Every week over the course of the economic downturn, it seems media has reported another story about college graduates either out of work or working in less lucrative fields than for which they studied. Still other stories have reported on graduates struggling to pay back debt accumulated over the course of their education.

But forearmed with a strategy and awareness, students can still get the education they need and can afford, and put themselves in the best position for the career they want.

Early Start

It’s never too early to start planning for the education one wants, and these days high schools have vastly more resources to help in the process than they did years ago.

“A lot of times we don’t start the process when they’re seniors,” says veteran Broken Arrow High School counselor Jo Trigalet.

“We know them, we see them as sophomores and get it going. By the time students are in their senior year, they’ve had a chance to develop some of their interests and we discuss them.”

Trigalet says that students have different perspectives when they begin considering their educational and career ambitions. Some know that they want to go to college and even exactly where. Others know what career interests them but don’t know the specific education track necessary. Some know what they want to do, but are unsure of where to go to school because they know they can’t easily afford it.

But post-high school isn’t always about going off to a four-year college or even going to college at all. Instead, community college and vocational/trade schools might be the right choice.

“We use a lot of online resources, which are terrific and which start with very basic questions about what a student wants – about how they want to live their lives,” Trigalet says.

Students are asked some very basic questions to start.

“When you get up in the morning, do you want to go to work inside or outside; work with people or work with things?” Trigalet cites as examples.

Using the online resources, students continue answering questions about their preferences and interests, which then hones down suggested fields of study and employment. Afterward, additional resources help counselors working with students explore options on how to acquire the education and training needed for the career that they want. Also considered is the return on investment – how much the appropriate education might cost, particularly in terms of debt, compared with earning expectations. Variables such as cost of living relative to the part of the country a student wants to live in and scaled income expectations are even considered.

“There are a lot more resources available now than there were in the past,” Trigalet says.

Students who do enter college these days appear to be better prepared than in the past, and there are advantages to that.

“In my opinion, more students today are coming in with ideas of what they want to do,” says Jason Jessie, Northeastern State University interim assistant executive director of Enrollment Management.

“When you get up in the morning, do you want to go to work inside or outside; work with people or work with things?”

“They might not end up doing it, but they at least have it narrowed down to one or two things.”

The advantage is that some study programs require students to begin preliminary coursework in year one.

“Students who want to study music, for example, have to hit the ground running,” Jessie says.

Chris Campbell, Oklahoma State University assistant director of University Academic Studies, also cites business and engineering as education/career paths that require an early start on core classes.

“Some students might end up (pursuing their major) already behind; but most majors aren’t quite that crazy,” Campbell says. “We try to find out what a student has thought about in terms of a career and I’m then going to look at the possibility with the most restrictive degree program first. Later we look at a student’s strengths and weaknesses, discuss what kind of work environment they want, etc. Our goal is by the end of the first semester with undecided students, to try to identify two or three ways they may end up going and then look at the degree sheets to see what they need to do.”

The Big Decision

The biggest decision a student makes is his major. It dictates both a course of study and, later, career. While some students will arrive on campus with their own personal courses already in mind and perhaps having been helped along the way by high school and college recruitment/admissions staff, many others are not.

Academic and career advisors work closely with students throughout the school experience, helping them make decisions, and then charting out the course to the degree and eventual career they want. This is a highly personalized process and incorporates terrific online and university resources. Campus advisors say there is no set time for when a student needs to have a decision made. It depends entirely on the chosen academic and career track desired, although there are clearly advantages to making the “right” decision as early as possible to make sure a student is as well prepared as possible to graduate and then begin to build a career or continue with advanced education.

“Most 18-year-olds don’t know what they want to do,” says Pam Ehlers, director of Career Services at Oklahoma State University.
Handily, some things a student can do to help decide his personal path also benefit him in pursuing a career.

“They should get involved,” Ehlers says. “They benefit from going to work. Regardless of major, they learn skills that employers want – soft skills and interpersonal skills. Parents often say they don’t want their kid to work in the first semester. I think they should. Students who work in school do better academically.”

Getting involved in campus and community and working also help students determine what interests them.

“Most 18-year-olds don’t know what they want to do.”

Students who don’t decide on a path through school to a chosen career until their senior year are at a disadvantage, says Gayle Anderson, Northeastern State University coordinator of Career Services.

“We tell students that they need to start before they have their degrees,” Anderson says. “Ninety-eight percent of students that come to our office have graduated or are in their final semester. They come here for resume review and assistance, and to register for job announcements. But some employers require an internship and others are looking for experience.”

Anderson says that certain tracks have specific needs. Aspiring accountants need to maintain a high GPA for example to be considered by many major employers, while criminal justice majors must make sure to be drug-free for at least two years.

“Students need to watch their credit, which many employers check these days,” she says. “They also need to keep their electronic social footprint clean. Students need to think about these things now rather than make it hard for them to be employed by their dream employer. A lot of students don’t think about these things. They just want to have a good time, which can hurt them.”

Footing The Bill

Requests for financial aid, and for increased amounts, have risen in recent years, according to faculty at Oklahoma universities and colleges. Meanwhile many recent graduates find themselves saddled with debt that is impossible to deal with in today’s work environment and economy.

Meanwhile, federal funding could be drying up.

“While the Federal Pell Grant remained at 2010-2011 levels for 2011-2012, we are concerned about Pell Grant funding in the future,” says Matt Hamilton, vice president and registrar of Enrollment and Student Financial Services at the University of Oklahoma.

“Though nothing is final yet, both sides of the aisle in Congress have proposals that cut Pell Grant spending which would impact our neediest students. These potential cuts are in addition to the fact that Academic Competiveness Grants and Smart Grants have been discontinued.”

