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It’s that time of year again: college application season. To some, college can represent freedom and independence. To others, it poses a financial challenge to lower-income families. After high school, students should look toward post-secondary education, but that doesn’t necessarily mean going to a four-year college. Four-year colleges offer one path to a diploma while community college and trade/vocational schools lead to more cost-effective and equally successful routes. Earning a diploma or certification can land a stable job; however, that can be anything: a trade school certification, a diploma or a doctorate.
Many believe a community college degree is not as credible as a university degree. However, classes in honors programs at community colleges can be just as rigorous as university classes. While community colleges are open access, meaning all students can attend, specialized programs in fields such as nursing and engineering have higher academic standards for enrollment.
Community college is also local and affordable. Students can avoid the problem of living in a dormitory, which can cost around $10,000 per year for both in-state and out-of-state public schools. Community college students save on tuition because they can live at home during the first two years of school.
Even as a community college student, if higher education poses a financial hardship, students can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at no cost. The three main forms of financial aid, outside of scholarships, are grants, work-study and loans, but only loans need to be paid back to the government.
In addition to government aid, scholarship programs and essay contests can help offset the cost of tuition. Companies like Coca-Cola, Dell and Chipotle offer generous opportunities for scholarship money. However, their large programs usually come with a larger pool of applicants. Applying for local scholarships can be a valid option as well. Even though the award money may not be as much as the massive corporations give, the smaller number of applicants may increase the chances of receiving money. Earning multiple small scholarships can be just as helpful as winning one large lump sum.
While it’s true that owning a degree increases the likelihood of having a higher salary, not all majors are created equal. Students who major in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math—find jobs quickly, earn more money and experience more job stability than students who earn degrees in liberal arts and humanities fields. However, going for a financially promising major simply because it yields a relatively high financial return won’t guarantee job satisfaction. It’s not fair to compare STEM majors with more non-technical majors because students interested in degrees in the social sciences, humanities or liberal arts may be looking for personal rewards that are not financial in nature.
When students leave high school, they have to make decisions that are best for the student and their future.