Editor's note: This article was previously published in the Gwinnett Daily Post. It has been reprinted here with permission.
The age-old notion that college is the pathway to a high-paying, professional career has been taking it on the chin lately, with more and more young people (and their parents) asking, "Is it worth it?"
Certainly the cost of tuition continues to rise each year, due mostly to declines in public support. Across the country, state appropriations have fallen sharply over the last two decades, leaving students and their families to cover the balance.
We also hear horror stories about college grads who can't get a job. But it turns out those tales might be exaggerated. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the latest generation of graduates "earns more than the ones that came before it," while wages for those without degrees continue to decline.
So yes, going to college is still very much worth it. You just have to go about it the right way.
You can save a lot of money simply by starting at a nearby community college, regional university or branch campus. Not only will tuition be much less than you would pay at a major university, but you can live at home, commute and hold down a part-time job.
I know that doesn't sound glamorous. When people think of "going to college," they picture weekend football games, sorority parties and sweatshirts emblazoned with a famous school mascot.
All those things are great - if you can afford them. If not, going local is better than not going to college at all, and a lot better than mortgaging your future just to say you attended Prestigious U.
Curb your borrowing
For most people, it's just about impossible to get through college without taking out any loans. That's fine. Just remember this simple rule of thumb: Don't borrow more to finance your education, in total, than you can expect to make in your first year of work.
Want to be a teacher? Terrific. The world always needs good teachers. Just don't borrow $100,000 to get an education degree. Teachers start out at around $40,000 a year. Borrow much more than that and you'll never be able to pay it back.
Instead, think about attending a less expensive school, working part-time to help cover costs and applying for scholarships.
Apply, apply, apply
If your state offers tuition waivers for top high school students, great. Work hard to earn one of those waivers - and keep it, once you get to college. But also consider applying for other scholarships, such as those offered by the PTA, the Rotary Club or other civic-minded organizations. Your high school or college counselor probably has a list.
And don't forget about the federal Pell Grant. A lot of people don't bother to apply, assuming their family makes too much money. You might be surprised. It's worth the hour it takes to submit the form online, anyway.
By following this simple advice, you can earn a college degree that will be worth tens of thousands of dollars in income over your lifetime without having to sell your soul at the tender age of 18.