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Five Ideas To Help College Students Make It In The Real World

Ways to help college students

If you pay attention to national US news at all, you’ve probably heard that President Obama wants to give everyone free community college. At first glance, this might sound like a great idea. The cost of higher education is beyond reach for many Americans, and anything that make it more accessible and affordable is good, right? My friend Holly wrote a great post about this very topic. She says it better than I can, but in reality, free only means an increase in costs or taxes somewhere else. If the President really wants to help America improve its education system and job prospects without sending students into poverty over student loans, I would suggest putting money into these five ideas to help college students make it in the real world.

Career Counseling

In the US, we are too afraid of calling a spade a spade. We all believe in the American dream where even the most disadvantaged person can go on to become a billionaire. Yes, that does happen, and no we should not discourage anyone from their dreams, but those type stories are few and far between.

I have a friend whose daughter is a pre-med major. She is on her 5th year of undergrad because her GPA is always borderline and she has had to repeat many classes. There is no accredited medical school that is going to accept her because her grades and test scores are just not there.

However, the college still allows her to enroll in pre-med classes every semester. Did I mention that she manages the books for a decent size hotel and has been promoted several times?  I think she will eventually get a biology degree and continue to work in the hotel industry with a good paying job she could have had without getting a college degree.

The job of a college advisor should be to evaluate students and make suggestions based on performance, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. Hard as that reality might seem, degrees that don’t hold any hope of a paying job are about worth the paper they’re printed on. You can learn more here about how to help students make the important decisions before they get to college.

Make General Ed More Useful

I haven’t been in college for a long time, but I do remember lots of fluff in pursuit of a science degree. Things like bowling, first aid, library science, and music appreciation come to mind. These were actually some of my most fun classes but totally useless for my career and earning potential.

Why not make general ed more useful with classes like Budgeting 101, Science of IRA’s and Compound Interest, Nutrition For Life, or Study of Careers and Salaries? I’m sure many classes are applicable for certain degrees, but I just don’t see how paying a credit hour to take bowling helps students in any way.

Shorten Degree Programs

A few colleges are streamlining degree programs so that students can graduate in 3 years instead of the traditional four. Some might argue that the college experience should be savored and enjoyed, but saving a year of tuition and other expenses trumps an extra year of keg stands and sorority mixers. I wish more schools would follow this pattern.

Put A Limit On Student Loans

If students are borrowing money to go to school, I think there should be a cap on the amount of loans available based on the value of the degree program.

What is a degree worth? It might seem arbitrary, but I think it’s fairly easy to look at average salaries for jobs associated with certain programs of study. You should not be able to borrow $100,000 to get a degree in history, even if it’s from Stanford.

Put More Effort Into Educating Students About Financial Decisions

Besides my last year of optometry school, there was never a time when I couldn’t have worked in some sort of part time job. I did work off and on, but relied on loan money to pay most of my bills. I also spent way more than I should have on entertainment and stupid expenses. I could have easily put more of my earned income toward necessary expenses and taken fewer loans. Almost everyone I knew did the same thing and there was no one to tell me otherwise. My parents never borrowed student loan money, so they had no idea on how to advise me. I was certainly not thinking much about the financial future.

As seniors in high school, kids go from having to raise their hand to use the bathroom to deciding what to do for the rest of their lives. It’s easy to choose based on emotion rather than value. I believe financial education should be mandatory for any student taking out loans.

College Students Are Stupid

I don’t want to offend college students or young readers out there. I’m not meaning stupid like getting all F’s, but stupid in the naive sense about the future.  People in their teens and early twenties have no clue what life will feel like 10 or 20 years down the road, and they likely have no way of grasping what $50,000 in debt will do to their options. There is no ghost of career future to point the way.

Community college can be a great way to start an education, especially with students who aren’t sure what they want to do. Letting someone get their feet wet as a part time community college student has way less risk financially than not being ready and flunking out of a huge school far from home, but sending everyone to community college for the sake of going to college really only produces lots of certificates and credit hours that might not amount to much.

The best we can do is give college students the chance to succeed in the real world by getting the best, most affordable degree or training that allows them to earn a living. I don’t think a blank check for community college without direction produces this.

What are your thoughts on free community college? Is getting a degree in a field with poor job prospects better than not having one at all?


