars of student debt from a private college that take up most of her take-home pay and will continue for many years to come. We’re both in secure places,and both would go back and do it again (though I might have actually applied to more than one college).

    So, basically, I didn’t know what I wanted to do (and changed my major between different disciplines in engineering/dropped premed), but I went to college, found something I enjoyed, and ended up with a secure degree/job. I think working for a year would have meant flipping burgers and would not have helped me decide what I wanted to do with my life. If you have the opportunity to do something awesome for a year before college, for all means do that. On the other hand, if you have a vague idea of what you want to study and no reasonable alternative, go to university and just be a realist with respect to your chances of success in said major vs. cost of university.

  18. I went straight into college after taking two years of HS at my chosen college. (PSEO, if anyone’s familiar with the program)

    Here’s what I wish I did:

    I wish I’d taken a year to just work and fuck around and travel before I went into University.

    I wish I’d taken my general classes and basic science/math at CC rather than at University. It would have been cheaper, with far smaller class sizes (20-50 rather than 200-300) and that would have left me more open to pursuing science as a focus along with my liberal arts degree.

    I wish I had started seeing a therapist when my depression sank my academic enthusiasm into two years of anger and apathy.

    I wish I had filled out my fucking FAFSA every year, because I would have found out sooner that I qualified for a lot in pell grants and wouldn’t have had to stress myself out working my ass off to make over 12000 every year for tuition.

    I wish I hadn’t been so unrealistic about my majors. Unfortunately, my BA isn’t useful in terms of getting a fucking job that I actually can do long-term.

    Oh, and don’t fucking choose your major until you’ve been in school at least a year or you absolutely know it’s what you want to do. That has a tendency to limit what you actually take, and some classes can open your eyes to passions you didn’t know you had.

    What I am glad I did:
    Paid my way through all of my BA by working an incredibly well-paying, flexible job.

    Went to a University that only charged 12,000/yr for tuition, rather than 20,000-32,000.

    Pursued classes and, eventually, majors, which were really interesting to me and made me feel engaged. While my majors aren’t great for getting a job, they were worth pursuing in the end because I learned a lot of critical thinking and cultural analysis skills that I wouldn’t have gained from a strictly STEM academic path.

    Took a year off once I had my second year of shitty depression-fueled academic failure. That year gave me time to think, and I went back and aced my classes during my final year, which brings me to my final thing I’m glad I did:

    I GRADUATED. A lot of my friends never finished school because they hated their major or career path. I’m glad I got that piece of paper, because I worked my ass off to pay for it, and in the end I DID learn a lot, just not what I thought I would learn.

    What I’m doing now:
    I’m going back to school this month doing prereqs for Pharmacy school. I’m doing the prereqs at a CC, because the classes are much smaller and half the price of my alma mater. So if I choose to take out student loans for my CC classes, it’ll be worth it to me. If it means my current job will be something I do only when I feel like it rather than to beef up my savings even more, that’ll be a big change, but it’ll be for the betterment of my future.

    So carefully, honestly think about all the trade-offs. Would you be better off waiting a bit or going directly into college? Would a CC serve you better as an intro than a University? Would the debt you would take out by going to a specific school be something you COULD pay back with your prospective career’s starting salary? Can you handle working while going to school? Do you want to do full-time school or part-time? Is it more important to finish school quickly or more slowly, if the second option means less debt?

    These are all questions that have different answers based on your specific situation. BE HONEST with yourself when you answer them. That’s the best advice I can give.

  19. What advice would you give someone going to college/university?
    Take a year off out of high school and really consider what you want to do with life. I traveled for a year, had an epiphany just before I came back, and changed my career path from kinesiology to fisheries biology. If you’re really, really clueless about what you want to take, try some college courses or technical programs to see if you are going to like something.

    Once in university, try (at almost any cost) to get summer jobs in your chosen field. I had a friend who was 6 months from graduation in fish biology – she got a summer job as a field technician doing environmental consulting, lasted 2 weeks at it, and never went back to finish her degree.

    If they were interested in your major, would you encourage or discourage them?
    It was great for me! Make sure you talk to people in the field to make sure it’s really for you. If you don’t like being outside, fishiology is probably not your field.

