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Should You Go Straight to College?

By Marty Nemko

You’ve probably been encouraged to go to college. And many of you probably should go directly—do not pass go, do not collect $200.

But it’s not as obvious a decision as you might think. After all, getting a degree from a so-called four-year college, on average, takes 5.3 years of your life. Only 37%, nationwide, graduate in four years.

Plus, even after financial aid, that college degree will probably cost you (or at least your parents) a small fortune. And in today’s job market, 25% of college graduates are unemployed, a higher rate than among high school dropouts! How could that be? Because colleges are turning out far more graduates than ever before at the same time as US companies increasingly offshore jobs that would have gone to US college graduates. So, the old statistic that college results in greater lifetime earnings may not be true for your generation.

The good news is that there are options other than going straight to college that may be worth considering.

The following questionnettes will help you decide whether, after high school, you’d be wisest to:

· go straight to a “four-year” college

· go to a “two-year” college (often called a community college) with plans to transfer later to a “four-year” college

· obtain training at a community college or apprenticeship program that will prepare you for your career in two years, often less.

· join the military

· learn how to start your own business (with a mentor’s help)

· look for a job straight out of high school.

Questionette 1

1. Do you get at least B’s in most academic courses?

2. Did you score at least 1050 on the SAT (22 on the ACT)?

3. Do you like most of your academic classes?

4. Do you aspire to a career that requires a four-year college degree?

If you answered yes to all four questions, consider going straight to a four-year college.

Keys to finding a good and well-suited college:

1. Ask the college’s admissions office for a copy of its latest student satisfaction survey and accreditation report.

2. Read about the college in the book, The Best 357 Colleges. Each college’s profile summarizes a survey of 100+ of that college’s students.

3. When visiting the campus, hang out in the student cafeteria; walk through the residence halls, and into a busy classroom building and peek into 5 or 10 classes. Can you see yourself fitting in?

4. Ask at least five students, “I’m thinking of coming here. What should I know about it that wouldn’t appear in the official brochure?” “What sorts of students fit best and worst here?” and “Do you think this college is worth the money?”

Questionnette 2

1. Would the cost of a four-year college likely severely strain your family’s financial security, even assuming you got some financial aid? (If you don’t know, use the college cost calculators at

2. Did you get at least B’s in most academic courses?

3. Did you score at least 950 on the SAT (19 on the ACT)?

4. Would you be able to stay motivated to do well in college even if many fellow students were not?

5. Can you live with telling your friends you’re starting out to a community college even though it doesn’t have the prestige of a four-year college?

If you answered yes to all five questions, consider starting out at a two-year college with the goal of transferring to a four-year college.

Questionnette 3:

1. Would you prefer to get a job now but fear that without training, you’d end up stuck with low-level work?

2. Did you often get C’s in high school?

3. Was your SAT score below 900?

If you answered yes to all three questions, consider enrolling in a community college’s career preparation program. Offerings are extensive, ranging from nursing to robotics repair, cheffing to cosmetology.

Or consider an apprenticeship. These mainly prepare you for hands-on careers such as electrician or surveyor. Apprenticeship programs combine on-the-job mentorship with classes often given at community colleges. You immediately earn entry-level wages and after four years are fully trained and can expect to earn a solid middle-class living. For links to apprenticeships in your state, go to and click on “links.”

Questionnette 4:

1. Would you benefit from being in a highly disciplined, structured environment for at least two years?

2. Are you at least not anti-military?

3. Are you willing to accept the possibility that you’d have to go to war? (The good news is that most military recruits never serve in combat.)

4. Are you or could you get into very good physical condition?

5. Are you attracted to the idea of starting your career directly out of high school?

If you answered yes to all five questions, consider a career or at least a stint in the military. The military offers extensive opportunities and financial aid to attend college during and after your enlistment.

If you have at least A- grades and a 1250 SAT and are athletic, consider applying for one of the US Military Academies: West Point, the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, the Coast Guard Academy. These provide a fine college education for free but you must commit to at least four years afterwards as a military officer.

Links:,,,, and

Questionette 5

1. Are you a self-starter, not needing a boss to keep you working?

2. Do people tend to like you immediately?

3. Would you not be shy about asking people to buy things from you?

4. Do you have a nose for getting bargains?

5. Does your gut tell you you’d be successful owning your own business?

6. Would you like to start your own business without first completing college?

If you answered yes to all six questions, consider preparing to own your own business. It is usually wisest to defer starting your business until you’ve been trained by a successful businessperson. Likely suspects: a parent, relative, friend of your parents, parent of one of your friends. Ask if you can work alongside them—for free if necessary--in exchange for your being able to watch the master at work and ask questions. Also consider taking courses and mentorships offered by the federal government’s Small Business Administration. See Click on “starting your business.”

Questionnette 6

1. Do you need to make money immediately?

2. Do you like the idea of doing all your learning on the job?

3. Are you willing to start at the bottom?

4. Are you willing to accept that to rise far above the bottom, you’ll probably need to show leadership qualities and be assertive enough to get your bosses to take a special interest in you?

If you answered yes to all four questions, consider looking for a job straight out of high school. Don’t settle for a job likely to be dead-end, for example, a janitor or burger flipper. Find a launchpad job. That’s a job that while entry-level, offers significant opportunities for advancement, for example, receptionist at a high-quality company, non-profit, or government agency.

Of course, no questionnaire should determine your final decision. Share your answers with people you trust: parents, counselor, friends, relatives. Consider what they say but don’t necessarily do what they say. The best decision is made when you’ve open-mindedly considered others’ input and then made up your own mind.

Of course, your decision isn’t permanent. Many people who, after high school, don’t go straight to college, go on to college later in life. For now, the question is, “What should you do directly after high school?”

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