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How to Get the Most Out of Your Education Dollars

9 minute read

David Ning

By David Ning

It’s long been accepted that furthering your education is one of the best ways to increase your earning power. Specialized training can go a long way toward developing skills that others are willing to pay more for. However, there is no singular “right” way to get this education or training. As a society, we place a lot of emphasis on a university education. Maybe a little too much emphasis, actually. These days, many people assume that they’ll never have a good job (or make a stable) living without an expensive four-year degree. However, the college route isn’t for everyone. Before you drop tens of thousands of dollars on a “traditional” post-secondary education, consider all your options — and their associated costs.

How to Value Your Education

There’s a big debate going on right now about whether the cost of a college degree is worth it. For those who need to fund their education with student loans, the prospects of ever being able to pay off that debt is growing increasingly slim. And then there are debates about whether you can get by with a two-year diploma program (instead of a four-year degree), whether grad school is worth it, or whether it makes sense to pay extra to attend an Ivy League school instead of a cheaper one.

All of these debates center around what kind of value you’re getting. That is, how to you compare the benefit you’ll receive against the cost of the education. The truth, though, is that the value you receive is relative. It still largely depends on the effort you put in. It also depends heavily on what you expect to do when you’re done.

It’s Possible to Waste Money on Your Education

Some people insist that money spent on education is never a waste. We beg to differ. I have an acquaintance who obtained an expensive education in psychology at NYU. It’s a fancy piece of paper, but she hasn’t used any of her studies in her career life since graduating. To be honest, I’m not sure she would be able to, even if she tried — she always told me that she never really paid attention in class anyway.

She also said that she was only able to graduate because she found friends and classmates to help her out with her own work and group projects. (I don’t even want to know what she did with her tests and exams!) She has never practiced psychology and doesn’t even have a regular job. Luckily, her family is extremely well off, so she’s fine. But was her degree worth the six figures her family spent on it? Probably not.

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Associate’s Degree and Skills Training

She’s hardly alone though. Recent studies indicate that many employers feel that many college grads are unprepared for the realities of the workforce. Instead, there has been an increased demand for those with practical skills and training. It’s becoming increasingly popular to get an associate’s degree or to go through a certification course for a particular skill.

Let’s take plumbing for example. You don’t need a four-year degree to do this. You definitely need to get some training though. An apprenticeship is probably also necessary. But passing some classes at a local college definitely won’t help. When you’re done your training, you can work with an existing company or even start your own business. A decade ago, I paid a plumber $70 an hour to come solve a mild problem at my house. These days, it’s more like $150-to-$200 an hour.

An Associate’s Degree Can Be Very Valuable

There are many professions that will hire you with only an associate’s degree. Many of those in health care, like Certified Nurse Assistants and dental hygienists, have associate’s degrees that come with skills training. If you ever decide you want to further your education after that, your employer will often help. Even if they don’t, you can use your working years to save up money to advance your education, without going deep into debt.

Not everyone thrives in a college setting. If you’re more interested in learning a unique skill and getting to work, there’s plenty of demand. It can make more sense to get the proper training and start earning money faster.

How to Choose the Right University

For others, though, a four-year degree still makes sense. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of value in a traditional college education. However, you need to do some careful planning and make intelligent decisions about how to get one. For example, if you’re planning to get an arts degree (where high career salaries aren’t exactly guaranteed), it doesn’t make sense to get it from a super expensive school. You’ll just end up in more debt. On the other hand, a STEM degree from a prestigious school like MIT has much more value.

Let’s go back to my friend with the unused psychology degree from NYU. If her family didn’t fund her education, she would be straddled with six figures of student debt right now. It’s a very real possibility that she would be financial ruin right now. Before you jump into any program (at any school) with both feet, stop and do some research first. Figure out how much debt you’re going to need to complete your studies. Compare that number to the expected starting salaries of recent grads in your chosen field.

One good rule of thumb, according to education expert Mark Kantrowitz, is to keep your student debt level below what you can expect for your starting salary. Don’t end up $250,000 in debt just to make $45,000 a year.

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Learning Can Be Free (Or At Least Cheap)

Remember that learning doesn’t have to come with a price tag. Thanks to the internet, it’s possible to use open courseware to learn about almost anything from schools like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford. If you’re interested in knowledge that will help you with a business or for your edification, then there’s no need to pay for it.

I’m actually interested in learning about Rust and Solidity. They are two programming languages used to build applications on the blockchain technology. While I’m not really trying to find new work in the space, I want to at least be able to build basic applications. I believe that’s the future and I’m genuinely interested in how it all works. The good news for me is that instead of some four-year commitment, there are plenty of online courses I can choose from that will teach me what I need to know. They are all under $20 too.