    Are student loans worth it?
    Yes and no. Student loans are great for propping up your finances a bit, but by no means should you completely rely on them to fund every aspect of your school life. I lived like a hobo for my entire undergraduate career, didn’t go to bars, didn’t go out for dinner, ate beans and quesadillas religiously, and walked to school as much as I could. During the summers, I worked a camp job and didn’t keep any accommodation in town. Together, I managed to get through 4 years of university on less than $15,000/year, and had a grand total of about $10,000 in student loans at the end of it.

    During grad school, my grant funding and a couple of scholarships paid my stipend and research costs, and a teaching assistantship gave me a bit of pocket money. Even in the highly expensive city of Vancouver, I managed on about $20,000/year for 3 years.

    Do you have a career in what you majored in?
    I sure do!

    If you could go back to the past, what would you tell your pre-college self?
    Don’t blow things off. A couple of missed labs, a couple of percent off on a few tests – all add up to decrease your GPA. If you want to go to grad school, you’ve just made more work for yourself.

    Did you know what you wanted to major in or did you change multiple times?
    Like I said, I had an epiphany while traveling for a year out of high school. I realized that I wanted to work outside, on water, with slimy things rather than in an office with people.

    Did you go to graduate school part time or full time?
    Full-time grad school for 3 years, plus a summer of full-time field work.

    Was college just the most expensive party you’ve been to? Nope. It’s only expensive if you use it (and your student loan) as an excuse to party.

  20. Don’t have a baby in the middle of your PhD. I love my daughter, and I love my doctorate, but producing them at different times would have worked better.

  21. Interesting topic, considering all the stories these days about the relevance of earning a college degree. Personally, I could only afford a semester in college in the early seventies, but as things quickly turned out that’s all I needed for many years, having learned valuable skills working on the high school paper from my wonderful journalism teacher who taught me plenty about the paste-up mechanical arts which were the gateway drugs to a career to the technical side of pre-computer publishing. Learning newfangled computer publishing skills came later.

    But enough about me. Of vastly more importance is that my nephew is heading for college next fall, and I can’t imagine him following my quirky path, which is no longer available to his generation. Not only are those less expensive days done and gone, but earning at the very least a bachelors degree is a prerequisite for a young African-American.

  22. Unless you are attending a specific program, go to an in-state, public, school. I did not, and I am regretting it with every diminished paycheck.

  23. I’m currently in school, so let me share that perspective.

    What advice would you give someone going to college/university?

    Do community college first for your gen eds, and make sure that it’s accredited so you can carry them on. It’s such a money saver! I didn’t have student loans until now, and I’m in my third semester at a university, with over 60 credits done. Try to get a job that will pay for some of your educational costs (even Sheetz gas stations in Pittsburgh area pay for tuition reimbursement).

    Either do something you REALLY love that you are willing to sacrifice for, or do something practical. Don’t count on the government or other people to support you before, during, or after school. Be a damn grown up.

    If they were interested in your major, would you encourage or discourage them?

    I have a weird major (Letters, Arts, and Sciences at PSU World Campus). I’d recommend it if you want to do business and psychology and social studies courses, limit your math, but still have a broad exposure to corporate and organizational development.

    Are student loans worth it?

    To a degree. If you get a good rate, avoid unsubsidized loans, and keep them to a low amount if possible.

    Are private colleges better than state?

    I don’t think so. (I haven’t gone to private.) Of the people I know who attended private, if it was for a generic major, it wasn’t worth it. For specified programs, just go somewhere you can afford that has a program that works.

    Do you have a career in what you majored in?

    Sort of? I do clerical and business support, and I completed an associates in general studies with a focus on business, anthropology, and CIT.

    If you could go back to the past, what would you tell your pre-college self?

    Get better at math ahead of time. You won’t have room in your head for it after four years of school, and it will kill your grades and prospects.

    Did you know what you wanted to major in or did you change multiple times?

    I originally went for anthropology/archaeology, but decided it wasn’t practical enough and that I didn’t like the personality types I’d be working with, and that it wasn’t worth getting a masters degree to make less than $40k a year. Now, I’m in business type stuff, and I’ve only really changed once. I did a midway change from anth (which I only took about 15 credits in) to admin studies, but changed to general studies because I could finish more rapidly. So not really.

    Did you go to graduate school part time or full time?

    Never went to grad school, and most likely won’t. I think unless you’re doing something very specialized, it’s a waste of money.

    Was college just the most expensive party you’ve been to?

    I’ve never done any partying related to school in any way.

    1. Oh, and consider trade school instead of college! There are tons of skilled trade jobs that make great money and are in high demand.

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