This unedited article originally appeared April 29, 2013, in the Colby (KS) Free Press:
If the latest postal deliveries have not made it apparent to your household, allow me to inform you that the season for commencement exercises – graduation – has come and gone. For high school graduates and their parents, this now means turning to next steps and potentially the pursuit of post-secondary education. I realize that the college decision, where and when to go, has already been made for many of these young people. However, I wanted to pass along some advice to current and future graduates as well as their parents. What I share with you is simple advice from someone who has spent his adult life within the walls of an educational institution and has two college-age sons. The issues I share remain in the forefront of my mind. These are my observations, based on personal experiences, but I hope that they will prove beneficial to you. Consider these, then, graduates and all interested parties – before you embark on the college journey:
Choose an institution of higher learning based on economics, programs, and opportunities, not simply name recognition. Our state has a number of high quality institutions, two-year and four-year, public and private. You have options. Before you make a final decision, do your homework. Find out the cost of attendance – is the investment reasonable/affordable? How will you pay for college? Further, does the institution you choose have the educational program that you seek? What opportunities inside and outside of the classroom does a particular institution provide? What I have found is that too often students choose a college based on a feeling or reputation and do not consider the many alternatives.
Obviously, I would like every student to choose our college – that is not a realistic position. It also may not be in every student’s best interest. But before someone heads off to a four-year institution and by-passes a two-year college, affordability and opportunity need to be considered carefully. Why pay more to receive the same (or arguably better) instruction? If and when it comes time to choose a four-year institution, I likewise encourage potential students to look at all of the institutions across the state. UK, Louisville and WKU are fine institutions – but so are Northern Kentucky, Morehead State, and the other regional universities. We even have some excellent private colleges throughout Kentucky. Some of these may be quite distant from home – then again, they may have the program that you really need for your desired vocation. Do not dismiss these schools without first inquiring about them.
Apply for all scholarships and grants for which you qualify. Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine if you are eligible for grant money which is not subject to repayment. Likewise, most institutions will have a complete list of all scholarships and a common scholarship application – meaning, you apply for all scholarships for which you are eligible at one time. No doubt you have heard how some scholarships go unclaimed every year. Unlike some internet rumors, this is no urban legend. I remember receiving a scholarship while in graduate school – my advisor told me to apply though I barely met the minimum requirements. I was the only person who applied and received the $500, which was huge for a poor graduate student. There really are many scholarship opportunities out there, including those offered through private foundations and businesses. They are not concerned solely with academic achievement, either – just ask and follow through.
Accept only the least amount in student loans that you need to complete your education. You do not need a new vehicle, you do not have to eat fast food every day, and you do not have to move away. Too many students borrow the maximum amount possible as a student and later find themselves struggling to make payments on those loans. Today, an undergraduate student can borrow more than $50,000 in subsidized and unsubsidized student loans – that is a house! If you enter a field that does not have strong salary earning potential, repayment can be very difficult. And you cannot simply quit repaying loans once they come due. If you default on student loans, it will not only ruin your future credit but wages can be garnished. Simply put, sacrifice and keep the loans to the bare minimum.
If you cannot live at home while in college, choose to live on-campus – at least initially. When students live on-campus, they have fewer worries (like cooking, security or transportation). They also tend to become more involved with student activities. Most importantly, they save money. At regional universities, student housing costs are around $10,000 a year for room and board. That equates to around $1000 per month. Where else can you pay rent, utilities, food and cover transportation costs for that amount (and live in a relatively clean and safe environment)? And you do not have to live in the newest, fanciest residence hall, either. Most of your time will be spent in class or with friends, so choose wisely; all rooms look the same once you close your eyes at night. Admittedly, you may have a roommate – but that also helps prepare you to cooperate with others, an important though under-emphasized skill in the “real world.” Living on-campus, especially in a new place, is very beneficial.
Finally, working while in college is good, often necessary, but it should be reasonable. My advice is to keep work hours, during the school year, to 25 hours or less per week. (I understand for some that is impossible and applaud those who balance work, family, and other responsibilities.) For full-time students, a normal class load is around 15 hours per term. The rule of thumb should be that for every hour in class, you need to be prepared to spend at least two hours outside of class. That is 45 hours, which is a little more than six hours a day during the week. When you consider school work with all of the other activities associated with life, time becomes scarce. When students spend too much time in outside employment, class performance tends to suffer. That defeats the purpose of attending college in the first place. I worked during college – I needed the money. But I also learned on a few occasions how working too many hours negatively impacted my studies. Do not make that same mistake.
There are many more items that I could share – and my colleagues in higher education would probably have some additions of their own. For the graduates and their families, make wise choices based on good information. College can be one of the best times in life. It was for me. (Notice that I still have not left higher education.) But there are also challenges that lie ahead. Do not find yourself at the wrong college, in the wrong program, with the wrong priorities, all the while struggling financially to survive. With the right decisions and a little sacrifice, college can be everything you need – and maybe even all you want.