“Need Help Figuring Out College!”

Reader MailHi guys! First off, in case I haven’t said it enough, THANK YOU from the bottom of my soon-to-be-parent’s heart for all the love and congratulations you sent over from yesterday’s news — you made the Mrs. and I feel SO SPECIAL!!

Seriously, you blew us out of the water with all the kindness and advice you guys sent over – we REALLY appreciate it :)  And do you wanna know a secret? You all were one of the first groups to know! You should feel special ;)

Okay, now back to today’s topic… It’s been a while since we did a “help a reader” post here, and this one stood out as one that could probably use your help over mine because I’m very one-sided when it comes to college ;) AKA I always say 100% that it’s worth getting a degree no matter what (crazy, I know). So take a read and offer up any advice/thoughts you may have?  Maybe you’ve been in this same scenario yourself, or you currently are now?  There are never any right or wrong answers here, so your opinion is def. valuable :)  Thanks!

Hi J,

Need some advice from you and your readers.  I have wanted to go back to college for a very long time.  I just recently paid off all my debt and have the option, but don’t know if that is the best route.  I know a degree would help in job searches, but I also don’t want to spend all my money on college and have nothing to show for it in the end.

I asked my friends on Facebook, but I get the feeling I am not hearing from all sides on this issue.  Probably because most of my friends haven’t gone to college and most don’t ever want to.

I want to go back to school for Design.  I have been in the computer industry for quite awhile and am bored with fixing computer problems.  I want to do something creative.  I have looked into Engineering and Architecture, but I figured design would combine both degrees in a cheaper way.

Here is what I came up with for choices:

  1. Going to a private college that is geared towards the creative.  It’s more up-to-date than most other colleges and uses both Mac and Windows computers, so I could broaden my computer knowledge.  I know mostly Windows and some Linux at the moment.  Cost is about $100,000 and would take me 6 years part-time
  2. Go to a community college then a 4-year college for same degree.  Less up-to-date as still using AutoCAD for Windows.  No Macs that I have seen, unless I want a more expensive 4-year college.  Cost about $50,000 and would take about 8 years part-time.  I would be able to put some money into retirement.
  3. Max out my retirement funds, take specific classes like AutoCAD and hope my company uses that knowledge for something good.  Travel with extra money.

I’m hoping there are more choices out there.  I don’t want to move out of state, I don’t want to give up my current part-time job, I am trying for scholarships, and I make too much money for any sort of government assistance. Any suggestions?

What do you guys think?  What would YOU do if you were in her shoes? Again, there’s really no “right” answer here, and I’m pretty sure she’d love to hear from all kinds of angles :)  Thanks so much!

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  1. Stephen December 20, 2011 at 6:20 AM

    I am sure someone can provide some more specific advice based on your field of interest. However, I went to a private college for undergrad and grad school, what you need to realize is that you will not spend all ‘4 years’ studying computers. My recommendation is to look at the jobs you would like to have, do they require a 4 year degree? If so, pick out the college you want to attend and the specific defree that you want to work towards. Take your core basic classes at a community college (English/history/foreign Lang/etc) but make sure all the credits transfer to the college you hope to attend. Then once you have those out of the way, then you can transfer to your college of choice but now you only have to pay for the classes inside your major, maybe a few others.
    PS this route takes 2 extra years but saves you 50000, and that will be on all the classes that really aren’t what you hope to focus on anyway.
    Just make sure that a 4 year degree is what you need to get the job you want to get. Maybe even contact the employers of those jobs and ask what they are looking for in a new employee.

  2. Megan December 20, 2011 at 6:55 AM

    I would suggest trying an online school. I love doing my Masters degree online through an accredited school. I’m sure you can find something affordable for the degree you want that will fit your schedule!

    Also, do you already have computer design skills? Maybe a certificate program would be best.

    I would also recommend looking at the job market where you live or want to live. If you are wanting to freelance, it is quite competitive for designers, and many companies unfortunately want to pay as little as possible for high-quality work, which can be frustrating. If you are wanting to work for a company, it is all the more competitive. A friend of mine went 6 months unemployed when a local paper laid him off, and he had studied graphic design in college. Now he works for Citi Bank because there just aren’t design jobs in our area. I’m not trying to shoot down your dream, but you should definitely keep this in mind when looking into education options. Good luck!

