As I write this, it is the season of college application.  Many seniors around the world are filling out applications, writing essays, and debating over the merits of private versus public university.  This is a great thing, and I highly encourage it.  I am a hard core believer that everyone should be educated.  I myself have a college degree and a graduate degree.  College was a great experience for me, and I encourage many young people to go.

That said, before you do, you really need to think things through.  You are dedicating 4 years of your adult life and thousands upon thousands of dollars to this endeavor.  If you are spending that time and money, it is best to do it wisely.  So come along with me as we explore 5 basic questions you should answer before going to college.

1) Do you need to get a college education?

I know it's a sacred cow in modern western culture that you must go to a University.  If you don't you will be stuck serving hamburgers and frying french fries!  You'll be homeless! You'll be stuck doing a minimum wage job your whole life!  Okay, this may be overly dramatic, but it is likely you have heard similar statements on how you really need to go to college if you want any sort of meaningful life.  This is a lie.

You see, the basic thesis is based upon a confusion of education and college.  Many people go to college to get an education, but not everyone really gets one there.  Many people major in beer drinking for two years, and then drop out after earning 3 credits for their two years.  That is not learning.  Frankly, if you want to drink beer it's much cheaper to buy it at a liquor store than it is to pay for a college tuition.  

You need to get an education, you need to learn a skill, but not all skills are taught at Universities.  Apprenticeships are beautiful things: you get a marketable skill and are paid to do it.  Technical schools do wonders as well.  They may not be as sexy, and they don't have the awesome shirts you can wear into your late 20s showing your loyalty to your alma mater.  But for the savings of thousands of dollars you'd save, I'd venture you can afford a T-Shirt.

Ultimately this question boils down to: What career are you pursuing?  All to often people sort of wander into college because that's what everyone else does.  But it's a huge investment in time and money, don't waste it by dillying around.  Be intentional.  If you don't know the direction of a career you want to go yet, take a year off and work somewhere.  It will make you money, not cost you, and will give you time to explore and think through your options. 

2) What are the possible paths in your future career?

Some career paths appear rather straight forward.  For example, if you majored in political science/pre-law, it seems pretty clear where you are going with that: Law School then practicing law with either a firm or for a company of some sort.  Or you could be majoring in English Education, which again has the appearance of a pretty logical path: teaching at high school or middle school.  Speaking from experience, appearances can be deceiving, and there are often available twists and turns ahead of you.  That said, in these examples there is at least a relatively well thought out plan that is logical and achievable.  But what about other fields of study, what's the career path for them?

You really need to digest that to some degree even before you enroll.  If you are majoring in English in order to be a writer, have you looked at how writers developed their careers?  Do you know the options to proceed out of college?  Do you need to minor in a supportive route in something like marketing?  Or if you major in a fine art, say Painting, how will you get employed?  People do not randomly walk by your painting and make a huge offer, so how will you support yourself through painting?

The reason I bring this up is that many people get discouraged in some of these less rigidly defined career paths.  They try to do what they have always wanted, fail, and end up settling for something they don't like.  What's worse, they then discourage others from trying the same path, thinking they are saving heart ache.  Well, if you don't want that to be you, understand how the career works.  There are ways to make a good living as a painter or writer, but you need to figure that out now, before you have poured 4 years of your life and thousands of dollars into a career you may or may not be able to maintain.

3) What is the pay off for your time and effort?

You might have heard this one before: you can't put a price on education.  This makes me want to laugh, and sometimes cry.  It is obviously a nonsense statement.  Why?  Universities have put a price on an education.  Give their admissions department a call or look them up online, you'll eventually find an estimate for tuition, cost of living and books.  So if they are going to put a price on it, make sure it is worth the price.

As an example: I majored in Mathematics Education when I did my undergraduate work at a private college.  It was a decent enough program, and I learned a lot.  If I continued with that direction of my career that would dictate a certain pay scale.  Looking back, I am so glad I had a lot of scholarship money and my parents had forced me to save money for college.  Why?  Because I over paid for my education relative to my future earnings if I was going to do it on payments, but I did not have to use my future earnings to pay for my education through student loan payments.

Do not get me wrong, I love teachers, and I still enjoy teaching.  I support people going into the field of education, but strong urge you not to pay $80,000 to get a $30,000 a year job.  If you were paying $80,000 to get a $100,000 year job, that might be worth thinking about, the the former example is ludicrous when you put it on paper, especially if you are paying that $80,000 with your $30,000/year salary.

4) What can you afford?