Image: Freedigitalphotos.net/ddpavumba



About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. I love your last paragraph because you are so right. So many college students think they are so enlightened and progressive but they usually don’t have a clue about the real world. Without beating up on college professors, I think they too have little idea of the real world and through their teachings impart their beliefs to their students. A professor of gender studies is not going to tell a student there aren’t many jobs out there requiring this curriculum. All the extra required classes are hold overs from an era when we thought college should produce a well rounded graduate. But today, the real purpose is to prepare someone with skills and knowledge for a job. Probably 1 1/2 or 2 years could be cut out the degree process and still provide the student with the classes they need at a much lower cost.

    • It’s too expensive to get the well rounded education of the past, but universities would lose tons of money if they all shortened their degree programs.

  2. “…but sending everyone to community college for the sake of going to college really only produces lots of certificates and credit hours that might not amount to much.” I could not agree more Kim. On the surface it *sounds* like a good idea, but when you think about it for a second it becomes a much different scenario. We’ve turned college into a business on many levels and given people the idea that you HAVE to go if you want to amount to anything in life. Yes, college is still good for many, but I believe we have to do a much better job at helping students make educated decisions with regards to the college decision. That means looking at things like financing it wisely, picking a good fit that might pay well and even looking at if there is a trade they should pursue instead. I’d much rather have our kids in a trade that pays them well where they’re happy as opposed to some useless piece of paper with a boatload of debt to show for it.

    • They allow high school kids to take the cosmetology program for free at our community college during their last two years of school. As a result, we have so many beauticians that there are no jobs for them. If they offered some sort of counseling as to the saturation of the area and let the kids know they would likely have to move to find a job, I think far fewer students would sign up. I guess you could argue that they might as well get the certificate because it’s free, but why put their hope into thinking this will allow them to find a good job locally? Maybe offering courses in things where there are job shortages would be a better idea.

  3. I think that it is criminal for some of these schools to charge what they charge for tuition and then offer and encourage kids to pursue degrees in fields with no job prospects. I just read a story recently about a kid with over $100,000 in student loan debt and a degree in guitar appreciation. What is he supposed to do with that? No surprisingly, he is not working, and unfortunately he has more private loans than he should have and can’t change his repayment options based on the fact that he is not working.

    • I know tons of kids with similar degrees who are working at the coffee shop. Get a degree in guitar appreciation if you want, but go work for a few years and pay the tuition out of pocket. If you can’t afford the school you love, then look for a cheaper one. Unless you’re going to be the surgeon general, no one asks where your degree came from.

  4. Well I slightly (just a tiny bit disagree). I think it would be a great idea if a financial class was about just as mandatory as having to take a few other basics your freshman year. I mean for the love of god I was forced to take algebra and I was getting a television degree. But behind that, I think there has to be more personal responsibility. If you want to sow your oats in college 5 or 6 years that’s a personal decision. Or if if you want to keep trying in medical school. Just like I might have a hard time understanding how someone deep in debt will travel, it’s not up to me to regulate that for them. I don’t know too much about what is going into the free community college thing so I can’t say much about that.

    • I was hoping someone would disagree with me, so thanks for that opinion! I used to be vehemently opposed to any sort of regulation and believed people should do what makes them happy, but now that I see so many of my former child patients who go on to school to get degrees in things that don’t pay and now they are saddled with debt, living back at home, and have no clue what they want to do, even after going to college. I think if you are paying on your own dime, then take as many years as you want and whatever classes make you happy, but there should be a limit to how much money people can borrow. Banks would not keep letting people take loans to buy houses if they didn’t have any income.

  5. I like the premise of how you gave great ideas towards solving an academia issue we have in this country. I think all of the 5 ideas can help students in any way, but all 5 ideas are in conflict with how these schools operate. They want the kids to take 7 years of school, and they want kids to take a history program. By offering useless degrees, and having them stay in school longer the schools benefit from this. I don’t know why, but I can guess it has to do with more money to pad their pockets. If a kid gets a history degree, and cant find a job, chances are that the student will be back at that college again to enroll in another academic program.

    • Schools are in business, so I don’t blame them for wanting to make money. I just hate that it comes at the expense of teens and young adults who don’t have the experience to know better.

  6. Unfortunately I think we can write blog posts and share ideas all day about how the college system can be fixed (I know I’ve written a couple) but honestly college students don’t really care until after it’s over, or at least 99.99% of them don’t. I also think college loans will never be capped because it comes off as liberal and arbitrary.