  3. me December 20, 2011 at 8:48 AM

    After graduating and getting a job, I went back to college for my Masters and I am in engineering as well. I think having a masters is VERY worth while (PHD, not so much) and employers really like to see it, plus it helps with the salary. I ended up going to night classes over a span of 5 years with my company paying 100% of it. You might want to check and see if that could be an option for you. I am not saying it was easy to work full time and go to school part time, but it was well worth it in the end. I left with a Masters degree and not debt! win, win for me!

  4. Diane December 20, 2011 at 8:51 AM

    I studied architecture at a top private school, and I will tell you that the degree itself does very little towards helping you get a job. It’s the portfolio that matters. I would take classes to supplement your skills – and also to see if you ARE a designer. I found after my degree, and my assumption that I wanted to be a designer, that I am actually a mediocre designer but a GREAT project manager. I am far better at developing projects, trouble-shooting construction issues and managing teams of people than I am at designing anything.

    So – take classes, try some design projects – see if the interest is there and also the skill. Build up a portfolio. Get some projects under your belt, and then interview for jobs based on those classes and that portfolio. You don’t need $100K in debt to do that, and it’s probably more effective in the end in terms of getting you where you want to be.

    I loved my schooling, but it was a luxury I could afford and it was a lot of theory. It was not a trade school and it helped me with practical skills very little.

  5. mints December 20, 2011 at 9:08 AM

    I went to an ivy league university (35% scholarship, 30% my parent’s, 35% student loan which I’m about to liquidate next year) and it does help you to get a better job, especially on the IT industry.
    It’s not like they give you more tools to do it, it’s more about “contacts”. Big IT companies often look for new grads on these kind of universities, so it all depends on what you want, your long-term life plan and how much debt you want to acquire ;)

  6. Daisy December 20, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    In my experience, just taking a few classes isn’t particularly useful unfortunately. Even if you have all of the classes for a degree, they’re still looking for the degree, even though it’s just a piece of paper.

    I know community colleges aren’t super popular in the states, but if they’re cheaper and you get the same degree, I’d recommend it. We get the same level of education whether it’s a Uni or a college here in Canada, and in my opinion, employers should just be impressed you have a degree!

    As a huge advocate of education, I say go for your degree.

  7. daydream kate December 20, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    I am going to second what Diane has to say. I have a four-year degree in graphic design and one in visual arts. I got the GD degree because I figured it was the practical version of art. Then the job I leaned was one that I could’ve filled without the degree. All I really needed was a working knowledge of Adobe and Quark (which I got in high school) and some design skills.

    The main problem with GD is that it is so oversaturated right now. It has been the hip degree to get for several years. Also, anyone with a laptop and Adobe can call themselves a graphic designer without any actual talent. Trust me, I work with TONS of people with degrees what coudln’t design their way out of a paper bag…and I am talking about the actual design and the technical end.

    Your best route would involve a few steps. First, tae a few classes here and there to bone up on the software skills you need. Getting a basic understanding on the programs you will need gets you waaay further then you’d think. Second, if you really love those programs, invest in a good computer and the software for your home so you can practice on your own time. Finally, work hard on building up your portfolio. Do your own versions of the same assignments they give at design school. Print out really high-quality renderings or shoot good photos and save them. A design firm doesn’t care about the degree as much as the work.

    Good luck and keep your eyes on the prize!

  8. Brian December 20, 2011 at 10:21 AM

    Personally “Design” sounds a little to wishy-washy for my taste. From experience I can tell you engineering will probably get you a good job, but it is not an easy choice and to some extent the school you go to can open a lot of doors. That being said, I no longer do engineering and never really enjoyed it. It was sold to me in the wrong way and it ended up not being what I had expected.

