By Dr. Laura Palmer Noone, CEO, University of the Potomac

You can barely open a paper or magazine today without reading about the exorbitant cost of college today.  Students graduating with worthless degrees, and a mountain of debt.  It makes a great headline, doesn’t it?  But I remain convinced that if America wants to retain its place among the leading economic nations of the world, we need more educated people – not fewer.

Let’s look at the facts – educational attainment in the US has remained flat over the past two decades at roughly 38%.  To regain our position in the world as the country with highest level of postsecondary attainment, we would have to jump to 60%.  Yet we know that people who have a college degree live healthier, longer lives, earn more money, enjoy a lower rate of unemployment, are less likely to become part of the criminal justice system and are more civic minded.  In short, education and training are a ticket to a better life.  So what is the issue? Costs.

The cost of college varies greatly according to where one chooses to go to school.  Community colleges and state institutions are often affordable because a portion of the actual costs of providing the education are subsidized by tax dollars.  And for those who haven’t planned ahead and saved for college, the answer is usually student loans.  Federal financial aid can mean the difference between being able to afford college immediately and having to work a few years to save up.  At most institutions, a financial aid officer can walk you through the application process and give you an estimate of what you can borrow.  You may be entitled to funds to cover living expenses, as well as the costs of your program.

One of the first things you should consider is what the return on your investment is going to be.  Choosing a major that does not lead clearly to a profession or employment is risky.  If you choose a degree or certificate that leads to an occupation, consider what the average salary for that profession is in your geographic area.  A good resource for that is the website www.onetonline.org. Colleges are now required to have a net price calculator on their websites and you can determine what the costs of a program will be, your monthly payment on the student loan and how long it will take you to recover the costs of your education.

Make sure the institution you are considering is accredited by an accreditor recognized by the US Department of Education.  You can find a list of accredited institutions at www.ed.gov.

A word of caution – don’t borrow more money than you need.  It is very tempting to borrow as much as the law allows even if you don’t need it because you don’t make payments on a student loan until after you graduate or drop out.  But it is important to remember that you must repay these loans and they are not dischargeable in bankruptcy.   Buying that new big screen TV with the extra cash might seem like a good idea now, but it won’t look quite so good in a few years when you are making those bigger payments.  Borrow only what you absolutely need.

A good education is always a solid investment in your future.  Just be cautious to choose the right school, right major and borrow carefully.