You can get a higher education without massive debt. Here's how.
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Long gone are the days when you could expect to leave high school, strive for a certificate in a specific field, and expect that your chosen career would set you up for life. This may have been true between 1950 and 1980. But now, in the 21st century, you must carefully evaluate whether the higher education you are considering is truly worthwhile. As higher education costs continue to soar, the return on this investment could be lower than anticipated.

Expectations versus costs

All parents want their children to find long-term success. In fact, a study by Pew Research shows that 94 percent of parents want their children to attend college. Parents expect that a college education will help their child secure a better job. However, in today’s market, parents are confronted with what is known as “diploma inflation.” For example, a certain job that formerly required a Master’s degree today requires a PhD. It is estimated that as we move into 2018, 60 percent of job seekers may require an advanced degree to secure a position. Of course, this degree often comes at a steep cost.

As the costs rise, students graduating from college are facing mounting debt. As of 2015, 68 percent of students graduating from a nonprofit or public college owed $30,100 in debt. This statistic is troubling, particularly when many students are full time and are often in school because that is the route their parents encouraged.

In some cases, students who are uncertain about what they want to do should reconsider automatically attending a four year institution. For some students, working, going to community college, and giving themselves time to decide what path they are interested in following could be a better option. After all, living with family and working part or full time allows the possibility of taking classes at community college while earning a living. This also means students can better weigh the costs of a degree with the potential income they will earn once they have secured that degree.

The future of the job market

The new president has indicated his intention to focus on bringing jobs, both in manufacturing and energy, back to the United States. However, this may bring its own challenges, including a shortage of skilled workers. In fact, according to Deloitte, even if we do succeed in creating 3.5 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade, we are likely to fall short on the number of trained workers needed to fill them by nearly 2 million. This is despite the fact that more than two-thirds of manufacturing company executives indicate a willingness to pay higher than market wages for the right skills.

Even those workers with the right skills are not exempt from potential problems gaining and keeping employment as more and more companies are turning to automation. The reason for this is simple: automation means higher production levels are possible without the higher payroll costs. Because more companies are seeking specialized skills and are cutting back on training programs, it may be nearly impossible to close the gap between those who are looking for work and those employers who are seeking employees.

When college is the best option

Those who have decided that getting a college degree is the best option should look at ways to reduce the cost of their education. Some of these include advanced classes, community or alternative campus, in-state college, and study abroad options.

Those who take advanced classes in high school can often eliminate one or two years of the time it takes to finish a degree. However, this option might not always pay off. Many AP classes are not required, and some universities might only recognize the credits as electives.

Avoiding living on the main campus of a college or opting to go to community college first can save thousands of dollars in educational costs. This is a great option for those who live nearby to a university or community college, or who have friends or family living nearby. The more you can save on living expenses, the less you may have to borrow to pay for your basic education.

It is possible to save as much as 50 percent of education costs by remaining in-state. During the 2014 to 2015 school year, out-of-state students paid an average of $34,031 per year, while in-state students paid $19,548.

While you must carefully review the options for transferring credits, it is possible to study abroad for cheap and gain some priceless experience in the process. In some instances, students who opt to study abroad may have the option to pay as little as $10,000 per year for their education.

Parents and students who are considering college should explore the various opportunities before deciding on their best course of action. Make sure your family has an open discussion about the long-term financial burdens that may be associated with a college education, and make sure you are educated on the options available to you to reduce that burden. College can be the launching point for your lifelong career, but it shouldn't come at the steep price of decades of student debt.

Ash Toumayants is the founder and president of Strong Tower Associates, a Pennsylvania-based financial and retirement planning firm. His commentary has appeared in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and Financial Advisor.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.