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Maybe you shouldn't go to college

While college may be 'the ticket to the middle class,' it might not be the right choice -- right now.

By Donna_Freedman Jan 17, 2013 12:57PM

Image: College graduate (Corbis)Paula Wethington, who blogs at Monroe On A Budget, made a pretty bold statement recently: "If you have no idea what to study, do not sign up for college classes."

I agree.

But my kid's guidance counselor said everyone should go to college! And MSN Money columnist Liz Weston calls college "the ticket to the middle class." 


Won't my kid be doomed to a lifetime of financial struggle if he doesn't get a degree?

Relax. Wethington isn't saying kids shouldn’t go -- only that they shouldn't go without a plan.

Flailing around aimlessly means extra time in school. It may mean lots of extra time, according to Complete College America

  • Associate-degree students take an average of 3.8 years full-time and five years part-time to finish what should be a two-year program.
  • Bachelor's-degree students take 4.7 years full-time and 5.6 years part-time to finish what should be a four-year program.

In part that's because some students are juggling work and/or family responsibilities with classes. Another part of the equation, Wethington notes, is "a lack of academic direction that result in students taking too many unrelated classes," and a lack of support for at-risk enrollees.

More time in school means scholarship and grant sources getting used up and maybe extra loans taken out. Students are on the hook for those loans whether or not they have jobs -- or even degrees -- when they stop attending.

I completely agree with Liz that college improves your chances at employment and at increased lifetime earnings. However, you need to be very aware of how your kid's education is going -- or not going.

Put some conditions on that money

Not everyone is ready for a four-year program. Two years at a community college can be a good idea, because it lets your kid take care of core courses at a cheaper rate with an eye toward finishing elsewhere. (Make sure the credits are transferable, though.)

If your teen isn't sure of a career path, there's a chance that during those two years he'll get some idea of what he's good at/what he loves. I once interviewed a woman who began college in her early 30s without a solid idea of what she wanted to do. She now has a PhD and chairs a department at a prestigious university.

The important thing is to set a deadline instead of watching your kid noodle around for five years. Be very clear about how much you are willing to pay. Look for a college loan repayment calculator online and run some sample numbers. Does Junior want to pay off hundreds of dollars a month in loans if he isn't sure he will even have a job when he stops going to school?

College may not be the answer

That is, assuming he wants to start. The military, a stint in the trades or an application to the AmeriCorps service program are all possibilities if your kid isn't gung-ho on a specific course of study or is not quite mature enough to tackle an undergraduate degree.

Remember, too, that not everyone is cut out for college. A friend's son dropped out of a state university after a couple of weeks, apologizing to his parents but reminding them that he was never good in school. He told them he was more interested in work than in study.

They agreed to let him live at home rent-free as long as he had a job. The teen took as many hours as possible at his fast-food gig while looking for a long-term strategy. He found it, too: the plumbers and pipefitters union, where he is currently busting his butt, making incredibly good money and thinking about investing in rental properties.

This guy isn't even 21 yet, but he made what I think is a very smart choice -- with help from his parents. Be there for your own kids. Help them make decisions that play to their strengths, whether that's a four-year school, community college or a year off while working as many hours as possible.

If you can help financially, that's great. Don't let helping become enabling, though. My personal suggestion would be laying down the law: You must attend school full-time or work at least 30 hours a week if attending only part-time. I love you too much to let you extend your adolescence indefinitely.

That's tough love. But it's a tough world out there, kids. Get used to it.

Did you/are you paying for college? Do you have any specific conditions regarding courses of study or exit strategies?

More on MSN Money:

Jan 18, 2013 1:57PM

My father was set on me going to college.  I didn't last three weeks.  I hated living in a dorm with a bunch of crazy teenagers and I was used to working as many hours as I could and saving my money.  My parents agreed with me talking a year off.  I got a full time and part time job and pushed off school further.  I ended up deciding to start a business which I did, 17 years ago.  I am not rich but I make a living.


School can be overrated.  It is a waste of money if you have no direction. 