    As far as architecture, now may be the time to get a degree in that, but you are banking on the job market rebounding. My father in-law has been laid off 4 times in the last 3 years. The only places he has been able to find consistent work is the Middle East (Dubai and Abu Dhabi). He had a solid gig in Libya, but then the whole revolution thing happened. I know he has said the field has extremely high unemployment at the moment and job are extremely competitive to get (and he networks like a mad man).

    I went back to school after working for a couple of years so I know how hard the choice can be. If possible I would probably do option 2. You could also look at a “technology” degree.

    Where I went to undergrad technology degrees were like engineering degrees only seemed to be a little more “hands on” and a little less theoretical. You could do like Construction Management Technology (get some Civil Engineering type classes and some CAD style classes). But again, the job market for construction is weak at the moment (but in 4 years it could be booming!). If I had to do it all over again I would have probably done a technology degree over my engineering degree.

    Good Luck and hope this helps a little!

  9. tom December 20, 2011 at 10:37 AM

    Yes, go back to school! BUT…

    I would look EXTRA hard at engineering again. Design jobs are extremely to get, they pay low and the industry is incredibly competitive. Also, design DOES NOT combine engineering w/ architecture. Let me say again, it DOES NOT combine the two, so get that out of your head. If you want to stay in the computer industry you can get an electrical engineering degree and design circuits and such, but that is not the design that they teach in private design schools.

    The Community College to 4-year University track is generally used for those who didn’t have the grades to get into a University of choice. I would not recommend that unless you don’t think you can get in right away.

    Do not go to a private design college. I know a lot of people who went to school for graphic and industrial design and cannot find jobs and now have $100,000 in debt to deal with.

    I would apply to a local state school with a good engineering program. Engineering jobs are open and available. There are literally tens of thousands of open job reqs for engineers as they are in short supply. The job prospects for engineers are also extremely good as 40% of engineers will be retiring in the next 10 years.

  10. Julie December 20, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    Start at your local community college and look into a certificate program that expands into a 2 year program. Also consider the geospatial applications field (GIS.) It is a wonderful blend of graphic design, architecture, engineering, geography and computer science. The best part is that it is applicable to every field, so you’ll have lots and lots of options.

  11. KimD December 20, 2011 at 12:19 PM

    I say take the classes first. You might be able to get a job in your preferred field without a degree, and if the company does want you to get a degree, they may hire you anyway, and give you time to complete it, or help pay for the degree as part of an employee training program. Dipping your toes in the water with classes first will also give you an idea if this is something you could actually see yourself doing – sometimes once you get into it, it’s a lot different than you expect, and not always in a good way.

  12. retirebyforty December 20, 2011 at 12:45 PM

    I’d say figure out which university you’d like to go to and then take some classes at the community college and online university. You need to make sure the credits can transfer and then after a few years, you should go full time at the university of your choice and finish off the degree. Good luck!

  13. Walnut December 20, 2011 at 2:05 PM

    I suggest trying to find an entry level position at a company you want to work for. Paid intern positions are often available depending on the company. Once you have an in with the company (you could work in the mail room for all I care), find out what their education reimbursement policy looks like.

    If it is generous, start your degree with the local state college/university. If there is a life time max, start with the local community college. General education classes can be taken anywhere. Just talk to an advisor and make sure they transfer.

    Find a mentor working in the position you would like to be in. Meet with them quarterly or so and keep them informed on your classes. Let them know that you would like to transfer into their department if a position opens. It is likely that someone will leave the company in that department in the next 6-8 years. You don’t necessarily need to have your degree finished to move to the department. By the time you are in your 3000-level classes, you can be a functional intern. Basically, you’ll finish your degree and work the real world job concurrently.

    Good luck!

  14. J. Money December 20, 2011 at 2:46 PM

    This is great stuff guys, thank you so much!! I really think it’ll help her put things in perspective more :) You all are awesome, for real.

  15. Christine Wilson December 20, 2011 at 2:55 PM

    I worked as a web designer and it is true that design has nothing to do with engineering. Engineering pays more. Design is competitive. I’ve also seen people switch careers (like me) after they reach their 30s for more stability in income and upwards movement. You have to really have a passion for design to stay in the field and be quite talented. Engineering degrees can get you jobs that work closer to the design aspect like UI design from an engineer’s perspective. Being a designer that tries their hand at engineering concepts is more difficult as your company will want that you have training in engineering concepts.

