logo

Attending college is a more uncertain experience today. Here's how to avoid regret

Key Points
  • Attending college has become a more uncertain and difficult experience for many people today.
  • Still, in interviews with education, policy and savings experts as well as current and former students, a more hopeful scene emerges.

ANDREA VICK's college experience led to regret. Yours doesn't have to.

Even within today's high-cost, high-pressure college landscape, thoughtful planning can go a long way to make sure your education takes you where you want it to.

When high school was over, Vick didn't plan to continue her schooling. Apple, in Portland, Oregon, paid her decent money to sell and repair computers. Plus, she had no idea what she wanted to study. Still, growing up, she said, she was led to believe that higher education was the only way to a more prosperous life.

"My dad emphasized that if you didn't go to college, you'd be flipping burgers," said Vick, 31. And so, she eventually quit her job at Apple and got her bachelor's in community health education at Portland State University. While there, she interned at Planned Parenthood and the Oregon Health Authority, among other places, and her high marks landed her on the dean's list.

Despite her success in school, she couldn't find someone to hire her in her field after she graduated in 2015. She estimates that she applied to around 100 places. "I thought I had an impressive resume," Vick said, but she noticed that the people who were filling those positions had more education than she did. "The master's degree had become the next bachelor's degree," she said.

Andrea Vick graduating from Portland State University in 2015.
Andrea Vick

Within a few years, after some short stints at low paying jobs and a lot of unanswered applications, she decided to look for a job in which she'd put to use the skills she'd picked up before college, working on computers. Soon, she landed a job in tech support for a charter school in Philadelphia."I just need to forget my degree," she said.

One thing she can't forget, however: her student debt, which is now over $70,000, and stops her, she said, from buying a house or starting a family. "I can't return the degree," she said, "I just have to sit here and pay $250 a month for the rest of my life."

ATTENDING COLLEGE HAS BECOME A MORE DIFFICULT and uncertain experience for many people. One year at a nonprofit, four-year private college, including tuition, room and board, currently costs $48,510, compared with $22,240 in the 2000-2001 academic year. If annual increases had simply tracked the inflation rate since then, it would be at $32,228.

Meanwhile, the median family income, after accounting for inflation, was $59,039 in 2016, little different than in 2000 ($58,544).

"Family income has been flat, so their ability to pay for college has not changed even as college costs have increased," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of SavingForCollege.com.

As a result, students and their parents are taking on more debt. The average student now graduates $30,000 in the hole, compared with $10,000 in the early 1990s. Many people borrow more than they can repay, risking their financial futures. By 2023, nearly 40 percent of borrowers are expected to default on their student loans, an event that only increases their debt and devastates their credit.

And as more people go to college, some experts say the value of a bachelor's degree has faded. Starting salaries for new college graduates have grown less than 1 percent over the last two years, remaining at around $50,000. A decade after leaving school, more than 1 in 5 college graduates are working in a job that doesn't even require a degree.

It's unsurprising then that remorse is a common feeling among graduates: More than half wish they'd studied something different or attended a different institution, according to recent survey findings from Gallup.

The path forward is unclear, and will most likely require structural and legislative changes. Still, in interviews with education, policy and savings experts as well as current and former students, a more hopeful scene emerges, one in which the strategies to remedy the problems are ample and growing.

VIDEO1:5601:56
The secret to budgeting with student loans: Spreadsheets

MARQUEL ROLACK-SMALLS WONDERED if he had made the right decision not to move away from home to a four-year college after high school. All over social media his friends posted pictures of their dorm rooms and leafy campuses.

"It was hard at times," Rolack-Smalls, 20, said. "I just had to keep reminding myself of the end goal and how it was going to help me in the future."

He had chosen to do an apprenticeship, an option that is gaining popularity across the country. Proponents say the on-the job-training programs reduce people's student debt while making sure they pick up in-demand skills. President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2017 that doubled the money the government spends on apprenticeships.

At 17, Rolack-Smalls began working at Venture Aerobearings, a manufacturer in North Charleston, South Carolina. As part of the apprenticeship, he also took classes at Trident Community College. The experience allowed him to save a few thousand dollars for college and eventually attend Clemson University, with scholarships, where he now studies mechanical engineering.

In her sit-down conversations with high school students, Eleni Papadakis, executive director of the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board in Washington state, said people tend to overestimate how easy it is to repay student loans.

She then shows them a cost-of-living calculator in their state, so they can see how quickly their paychecks will be eaten up by expenses like child care and taxes. If students describe frustration with the classroom or concerns about falling into debt, she'll recommend they consider an apprenticeship.

Eleni Papadakis, the executive director of this state agency, the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board
Source: Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board

"We're putting too many young people on that four-year pathway without considering how they learn and what juices them up," Papadakis said.