Some of my friends never went to college but instead took trade courses and earned certificates for practicle fields.  A heating and cooling repair guy can make good money,  my lawn man (who is always smiling) makes $50,000 a year only working 6 months out of the year.

Jan 18, 2013 11:17AM
in other words, no plan - no results. 
Jan 18, 2013 10:51AM

We always told our kids to pick a state college in our state.  It worked very well, was affordable and they got a quality education.  My daughter is now getting her PhD in April and my other daughter teaches and has a full-time job also... 

Jan 17, 2013 8:39PM
Great post, Donna.  I went to a well known college, got my degree, and have been happy working in the field I studied.  But my wife did not go to college.  Six years after marriage, she quit the work she hated and went to nursing school, and has had a great, well-paid, solid career.

So when our son got out of HS, he went to a big university, and, not knowing what to do, he underwhelmed.  We encouraged him not to waste his time and our money.  A couple of years and many pizza deliveries later, he settled on a 2 year computer school, and is happy and at least moderately prosperous.

So I agree---education is important, but the plan is crucial.  BTW, my son had money left over from his college fund for a down payment on his first house.
Jan 18, 2013 9:51AM

I completely agree. When my daughter went to college, she had two choices. One was a public university that had offered scholarships to cover tuition and room and board, the other a very expensive private college. She did have a plan - and knew what she wanted to study and actually got a degree in that subject.


Back to our conversation over which college to choose. We knew from her reaction to her visits to both institutions, that although the offer was better at the public university, that she would be unhappy there, and most likely would dropout and come home without a degree. So before we had the discussion with her father and I had discussed the situation and presented this deal: we would pay for the expensive private college, but she had to finish within 4 years, it wasn't going to be a 5 or 6 year plan. She understood, and with that in mind planned her schedule accordingly, getting all of the general education requirements fininshed in her first two years, leaving the last two to fully concentrate and enjoy what she went to college for.


So parents - do not send your kids to college to find themselves! They should know what they want before they go.

Jan 19, 2013 12:01PM
I think that everyone can do something for their child, whether it is letting them live at home, helping with a car, books, any little thing could give them a really good start in life.  Wish someone had done it for me...
Jan 20, 2013 3:56PM
I disagree.  My MIL agrees with you.

I didn't take classes in my major until I was a sophomore (when I took the gen-ed and decided o major in it).  I didn't have the slightest clue what career I was going to embark on when I started college.  College helped me figure that out.  I went to a four-year small liberal arts college to get an education, not to get job credentials.

However, that's an upper-middle class luxury.  I was going to do fine no matter what my major.  I was going to graduate in four years no matter what.  (And given my credits going into school, I could have graduated in 3 years, but chose not to.)

Many people don't work in anything related to their major, and that's fine.  The college degree still has value
Jan 20, 2013 4:15PM
Education is great.....IF you are lucky enough to be able to go. I was/am not that lucky. I ended up in a trade school and now I have been out of work for 2 years. I studied mechanics and dealership management. This is a skill which should ALWAYS have job openings.....I have found an interesting paradox in the "new age"  even mechanics are being asked for a 4 year degree. In the mean time, those of us who can not go back to school (can not get loans/grants) are now stuck with massive amounts of real world knowledge and experience that is absolutely useless.

The real issue for kids going to school is to try and figure out what is going to be the next thing in the 4 years they go to school. Right now I know logistics is in a desperate struggle to find people, so much so that they are actively trying to recruit military personnel. What about in 2 years? will it switch to composite engineering? Maybe infrastructure diagnostics?

Yes you must have a plan, but at the same time you need to be able to turn 180 degrees on a dime to go with the fields that have work.

If I could I would go back to school, even at 37 I still can learn........not sure what at this point, but something.    
Jan 19, 2013 5:19PM

It`s all about having a major you like.I know lots of people that couldn`t find their nitch

and the councilors just wanted them to get advanced degrees so they could work

at the universities for another 20 years and retire.A degree doesn`t always work out.Now

it costs $100,000.In France college is free because the government knows that you

will plenty more in taxes in your career.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.