  16. Christine Wilson December 20, 2011 at 3:13 PM

    …I’ve got more ideas. Maybe you could take your core courses in Engineering and your elective courses in Design. See if these transfer to a degree program in the future. You’d be able to use your new skills right away but will gain the illustrious degree in the near future ;) The raises you’ll receive in your new engineering job will help offset the cost of the full degree you plan to complete.

  17. SmartAssetTeam December 20, 2011 at 3:19 PM

    I want to say get yourself the best. When you go to a school with more up to date resources, it isn’t just the facilities that rock, but also the people. Having gone to a creative amazing school for undergrad and then a cheap bootstrap type place for graduate school, I have a little experience with what comes with paying more. The network I was able to connect to at the school that had more is pivotal for getting a job. You will connect with people who can help you get somewhere with your degree if you go to a more prestigious school. Not so say that there aren’t amazing professors at community colleges, I just think the density is higher at better schools.

  18. LB December 20, 2011 at 3:46 PM

    First of all I would like to thank J. Money for letting me borrow his time and blog for my question.

    Second I would like to thank everyone for their responses, as I absolutely love all kinds of angles when it comes to any problem. I am the type of person who will find 10 ways to solve a problem if I hear one “no”.

    I figure no matter what, I want a degree from a college as it is on my bucket list. Hopefully I can make a decision soon. I would love to hear more personal stories, since everyone and every college is different. Thank you so much!

  19. Andrea Travillian December 20, 2011 at 8:08 PM

    I believe that while a college degree is not completely necessary, it is very helpful to have one. My best friend is the perfect example of why a degree, any degree, is helpful. She has some college and amazing experience and talent. Yet during job hunts time and time again she is turned down because of the degree requirement. Now this is typically for the larger companies, and not the smaller ones. Time and time again she wishes she had finished.

    Outside of that I don’t know design specifics, but I do know that $100,000 for any degree can get you into trouble. What happens if you can’t finish because of a health issue or other unknown? Keep looking for an option that gets you the degree you need without risking your financial future.

    Good luck!

  20. J. Money December 20, 2011 at 8:51 PM

    @SmartAssetTeam – I agree! School is def more than just for degrees and education, you meet a whole network of people out there that could potentially change your life forever! Either friendship-wise, or professionally. And in this case, the “professionally” part is def. important ;) You can use that connection for the rest of your life…

  21. LB December 20, 2011 at 8:54 PM

    I don’t know if this helps anyone, but I am completely debt free, was offered full-time at my part-time job and all the money will go straight to school and I won’t be taking any loans. I should be able to contribute to retirement while going to school.

    This is weird, because all the people I know say say go to school for Engineering? Do I give off an Engineering vibe or something lol?

  22. Mike December 20, 2011 at 9:12 PM

    I agree with going to back to school but….

    Don’t go into a serious amount of debt to do so. I mean it doesn’t make sense to go into $80k in debt after graduation and be struggling to find a job. Can you go to a school that’s competitive but moderately priced.

    Education is all about what you put into it as well and making connections to leverage your knowledge.

  23. Kristin December 20, 2011 at 11:40 PM

    I am writing because I went to school for architecture and wanted to give my two cents. Although I thoroughly enjoyed my school choice, as it was in a large city, had study abroad, and love what I do…I would have done it differently had I actually gotten advice first. BUT I would have still chosen architecture.

    After being out of school for 6 years, I have met a quite a few people who have two degrees, a bachelors in ______ (fill in the blank) and a masters in architecture. This route usually takes roughly 6 years, 4 for Bachelors and 2 for Masters. A Bachelors in Architecture (where you can actually become licensed) = 5 years min. I did it this way because that was all I knew. Plus, they say there is no need for a masters unless you are teaching…. I have realized that a lot of NYC jobs would rather have a person with a masters. Masters programs usually cost more, plus you are going to school for longer…however, there are always grants/scholarships to be won.

