Mid-west boy, now a West coast man, Christopher Hagan attended Southern Illinois University for his undergraduate degree in anthropology and the University of Oregon for his MA in International Studies. In between and all around, he has held jobs in archaeology, marketing research, and as a shift supervisor at a popular green and white cupped coffee chain. While in graduate school, he realized studying Chinese language and the political economy of climate change wasn’t necessarily a means to an end, so after completing his coursework, he went back to being a full time archaeologist. He enjoys travel and has been to China twice, and to South Africa, Mexico, and across Southeast Asia. His favorite place in the world is Bali. He now resides in Portland, Oregon, where it remains weird, and rainy.
Should you borrow money to pay for college? Absolutely! Can it be scary to think about taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt? It should be! The truth is, most college students will have to borrow at least some money to pay for their education. Although student debt can be a huge burden on personal finances and can severely limit your future, if you do it smartly, borrowing money to pay for college is still worth it – even for a liberal arts degree. Given that taking out loans may be unavoidable, the number one piece of advice I can give is to start thinking of college and those loans as financial investments in your future. This way of thinking has implications that I will explain below. College can still be the best time of your life, a rite of passage, or a hedonistic four-year binge, but when you start conceiving of it as a financial investment you will have a better plan for paying off your debt and building a brighter future for yourself.
When I was a senior in high school and a freshman in college, I was advised to “Pick a major you love or are passionate about. If you love what you study, everything will be okay.” Wrong! This advice is incomplete and doesn’t reflect the reality of today’s job market. By blindly following this logic, you might as well invest $40,000 in the toothpick industry. Why? Because if you are taking out loans for college, it does not make sense to borrow huge sums of money for a degree that gives you no applicable job skills. Failing to take the time when you are in college to acquire in-demand technical skills is simply a waste of time and (borrowed) money. Unfortunately, many liberal arts degrees are not sound financial investments. They do not teach you the skills that today’s employers want.
In today’s economy, with tuition rates skyrocketing and an uncertain job market for new graduates, it is more important than ever to get the most “bang for your buck” when you are borrowing money for your education. If you think you only need a diploma to get a job, think again; with the exception of a few entry-level sales positions, a degree in just any old field isn’t enough anymore, and this is especially true, unfortunately, for a liberal arts degree. This may sound like cynical advice, and I admit that for those students like me, who find their home in a liberal arts program, the reality of today’s job market is dismaying. The social sciences and humanities can offer some of the most engaging coursework one will ever take in school. My own undergraduate field, anthropology, was intellectually stimulating, but it is an unwise single major for anyone interested in getting a job after they graduate.
The way to ensure that the money you borrow for college is soundly invested in your future is to take classes that teach you marketable, in-demand technical skills. “Technical skills” is a kind of catch-all phrase that basically means skills other than the ability read, write, or think critically (you learn those skills in liberal arts degrees). Technical skills primarily involve a computer and the ability to compile, analyze, and manage data. You should learn to be a master at using Microsoft Excel. Courses in math, science, or programming, and business, marketing, or engineering are where technical skills are being taught. You may need to get through some basic 100 or 200 level prerequisites to learn these skills, but when you graduate and can walk into an interview and say, “I can do everything you’re asking me to do, and I can do it proficiently,” you will know it was worth the effort!
If your passion lies in the liberal arts but you want to make sure your investment (e.g., loans) pays off in the future, one way to acquire marketable technical skills is to double major. Double majoring may a require a fifth or even sixth year (and therefore, counter-intuitively, even more debt), but in the long run it will be worth it. Double majoring in something that you love (anthropology, perhaps?) and a technical field (love or hate) is a sound investment. For example, a double major in psychology and marketing is a great investment. A single degree in sociology, art history, or gender studies will not open the door to a good-paying job in an in-demand field. You may be able to beat your friends in Jeopardy, but you will be in debt and possibly broke. Even a minor in something technical is better than nothing. Majoring in a social science and minoring in business administration, for instance, and learning some advanced skills in data analysis will set you up for success. Double majoring in philosophy and German language will not. No employer in the real world is going to care that you can write a 10 page essay on famous German philosophers.
Today’s employers may complain about a lack of qualified applicants, but that is because today’s employers are reluctant to train new employees in the skills that they expect you to know. Try searching indeed.com or monster.com for keywords such as “history,” “anthropology,” or “political science”. The jobs that you find will be few and far between, and those that you do find will invariably expect proficiency in some kind of software that you have never heard of because you didn’t know you needed to learn it! Alternatively, employers may expect you to have demonstrable skills in project management, marketing, or doing basic data analysis. If employers won’t train you, you need to learn the skills they want when you are in school.
Lastly, I would like to give some advice about graduate school. It seems that many students think of graduate school as a requirement, or a necessary next step in getting a good job. This is not the case. Keep in mind, graduate programs are just like undergraduate programs in that they want one thing: your money. Racking up even more debt for a Master’s degree in a social science or humanity is not going to be a sound financial investment unless it gives you applicable and usable technical skills.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many jobs – and good-paying jobs at that – out there for liberal arts majors who can’t back up their ability to read, write, or problem solve with some applicable technical abilities. If you love to write, do yourself a favor and double major in marketing, communications, or business – or at least find a minor that teaches you some high-level technical skills using a computer. Major in what you love, but consider your college career and the money you may have to borrow for it as a financial investment. Not everyone can be expected to study calculus or advanced financial models – that’s not what I’m recommending. What I’m suggesting is that to protect your investment, do yourself a solid and spend the extra time and hard work to graduate with a second set of skills (think of them as backup skills if you have to) that set you apart from the rest of the pack. Do you want the money you borrow for college (those loans are investments!) to pay off, and pay you back? Or do you want your investment to saddle you with anxiety or burden and limit your future options? By taking the time to acquire a set of technical skills that you can market to employers in the real world, you can turn that liberal arts degree into a good-paying job, a secure income, and a bright future. And you can pay off those loans before you turn 50!