Not All College Career Paths Are Equal

This week’s Courier Herald column:

It’s that time of year again. School buses are slowing down morning commutes and freshmen are moving into university dorms. That means it’s also time for my annual charge to those who have just entered college or those shopping for higher education options to ask themselves what they are going to make of their investment in themselves.

Let’s start with a direct assumption: The purpose of college or other higher education is to improve your lifetime career trajectory. Too many side step this purpose by stating they are gaining knowledge or worse, “finding themselves”.

According to a report released last fall by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, only 49 percent of Georgia’s college students graduate with a bachelor’s degree within five years of entering college. For those that did graduate in 2016, 59% found themselves in debt with an average balance of outstanding of $27,325.

For those who decided upon a degree in Social Sciences, Psychology, or Physical Sciences, average earnings one year after graduation ranged between $19,480 and $23,395. Given that the same report cites Georgia’s living wage threshold as $23,608, we can conclude that a large number of Georgia students who successfully graduate manage to spend five years on a “four-year” degree, accumulate more than one year’s future salary in debt, and graduate with skills that the job market values less than the amount required to support themselves with basic expenses.

If you’re just starting college or considering your options for after high school, there’s still time to “find yourself” on a different path. You’re also in luck. Your older peers have watched the economy grow sluggishly over the past decade. Their expectations of the job market were justified in being tempered. “Opportunity” in the job market for new graduates evaporated with the financial crash a decade ago.

Times have changed. Unemployment is near record lows. Companies are hiring. Some industries, however, have a much better outlook than others.

The Metro Chamber’s report lists the most in demand occupations with the highest entry level wages as “Managers, Sales Managers, Software Developers, Computer Occupations, Management Analysts, and Registered Nurses, and Accountants and Auditors.” Want to make your job search after college even easier? The healthcare fields and the business, management, and marketing related fields currently have the largest gap between the open positions and the number of qualified applicants to fill them.

College isn’t even required for many of today’s in-demand, high wage jobs. Software Developers can get a traditional four-year degree, but there are now 12 to 15 week “boot camp” style classes that are seeing placement rates and salaries equivalent to four year colleges. For those inclined to go that route, they can “find themselves” in an in-demand field with a job paying an average starting salary of $57,700 as an 18-year-old. By the time their peers are graduating college, they could be making $90,000 as a Software Engineer II on their way to making $104,722 as a Senior Software Engineer according to website Glassdoor.

Given that half of those who enroll in Georgia’s colleges fail to graduate and another group secures degrees that don’t pay a living wage, other options should be considered by more students who equate “college” with “success”. Georgia’s High Demand Career Initiative will actually pay for students to attend classes in the Technical College system of Georgia to study and develop workforce skills in high demand from Georgia employers.

Georgia currently offers free tuition from HOPE Career Grants for positions in fields such as health sciences, practical nursing, computer technology, movie production set design, precision manufacturing, and aviation technology among other fields. Each field offers students and immediate marketable skill, and they’re highly likely to be employed upon the completion of their studies with no student debt.

The important thing now for students still choosing their degree or, better yet, their college choice, is to look at the options their degree will offer them and plan backwards to where they are now. Will the degree provide them a job at a reasonable starting salary? Can they make a budget that allows them to live on the expected starting salary? These are questions that need a “yes” before proceeding. If not, adjustments need to be made before they find themselves five years older, unemployable, and in debt.


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