Americans held nearly $1.38 trillion in student debt at the end of 2017, according to the New York Federal Reserve. As young people's student loan debt continues to grow, many are wondering how to make smart choices when it comes to their education.
The best way to think about earning a degree is to consider how you plan to use your education to pay off that debt, according to Kevin O'Leary, personal finance expert and star of ABC's "Shark Tank."
"You have to think about education as an investment because it's going to cost you money and it's going to create debt for you" in many cases, O'Leary tells CNBC Make It.
That means picking a major that's going to have a "higher certainty" of landing a high paying job, he explains. For students seeking job security and high pay, O'Leary says the best major to consider right now is engineering.
"Today in America, if you want a job, become an engineer, any engineer." O'Leary says. "It's not the easiest college degree to get, but it's one with the most, and best, outcome for employment."
Indeed, STEM majors like mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science often are cited on lists of the most valuable college majors, the majors most likely to lead to jobs and even most popular majors. Other job market analysts agree engineering and high tech are fields that provide a solid return on investment.
"The easiest route [to making six figures] is major in computer science or engineering," Marc Cenedella, CEO and Founder of Ladders tells CNBC Make It. "The return on going into tech and being a technologist are extraordinarily high. We're still only graduating about 40,000 computer science grads in the country and the demand relative to the supply is extraordinarily out of balance."
Of course, with artificial intelligence and machine learning advances on the horizon, unless you are building the AI, demand for some such degrees may change. Because of that, technology entrepreneur and O'Leary's fellow "Shark Tank" investor Mark Cuban suggests studying ethics and rational thinking will someday be more valuable than learning to code.
"In 10 years, a liberal arts degree in philosophy will be worth more than a traditional programming degree," Cuban told AOL in 2017. That's because artificial intelligence will enable technology to become so smart it can program itself. Then, the job market won't value coders, but the high level thinkers that can solve a new era of problems around tech advancement.
"Artificial intelligence won't need you or I to do it, it will be able to figure out itself how to automate [tasks] over the next 10 to 15 years," Cuban explained.
And there are many paths to success. Some business leaders say college isn't the most important ingredient. "Shark Tank" investor Daymond John says the best thing you can do to succeed is take advantage of any opportunity around you, hustle and learn.
"Hunger is the key," John tells CNBC Make It. "I don't believe [college is] necessary for success."
As for O'Leary, he studied psychology and environmental science in college, and hoped to become a photographer or a musician. After having an admittedly tough time finding a job and heading to Ivey Business School at Western University to earn an MBA, O'Leary later made his fortune in the educational software business. Today, he's the chairman of ETF company O'Shares Investments and has seen successful exits from his "Shark Tank" investments. Plated, a meal delivery company O'Leary invested in, sold to Albertsons for $300 million in 2017 in what O'Leary says was the biggest exit on the show.
"You can become a poet or an artist or a writer and you never know," O'Leary says. "There's a lot of serendipity in life, you never know what your career path is going to look like."
Still, he argues you should maximize your chances of financially succeeding and paying off any student debt you accumulate: "If you're asking me what my top three picks are, you've got it: No. 1 engineering, No. 2 engineering, No. 3, go with engineering."
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