    So, now that I got that through…cost is up to you. In state, out of state, etc. I have plenty of friends who went to architecture school in their home state and are doing just fine. Engineers make more money, but you have to love math. Architects still make more (starting) than most right out of college. Ivy league…its up to you, but you can get a great education elsewhere for less and still be amazing.

    The market…..sucks…..period. 3 years ago the market tanked. Roughly 95% of the people I graduated with lost their jobs, went to part time, or are currently not working at a ‘typical architecture firm’. This should change in 5 years (when your done….if you go through with it). Taking loans out = no fun. I did and I would much rather have that cash in my pocket.


  24. Amanda Bee December 21, 2011 at 2:39 PM

    A private college and public college might not be terribly different if you can get financial aid, and there is aid available for nontraditional students so I would check that first. Then I would get an idea of what college(s) you’re interested in attending, what major you’d want/need, and what the course requirements would be. Compare course requirements to see which would suit you best.

    I’d consider doing the community college route AT FIRST for two things:
    1) Take some classes in your field (Autocad, etc) to determine if you are truly 100% interested in this career. This is also a good reason to talk to people in the field to get an idea of what they do, good and bad.
    2) Knock out those GECs! There is no reason to take GEC classes like language, math, or science at a bigger, more expensive university (unless they’re offering financial aid, o’course).
    WORD OF CAUTION: You really want to have a college and major to shoot for and know the course requirements, otherwise you could waste a lot of money at the community college if A) those aren’t the classes you need, or B) they don’t transfer. So know what you need and what will transfer, then do the CC route for those.

    If you can do that, then I think it would be totally worth it! But if you’re still in doubt, talk to some people who have positions you think you’d ideally like to have one day and see what they did. Or talk to people who hire people in those positions, and find out what they look for.

  25. Louise M December 21, 2011 at 8:45 PM

    I would pursue short courses first to round out your skills. Design, like anything creative, requires an amazing portfolio. I would get your software knowhow down pat and maybe the odd certificate course to round out your skills then begin building your portfolio and tackling projects. Generally, in creative careers more so than others, interviewers need to know you can walk the walk and your portfolio is the best way to show them that you can.

  26. Christine Wilson December 22, 2011 at 7:10 AM

    @LB There’s mention of engineering because you said this:
    “I have looked into Engineering and Architecture, but I figured design would combine both degrees in a cheaper way.”

    Another thing I’ve noticed about these financial blogs. They are great for teaching to be good with your money but an awful lot of them come from finance and computer science/engineering backgrounds! They also seem to have higher than average paying jobs that in combination with good financial management/frugality are able to have more choices in their lives. So think how the salary will effect your life/choices/freedom. To be honest I almost did a degree in mathematics when I was young and I wish I had.

    I’d think we’d all be interested to hear an update from you as to your choice. All the best :)

  27. LB December 22, 2011 at 6:47 PM

    Thanks everyone for the advice! Seriously gave me more to think about and gave me more to talk about with friends that are different fields. A friend of mine, who has an engineering doctorate, is helping me figure out if I would love engineering. If anything he can get me access to some classes that I can sit in on, and check out.

    For now I will try that and I will:

    -Go back to community college to take more classes.
    (The private college seemed like an awesome college, but I found out the hours are very limited and wouldn’t work with my current job. This job is what will pay for college.)
    -Work full-time at my current job for as long as they will have me.
    -Fully contribute to an IRA.
    -Plan on having a life somewhere in between and traveling.
    -Save money for future college, as I do not qualify for most grants/gov’t assistance.
    -Continue on to a 4 year college, just because it’s cheaper.

    As for a degree, I have always been leaning towards a double degree. I want something creative like design and something a little more intense like engineering. After I take a few classes and get more exposure I hope I can decide in the future. As for now, I am debt free, happy, healthy, and have a good job, so all I can say is I am thankful for that and all the advice I was given.


  28. J. Money December 27, 2011 at 12:41 PM

    Thanks again everyone for helping LB out! Y’all are awesome :) And LB – Keep us updated as things go on! Wishing you nothing but success,my friend.