Oklahoma State University senior director of Scholarships and Financial Aid Charles Bruce agrees diminishing federal funding is a challenge, but that Oklahoma hasn’t cut state programs.

“We’ve been able to maintain a fairly significant tuition waiver program and we have had more scholarship money to award,” Bruce says.
Some universities are also adopting innovations to help students identify and apply for aid.

“The Sooner Heritage and Common OU Scholarship Application is a new online application for the 2011-2012 academic year,” Hamilton says. “By filling out the one application, students are actually applying for thousands of scholarships awarded by the University of Oklahoma.”

Hamilton also says that OU’s Financial Education & Counseling Center (FEd) was established to provide OU students free information about managing their finances and the resources they will need to graduate with as little debt as possible. It is difficult to leave college without taking on student loan debt.

“The FEd helps students create a plan so that they can budget their finances and contemplate whether or how much debt to incur,” says Hamilton.

Today, more than ever before, university faculty works with students to examine carefully the return on their education investment – how much debt is appropriate or manageable relative to the earning potential of the career the student is pursuing.

“It is absolutely discussed today,” Bruce says. “Five years ago, it wasn’t. Some institutions are asking parents of students if they can even afford to attend the school; and other times it’s obvious looking at the financials.”

Jessie agrees that the cost of an education is more a factor today than it previously was.

“Students need to ask, ‘If I want this career, do I rack up a lot of debt to do it,’” he says. “That’s something even we as a university have begun to question.”

Although some counseling resources may cite specific numbers or a formula to determine return on investment, it too should be a factor to consider on an individual basis, but with financial prudence. After all, advisors point out, to many employers a degree is a pre-requisite but it doesn’t matter what the degree is in. Others cite the long-term earning potential differential.

But clearly, education expense – primarily loans – is a serious factor for students as they plan their major and career path.

“At what point does the cost of a degree exceed (the return on the investment) – it has to be considered,” Jessie says.

Few expect the economic and job landscape to change dramatically anytime soon, meaning such financial factors will continue to be significant in students’ decision making.

“You just hope the dream is possible,” Bruce says. “These are people’s dreams.”

Education for the Working Adult

Students seeking degrees of all types are a more diverse group than in the past and this includes many full-time employed adults working either to complete their initial degree or an additional or graduate degree.

Fortunately, there are also more alternative options for working students today in Oklahoma.

“Working students who wish to pursue a graduate degree will find a broad array of programs adapted to their needs,” says Janis M. Paul, University of Oklahoma associate dean of the Graduate College.

“Many on-campus programs, such as those in the Colleges of Business and Education, serve working professionals as their core population, and their degree requirements are designed to accommodate the schedules and needs of their students.

“The College of Liberal Studies offers graduate programs in online, self-paced, and on-site formats, providing flexible delivery options designed for working adults.”

Generally, universities have greatly expanded their offerings to students with full-time jobs and other responsibilities that make the traditional college experience impossible.

Northeastern State University, for example, just opened its College of Extended Learning at its Broken Arrow campus last year.

“Its really intended for students who are finishing degrees or who are working on advanced degrees,” says Jason Jessie, NSU interim assistant executive director, Enrollment Management.

Oklahoma institutions include information on working student programs on their websites and include a range of options from night and weekend classes to accelerated study and online coursework.


The Advanced Degree Option

It’s routine for graduate studies programs to see increased student participation during hard economic times, as some student opt to delay fully investing in the job market and others bank on that advanced degree eventually increasing employability and earning potential.

But pursuing that advanced degree isn’t necessary or even necessarily beneficial for everyone.

“Interest in grad school always increases when the job market decreases and students can’t find a job and don’t want to leave school,” says Pam Ehlers, director of Career Services at Oklahoma State University.

“We do talk about it and want students to consider the additional debt they will take on. Even with a master’s degree, with no real work experience, people are going to have a hard time finding a job. Many times students with a master’s will only be as marketable as if they had a BA.”

In other cases, a master’s degree might not pay off right away, Ehlers says, but it would after five years work experience.

“We discuss looking at a ratio – will grad school lead to enough additional earning potential to compensate for the new debt,” says Chris Campbell, OSU assistant director of University Academic Services.

“Each case has to be evaluated on an individual basis.”

The most important consideration is whether or not an advanced degree is necessary for a student’s chosen career path.

“For many students, pursuing a graduate degree is a desire rather than a necessity,” says Janis M. Paul, University of Oklahoma associate dean of the Graduate College.

“For others, a graduate degree may be necessary for particular professions or career tracks. Students can determine whether a graduate degree is required by investigating the profession they are planning to enter. In addition, individual graduate programs can often inform potential students what educational credentials might be required for a particular area.

“For example, if a student wants to pursue research and teaching in higher education, a graduate degree is usually required, and many business careers require a master’s degree in business administration.”

But even an advanced degree isn’t sufficient to land someone a job in certain fields, even if it’s considered a pre-requisite.
“If you’re looking at an MBA and have no experience in work, you’re not very marketable,” Ehlers says.

Many times students have to address the issue of just that – work – when considering grad school. Employed students or those with a solid offer on the table, or already working, have to look at the nature of the position and their own goals, the experts say.

“If I were giving advice I’d ask what kind of job it is, because I don’t see dramatic improvement coming anytime soon in the job market,” says Campbell. “You might want to go get some experience and make some money.”

Ehlers feels similarly.

“You’ve got the (four-year) degree; you’ll be able to go back to it,” she says. “In this tough job market it might be best to keep a job. See where it goes. Times will change.”

Still the ultimate decision should be based on an individual’s specific goals.

“You should evaluate your career objectives,” says Paul. “If you are currently working, sometimes pursuing a graduate degree offers clear financial rewards or broader opportunities.”


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