  7. I agree with you on many things but I can also see what Obama is thinking. For me getting the education that I have now is just too costly and made a huge dent to my financial freedom early on. I really wished that university education was free so that I could study not worrying about my financial matter. I have seen a lot of bright students that wanting to go to university but had to fold their dream because they just could not afford it.

    • I don’t think free community college is all bad. I just don’t think it’s good to make it a blanket entitlement. You’ll get people who do it just because it’s free with no idea about a career or job stability. I’m sure it would be like Obamacare, good for some, and really, really bad for others.

  8. I commented above but wanted to add that IMO parents have an absolute responsibility for guiding their children in making a decision about what to study at college. Shannon’s comment above about the person getting a degree in guitar appreciation is an example. Where were the parents when he chose that major? Unless the student if fully funding the education themselves, a parent can wield influence in the choice of curriculum by withholding funding if they sense their student in pursuing a foolish curriculum. For every art appreciation major who gets a job at a museum or gallery, there are probably 999 who are tending bar or waiting tables. Same goes for gender studies, minority studies, music appreciation, dance or theater. It is well and good to tell someone to pursue their passion, but the reality is that they need a background that will allow them to be self supporting. They need to get a degree in something that they can get a job in and perhaps have a minor or extracurricular participation in the thing that interests them but will pay nothing.

    • Amen. Can we get a “Like” button for comments??

    • Obviously, if you child is over 18, you can’t make them do anything, but you can certainly guide and not pay for a degree that is essentially worthless. One of my professional mentors had a son who did not try very hard in college because his Dad was funding the whole thing. After the first year, my friend cut him off. There were lots of ruffled feathers, but eventually the son joined the military, learned some skills and discipline and went back to school the right way. I’m sure it’s hard to pull the plug, but it’s much better than getting a $100K degree in guitar appreciation!

  9. You give some great ideas to help with the current higher education system. The one I gravitate towards is calling it a spade… Mr. Maroon likes to tell me “if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck – call it a duck!” But that can be a VERY hard message to someone who is horrified by the idea of being a duck – they’d rather be a swan, or better yet a lion (moving up the food chain!) In today’s society, everyone is too afraid to call it like it is – worried about being accused of discrimination, being politically un-correct, and a whole host of other social no-nos. But the truth is the truth. If you don’t like it, do something to change it. If you are bound and determined to go to med school, put aside the five years of mediocre performance and kick @$$ as accomplishing your dream. It’s not going to be easy. But all the really good things in life don’t come easy…

    • I totally agree. I would not let anyone tell me I could or couldn’t do something, but if you are a C student, you have to realize that some thing are just not going to happen unless you make it your one goal in life to raise your grades. Unfortunately most college students are not that singularly focused.

  10. These are all great suggestions, Kim. To me, parents really need to step up to plate here. Kids are kids and need our guidance. A $50k or even a $100k doesn’t faze them because they don’t really understand what it means. How it will affect their standard of living after college. Right now, it’s all fun. They have the mindset that they wouldn’t have been able to get that loan if they wouldn’t be able to pay it off easily. But as you said, they don’t give loans based on potential earnings. Parents sometimes need to make the hard and unpopular decisions for their kids and kids need to learn about money at home and at school. They may still not like the decision but at least they understand it.

    • Parents really should offer more advice, but I think many of them have no clue themselves and leave all the decisions up to an 18 year old. I think kids should have a say, but they have no life experience to base things on. Parents should not be afraid to discuss what a $50,000 loan looks like ten years later.

  11. The biggest thing I learned in college is that the degree matters but having actual work experience is absolutely necessary. I think all college students should work in college and if you can somehow apply experience from your degree to your job even better! I have a degree in a field that doesn’t have great job prospects without a Master’s. Because I didn’t want to go back to school and wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. I applied in related fields to where I worked. I just happen to have a degree that could somehow be related to most job areas. I got a useful minor as well (business). And I just applied like crazy. It worked out, a little more than a year after graduating I have a devent job with higher than average pay for my major and good benefits and flexible hours. So I guess my biggest advice with college and degrees is work experience and being willing to apply for anything and everything job wise even if it’s not the exact job you want. It will come once you have more experience.

  12. Not everyone can afford to get anything besides loans to attend college. I think there should not be a cap.

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