More than 90 percent of people who complete apprenticeships in Washington state are employed; and, six to nine months after they leave the program, they have median earnings of $80,600.

No longer are apprenticeships limited to blue-collar professions like manufacturing or plumbing.

IBM is rapidly expanding its apprenticeship program, for example. This year the company hopes to hire 450 apprentices, up from 200 last year. Successful candidates (a degree is not necessary to apply) are trained for 12 months in fields including data science and cybersecurity. And those who complete the program stand a good chance of being hired there.

SOME SCHOOLS AND PROGRAMS ARE EXPERIMENTING with a new way of paying for college: so-called income sharing agreements, in which students are fronted a portion of their education tab in exchange for a slice of their future earnings.

For example, under the University of Utah's program, introduced this year, students in certain majors who are within one year of graduating can receive up to $10,000 a semester. In return, they will pay 2.85 percent of their annual income for three to 10 years.

The University of Utah

Proponents say the agreements protect students from some of the pitfalls of debt, including the accumulation of interest. And in many income-sharing agreements, students are not required to pay anything back if their income falls below a certain threshold.

Still, the option remains relatively uncommon, and it has drawn concern from some consumer advocates.

"Most parents would shudder at the thought," said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "They don't want to sell their kids' future income to a group of investors."

IN RESPONSE TO RISING TUITION, MORE STUDENTS are focusing on affordability.

"There has definitely been a shift in enrollment from higher-cost colleges to lower-cost colleges," Kantrowitz said. In-state public colleges usually cost a third to a quarter of the cost of a private college, he said. "You don't have to enroll in the most expensive college in your field of study."

Community colleges are increasingly being touted as a resource for students looking to reduce the costs of higher education as well as rack up workforce education experience, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. The typical community college student pays just $3,570 a year to attend, Parham said.

And opportunities for people with an associate's degree are growing quickly, according to recent research from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. The number of "good jobs" for associate degree holders has swelled by more than 80 percent between 1991 and 2016.

Keep in mind that some of the best, private institutions, Nassirian said, "may well be the most affordable." For example, many of the Ivy League colleges have the resources to offer more financial aid, he said.

So, what is the takeaway when picking a college?

"There are affordable options along the entire spectrum, from community colleges, to public institutions to some private schools," Nassirian said. "People should really do their research and figure out which of the options make the most sense in terms of their financial and academic outcomes."

MORE FAMILIES ARE SAVING for college than in the past. Nearly 20 percent of children under age 18 have 529 plans, the education investment funds, compared with less than 4 percent in 2001, according to SavingForCollege.com.

Family income has been flat, so their ability to pay for college has not changed even as college costs have increased.
Mark Kantrowitz

Studies show that children who have the accounts are more likely to attend college. And if you start to contribute to a plan at your son or daughter's birth, about a third of your savings goal could come from investment earnings alone, according to calculations by Kantrowitz.

A number of companies are encouraging workers to financially prepare for their children's' college by allowing them to save in a 529 plan through payroll deductions, and some even offer a matching contribution.

Some 1,000 businesses in California now offer their employees a 529 savings plan option, said Julio Martinez, executive director of the ScholarShare Investment Board in the state.

One such company is The Control Group, a web development firm in San Diego.

The Control Group offices
Source: The Control Group

"We saw it as an opportunity to do something good for our employees and also it helps differentiate us for attracting and retaining talent," said Alice Seivertson, the company's director of human resources. Employees who contribute to a 529 plan there are also given a match of up to $100 a month.

BEFORE STUDENTS TAKE ON DEBT, they should exhaust grants and scholarships, said Elaine Griffin Rubin, senior contributor and communications specialist at Edvisors. Around 8 percent of undergraduate students had a scholarship in the 2015-2016 academic year, up from 3 percent in 1989-1990. There's a great list of ways to find the awards on the SavingForCollege.com website.

When it comes to borrowing, students shouldn't take out more than they expect to earn in their first year of employment, Kantrowitz said. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has a pretty thorough breakdown of salaries by major.

"Borrowers should assume the lower end of the income range," Kantrowitz said. "That way, they are less likely to over-borrow for their field of study."

There are affordable options along the entire spectrum, from community colleges, to public institutions to some private schools.
Barmak Nassirian

As early as possible, students should understand the labor market they hope to enter, said Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

"I would spiral outwards from the career counselors in the colleges, then talk to professors: 'What do your graduates do? Where are the ones that are happy? Is there anyone whom I can talk to?'" Strohl said.

He recommends a tool called My Next Move, which allows students to look at the opportunities in different locations across the country.

He said students should be prepared for their job plans to go awry. History majors, for example, could think about how their skills apply to work in politics or research, not just academia.

"Being flexible is so important in the U.S. labor market," he said.

More from Invest In You:
Here's how to figure out your net worth
Five ways to get the most out of your awesome raise
Got debt? Your boss wants to help with that

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.