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How Can Your College Choices Affect Your Career?

In the long run, planning your career (which includes the certificate programs and degrees you need), can make a big difference. Timing counts for a lot in life, so your career progress can be slowed down by doing the right thing at the wrong time. When the time comes for a person to choose a college, the decision can often be dominated by this line of reasoning – “The more prestigious the school I attend, the larger the paycheck will be after I graduate.”

However, this formula doesn’t always work. Guided by this, parents try to get their children into the best possible college, thinking that they are maximizing future earnings if they’re paying more tuition now. Things aren’t that simple and certain, and graduates can eventually be left with more debt than necessary after they finish school.

Everything depends on the field of work

Having a diploma from a prestigious school doesn’t make a difference in some fields, while in others it can boost future earnings. In example, for fields like engineering, technology, math and science, it doesn’t matter whether students go to an expensive and prestigious school or a low-priced one, while liberal arts and business majors can benefit from their school’s prestige (and have different expectations regarding their future earnings).

When does prestige matter?

A 2015 study published in Contemporary Economic Policy was conducted with the aim of analyzing “how earnings by college majors differ at different selectivity types of colleges”, as well as to “investigate the relative roles of major-specific earnings and the distribution of college majors at different types of college in accounting for earnings differences by college selectivity type.” More than 7,000 college graduates that graduated 10 years before participated in the study, in which the majors were divided into categories: humanities, business, education, social science, science, and other. As for the college type, the 3 broad classifications were: selective (highly competitive and elite schools), mid-tier, and less selective.

The results showed that, for STEM-related majors (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), the average earnings don’t differ that much among these college categories, because the skills students acquire in these fields are more important than prestige. The body of knowledge that students must absorb is commonly accepted, and curriculums are relatively standardized. If a student wants a good salary after graduation (in this area of work), he or she doesn’t need to attend a prestigious school.

For many families, tuition costs matter a lot. They choose less-costly schools because the debt they’d be left with afterwards won’t be as high as with a prestigious college. For example, the difference in salary with a degree from the Texas A&M instead of the University of Pennsylvania would differ by no more than $1,000. However, the tuition difference would be over $150,000. On the other hand, business graduates from selective institutions earn 18% more than graduates from less-selective colleges and 12% more than midtier graduates (on average).

Why the disparities?

There are different, valid explanations for these disparities. In business, it’s not just about the knowledge and skills, but the connections with potential employers and alumni networks – prestigious schools offer better connections, university resources, faculty, and access to more advanced and quality graduate programs. If one wants to major in economics or business, and will benefit more financially after graduation, then deciding to invest more or seeking help with university admissions is a good step towards a better financial future.

No guarantees

There are no guarantees that students will be able to get the major they want, even if they manage to get into their chosen school. Some majors are at high-demand, which means that a student has to go through another selection process after being admitted to the school. A big part of the admission process are the grades in prerequisite courses, so students should consider the odds of being accepted to the program by looking at their record.

Many students also aim for an undergraduate degree, because it gives them the option to pursue a particular graduate-school program afterwards. For example, if a student wishes to go to law school, he or she may choose to study liberal arts as a form of preparation (thus, they’re not concerned about their potential earnings with an undergraduate liberal arts degree).

The burden that students will be carrying goes beyond just monetary benefits and costs, and it’s important to bear that in mind. However, spending time around new peers, experiencing campus, and living alone for the first time are the emotional benefits of school which some students find more important than the financial rewards.

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