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Are you looking for tools to help your child(ren)
decide on a college major or career?
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Articles for parents by Carol Christen
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Student loans, for academic or technical colleges, aren't "free money." Typically, loan repayment begins four months after you leave school. If students borrow more than two-thirds of their likely starting salary, they won't be able to pay their bills, much less afford a place of their own. Many young workers have been surprised by how negatively debt has affected their lives. Over 40% of students who borrowed money for their higher education didn't think the debt was worth it. You can find out more by doing an Internet search using the phrase "student loan debt."

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Considering College

Carol ChristenMy name is Carol Christen. EUREKA has asked me to write a column for parents based on research and ideas from my book, What Color Is Your Parachute? For Teens. As parents have a big influence on their children's career choices, I am delighted to do so.

Most people in the U.S. consider themselves savvy consumers. They shop the Internet or check out different stores for a bargain with the best features. While home ownership is often proclaimed to be the biggest expense of one's life, a college degree can cost more than buying a house, especially if student loans and the interest charged for them are added into the equation. Debt, both from student loans and credit card borrowing has become a huge issue for today's young adults.

A Bachelor's degree can cost from $50,000 to well over $100,000. Graduate school may cost between $40,000 and $85,000 a year. A college education may be the most expensive product your child will ever buy. And, if your teen over-borrows or doesn't make sure that what they are studying in college will give them a good return on their investment, they may never be able to afford the golden ring of the American Dream—owning a home.

The bottom line is this: an undergraduate education should not leave your son or daughter heavily in debt. Too much debt limits both options and quality of life. Applying consumer smarts becomes extremely important when making plans for higher education.

Help your teen answer these 5 questions. The answers will help them create a realistic plan for what to do after they graduate from high school.

  1. Do they need a degree? Additional education or training after high school is needed for 60% of today's jobs. Yet, less than 20% of those jobs require a bachelor's degree. Of course, there are jobs for which a Bachelor's degree is essential. Does your son or daughter want one of those jobs? Have they job shadowed or had an internship to make sure they really know what this kind of work is like?
    Don't assume that a university degree will make your child more employable. If you are wrong, tens of thousands of dollars and several years of your child's life will be wasted. Help your teen meet and talk with a half dozen people doing the work they want to do. Find out from if a college degree is necessary.
    If it is, these contacts may know colleges that have exceptional departments or programs.
    Also, don't assume that all college degrees are of equal worth in the job market. Starting salaries for chemical engineers are nearly $30,000 higher than those for philosophy majors.
  2. What can you or your teen afford? Nationwide, only 32% of college students graduate in four years; 56% graduate in six years. If your student needs to work—85% of college students do—or can't get the right classes for graduation, they may spend more than 4 years getting an undergraduate degree. Stretch resources by encouraging your teen to attend a community or less costly state college first and then transferring to complete their major. Even better, help your teen learn an in demand trade while in high school that can them and their studies without over-borrowing.
  3. Can over-borrowing be avoided? The average grad has over $21,000 in student loans and more than $3000 charged on credit cards. (Interestingly enough, young adults not in school have about the same amount of credit card debt) Private loans can push debt load even higher. One in three grads leaves college in serious financial difficulty. Limit total borrowing to no more than 2/3rds of likely starting salary, or your son or daughter won't be able to pay your bills. Being heavily in debt is not only stressful, but it can limit job and graduate school options.

    Research shows that students over-estimate likely starting salaries and underestimate education costs. Help your teen develop a realistic budget by learning what the jobs they most want to have really pay. If your son or daughter wants to live in a certain area, make sure they know the salaries where they hope to live. Supply and demand greatly effect starting salaries.
  4. Which schools have value-added programs? Employers hire candidates that can quickly become productive. Internships, co-op education, service learning, campus chapters of professional organizations, study and working abroad all increase employability. If your student wants to work at a campus radio station, newspaper or other cool position to add to their employability, remember these opportunities are much harder to get at big-name schools.
  5. Who has the best support programs? Being away from home is so exciting. It can also be overwhelming living 24/7 with strangers whose habits and values are so different from those of your child. Sharing a postage stamp sized room with someone is challenging. Look for schools with strong Student or Residential Life programs that teach time management, setting priorities, study skills, conflict resolution and give an overview to campus leadership and team-building opportunities or clubs.

    Also, check out career centers. If your son or daughter hasn't a clue what work they want to do after you graduate or want to have a job before they graduate (highly recommended), they will need help from a competent career counselor. Some college career centers work well with students who know what they want to do, but are less effective with students who don't have any idea what work would interest them. Ultimately, finding a job that uses your child's education and interests will be their responsibility. As just 33% of current college grads are getting jobs that use their level of education, this isn't always an easy task.
Carol Christen is a veteran career strategist and author of What Color Is Your Parachute? for Teens. Carol has spent several years researching the new generation of workers as they enter the economic marketplace of the early 21st century. Learn more about her work at