Unfortunately, these cheaper alternatives don’t come with a fancy piece of paper to frame on your office wall. Still, you might be surprised at how much you can learn without paying thousands.

Know What You Want to Do

Let’s get back to you for a minute. How do you figure out what your own path should be?

Your first step is to figure out what you want to do, and then decide how to best accomplish your goals. If you know that you want to be a lawyer, then you know that you’ll have to get a four-year degree, go to law school for another three years, and then pass the bar. If you want to be a technician in radiology, you might only need to start out with a two-year degree. Additionally, there are a number of skilled jobs, from welding to dental assisting, that can be done after going through a certification program.

There is no reason to go to a four-year school if a vocational school will help you accomplish your career goals. Attend the appropriate school and you’ll waste fewer education dollars. You’ll also start earning money earlier. Spending two years to get the right certifications is much shorter than spending four years in college first, only to still need the extra training once your graduate.

Consider Public Universities and Other Options

If you decide that you truly need to get a four-year school, that’s perfectly okay. However, make sure you consider all of your options. Private schools aren’t the only way to success. Many public universities offer lower tuition rates. This can save you money and reduce the need for student loans, while still providing you with a good education.

You may also be happy to learn that many successful students start out at a community college before moving to finish at a four-year school. If you know that you’ll go on to graduate school, there isn’t a lot of added value in attending an expensive Ivy League institution to start. If you do well at a public university, you can get into a more prestigious school later.

I once met someone who graduated with a Harvard MBA. We talked for hours but I have no idea where she went for her undergraduate studies. But who cares, right? The gal is a Harvard MBA, so what else matters?

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Make the Best of Your Opportunities

There are many advantages of going to smaller university. Maybe you can participate in student government or get to know the professors on a more personal level. If you go to a big, prestigious college, it can be tougher. You better be a legitimate genius if you want to get letters of recommendation from those professors before you graduate. In some cases, you may not even get a chance to be involved with anything that can boost your resume, since the competition can be very stiff.

It’s much easier to get involved in a smaller university. For the self-initiated, it can mean having experience that will help get their foot into the door of a great grad school or even a hard-to-get scholarship. Also, having less competition means that the interviewers will give you a better look for internships and foreign study experiences. All of that can boost your employability after you’re finished school.

Saving Money in College

Don’t forget that saving money always goes a long way, no matter what your current circumstances are. Every dollar matters, whether it’s on your cell phone bill or your food costs. If you need to get a part time job, then be smart about the jobs you take. Make sure you will still have time for studying.

Look for student discounts at local grocery stores. Watch for good deals on other things too, like housing and entertainment. Seriously consider having roommates, since housing is one of the biggest expenses you’ll incur while at college. Taking a campus job, like being a Residence Advisor or working in the college cafeteria, is a great way to earn some extra money without having to commute very far. In fact, the former can give you free student housing and the latter can mean cheap (or free) meals. I work with a writer who actually did both jobs as an undergrad. She essentially had housing and food costs of $0 per year until she graduated.

Location Matters

If two options seem equally attractive, make sure to look into the living costs of those respective options. Let me tell you, the cost of living in New York City is much different than living in, say, Syracuse, New York.

If possible, see if you can get the education you need while still being close to family. For youngsters, living at home through school will save you a ton. Even renting a room from an uncle or cousin might be cheaper than getting your own place. If nothing else, mooching the odd free (and home cooked) meal from nearby family will improve your quality of life (and quality of diet).

The Bottom Line

A four-year college degree seems to be the default these days. However, it’s not the only path to a better education (and therefore, higher earnings). You really just need to figure out what you want to do. If you’re not careful, it’s far too easy to get deep into debt for a degree that isn’t exactly useful. Why pay tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars for something you don’t end up using?

Once you decide what you want to do, figure out the best way to get there. It might mean a four-year degree. But two years of community college might suffice in some cases. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with going to a community college first and then moving onto a more prestigious college to finish your degree. Or getting your undergrad for cheap, but applying to an Ivy League for grad school.

If you plan ahead, you’ll be able to get the best value for your education dollar. Otherwise, you might be like my friend and waste six figures on a useless degree. At least her family could afford it! But can you?

David Ning

Experienced Finance Writer

David is a published author, entrepreneur and a proud dad. He firmly believes that anyone can build a solid financial foundation as long as they are willing to learn. He runs MoneyNing.com, where he discusses every day money issues to encourage the masses to think about their finances more often.

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