I've reference cost, over and over again, mainly because it is a huge factor that people try to ignore.  I'm going whole hog on this one: can you afford the cost?  Assuming you need the degree, you have an understanding of the career path, and you know it's worth the cost, you still need to decide what you can afford.

Let's go back to my experience in my under-graduate.  If I was advising myself 14 years ago as I was looking at school (side note: I all of sudden feel older) my first step to advising the 17 year old me would be to look at the cost vs. the money I had available, and I caution you to do so as well.  Do you have the scholarships and the money to get that type of education?  And don't tell me you can get loans, someone will always loan you money.  The ability to secure a student loan means little about your ability to afford school

You need to really take a hard look at your actual financial situations.  This may mean you need to back off the private school.  It may mean you will be working, which is what I did through grad school.  It may mean you start at a community college.  I know many will hate this advice, as they have their heart set on a certain school, but I am begging you to take a serious look at where you stand in real life.  Yes, a religious education may be worthwhile, or a prestigious ivy league school might be impressive, but you have to face the reality if your situation.

Think of it this way, today as I write this the cost of tuition at the small private university I got my Bachelor degree at currently lists at $20,600 per year while the state school that is 40 minutes away from it lists at $9,275.  Now, I know both these schools reasonably well, and will stand on the statement that my Alma Mater is a better school than the nearby state school.  But more than twice as good, as the price indicates?  No, it's not that much better.  And neither is any private school relative to a public funded one.  They may be better, but there's no way they are that much better.

Well, what about prestige and job prospect brought on by where you went to school?  This is much more important on a graduate school level than undergraduate.  My observations and experience says that no one cares where you got your Bachelor's from.  Most people in most fields do not care where you got your graduate degree, but some people in some fields do care so there is some argument there.  That said, some public universities have some of the premier programs in their graduate fields within the US, so even then it is a toss up.  But at the least, save the private school tuition for the graduate school alone.

But the value of a private education is more experiential than it is educational.  If you're looking for experiences, take a year off and get a job overseas or join a humanitarian organization.  You'll get an experience for significantly less cost and a lot of moral satisfaction.  If you are looking for a particular religious education, that's fine, but realize most schools have churches, synagogues and mosques down the street.  Many also have religious programs of some sort or another on campus.  

5) Are you making choices for you?

Many times people choose a college education because they feel like they have to.  Their parents want them to go, their friends are all going, their teachers talk about how college is the only answer.  You have heard it all before.  But they are not the ones who actually have to attend your school, do your homework, make your grades, and pay your tuition (with the possible exception here of your parents).  Making a decision to please others that you have to live with your whole life, or at least for four years, seems to an exercise is foolish futility.

Don't get me wrong, I urge you strongly to get advice from your parents.  Newsflash: they are older and more experienced.  They have forgotten more experiences than you have even lived through by the time you are 18.  They have a lot of good information, a lot of experience, and wisdom that goes along with those things.  You should seek your parents advice, I still do ten years after my last undergraduate class.

Taking advice, though, means you are seeking input to consider for making your decision.  Do not make a decision like this just because your parents said so.  Instead, make the decision because after weighing the advice you got, it made sense to you.  Make your decision, not someone else's decision.  You need to own your adult education, and resenting it because someone else pushed you into it will not help you.

What if I can't answer your questions?

I'm so glad you asked!  If you can't answer these 5 questions right now: do not enroll!  Seriously, take the time to really understand where you fall and what you are getting into.  My advice, for many people, is take a year off.  A year with a job, or some other meaningful work, will do you wonders.  Work at your local plant, volunteer to work at a homeless shelter, do something for a year.  Take the time to live life as an adult to gain some perspective.  Note I did not say to take time to backpack across Europe, we are not trying to extend adolescents so much as doing something meaningful and worthwhile that has an impact beyond being a tourist.

If you want to take that year off and you have parents pushing you to go for it, you can actually deal with that very simply.  Explain to them that you know college is a 4 year commitment involving tens of thousands of dollars.  You are concerned that if you jumped in now you would waste that money and that time, and you felt like that would be foolish for you and dishonoring to the legacy of their parenting.  Instead, you would like to take a year to think about what you want to do.  Tell them you would really appreciate it if they could be available for you to discuss your thoughts with them over the next year.  I would be willing to bet $50 that they will be impressed by the maturity and thoughtfulness in your response.

And that is what this is about, being thoughtful and mature.  Everyone is doing it is not a reason for a decision, either to go along or go against.  You need to make the decision that is right for you and your future.  So make it well.