A Guide to Choosing the Right College Degree

Fewer decisions are more important than selecting the right degree program and there are many considerations that must be made when choosing a particular academic path. The eventual career, the cost of the program, the nearest universities that offer the course of study, and the proper degree level, all make for a somewhat complex decision-making process. Even so, proceeding through each of these considerations in a measured, logical manner can make it quite a bit easier to determine the ideal program, location, cost, and other factors that will set students up for long-term success in a rewarding career.

Choose a Degree Based on Your Career Aspirations

The whole point of choosing a degree program in today’s economy is to build a resume that stands out in a world of increasingly uncertain job markets. That means students should begin their program with its conclusion in mind. Will the degree present a powerful opportunity for finding a rewarding career? Does the program teach students the essential skills needed to hit the ground running and bring immediate value to any of their future employers? Is the job market associated with a given degree performing well or suffering from long-term concerns about growth and sustainability?

To get started with this program, students would do themselves a service to proceed through three logical steps.

1. Identify a Long-Term Career Goal

Think of the workplace: What does the ideal job look like on a daily basis? Is it an office position, an executive office, or a courtroom? Is the role managerial, educational, or something else? Students should consider what they want to do after their degree is complete, how their personality or existing skills can make that happen, and which degree program benefits them the most when they begin putting new and existing skills to use for new employers.

2. Find the Right Degree for Each Career

An aspiring teacher’s choice is straightforward: Elementary education degrees are great for those students who are good with kids, while secondary education degrees are good for those who prefer to teach more advanced subjects. Engineers, businesspeople, and even aspiring attorneys are all served by a wide number of other majors. Consult college guidebooks and catalogs, review the structure of each degree program, and choose the one that seems most interesting and most relevant to the career itself.

3. Choose a Concentration that Adds Additional Benefits

Most business students get a solid foundation in the basics of day-to-day management just from the basic bachelor’s degree program itself. From there, they can add a concentration that caters more directly to their interest. Some students who are good with numbers choose to add a concentration in accounting, while others add concentrations in things like executive leadership, marketing, advertising, and others. This same process is available across the board, from education degrees and specialties to liberal arts pursuits and even very specific kinds of engineering and architecture.

With these three considerations made, the right degree program will probably become apparent quite quickly, especially for those students who already know what they want to do. For others, an obvious degree choice might not be readily available. That’s why virtually every college and university offers programs with names like “Arts and Letters” or “General Studies.” These programs expose students to a wide variety of disciplines that might guide them toward the right degree choice and career option for their unique skills.

The Cost of the Degree Should Also Be a Top Concern

Today’s students are in tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, with the national average currently siting between $20,000 and $35,000 of total debt based on the student’s state of residence and their decision of either a public or private university. This amount of money doesn’t take into account the amount of tuition paid by state and federal grant programs, university merit scholarships, and the thousands of private scholarships awarded to students each year.

Because the stakes are so high, and the costs are rising faster than the rate of inflation, students need to conduct a healthy survey of nearby universities and decide which ones offer the best combination of long-term affordability and academic prestige. Typically, that means most students will start with the most affordable university nearby, examining their programs and looking into university guidebooks, campus tours, and online reviews.

If the state’s public universities don’t have the proper degree program, or their programs simply don’t live up to the academic rigor that many of today’s students expect, it may be time to consider a local private college or university. Though more expensive per capita than state universities, many private institutions do offer generous scholarship and merit-based grant programs to cover their considerably higher cost of tuition. It may be worth looking into each university’s aid programs before deciding whether or not the base tuition rate excludes a certain degree program from consideration.

Furthermore, students who already have a planned career path and know exactly which degree program they’ll be choosing, have the option of applying for private scholarships that will offset any tuition expense. This should be a natural part of selecting a degree, applying to the best program, and successfully avoiding the pitfalls of escalating student loan debt.

Location Matters: Select a University that Meshes Academics and Career Proximity

It’s safe to say that most business students wouldn’t choose a rural university for their studies, since those universities just aren’t close to the largest and most common employment centers for graduates with management experience. Likewise, students interested in geology or horticulture wouldn’t pick a university located in midtown Manhattan. Location matters for several key reasons:

- Schools participate in networking just like their students do, developing employment and internship connections with local businesses. If a given sector of the economy has no strong presence nearby, it’s harder for students to turn their degree into a rewarding career.

- The universities closest to a student may not offer their ideal degree program. Rather than compromise, students should widen their radius and make sure that they’re getting the education they require to be successful after graduation.

- Location often determines the campus environment and layout. Urban universities are larger, with closer buildings and a distinctly “city” feel. Some students will thrive in this environment, but others will feel packed in and frustrated. Suburban and rural universities are more spread out, but their communities can feel distant or cut off from large employment centers and cultural attractions. Each chose is right for a different kind of student.

Choose the Right Degree Level and Type for Career Success

Today’s degrees typically come in four distinct types, separated mostly by the duration of the program, the level of academic rigor, and the type of career being pursued. Students new to the collegiate world should be sure they pick the right degree to meet their ultimate career goes after they’ve graduated. Here are the basics:

- Associate’s Degrees (A.A., A.S., A.A.S.): These degrees are offered by all community colleges and some four-year universities. The Associate of Arts and Associate of Science degrees are designed to be transferred to a four-year institution after completion, where a student will continue their studies for an additional two years. The Associate of Applied Science degree is typically associated with vocational or certification programs, where fewer general education requirements are enforced and students are prepared to enter the workforce immediately after completion.

- Bachelor’s Degrees (B.A., B.S.): These degrees are the typical, four-year degrees offered by virtually all major colleges and universities. They’re often the minimum degree required for those seeking entry-level work in a professional capacity. Students get a full underpinning of general education courses as well as significant work in major-related fields of study. These degrees can then be furthered through graduate and professional studies after graduation.

- Graduate Degrees (M.A., M.S., M.B.A., etc.): Graduate-level programs build on the solid foundation laid by undergraduate programs. They tend to be more specialized, focusing in only a specific area of a given career, and typically require between one and three years of study. Most business students pursue their Master’s of Business Administration at this level, and many educators are required to pursue a graduate degree in order to keep their teaching positions over the long-term.

- Professional Degrees: Professional degree programs include those pursued by doctors and lawyers, where the curriculum prepares students for professional examinations and admission to things like the Medical Board or Bar Association. These programs are often intensely rigorous, highly competitive during admissions, and offer some of the best-paying jobs after graduation.

With Careful Decision-Making, a Rewarding Degree is Easy to Choose

It’s pretty easy to feel overwhelmed by the process of choosing a degree, with consequences that affect a student’s future educational opportunities, their standing in among future employers, and their ability to advance their career over time. With a logical decision-making process, however, this choice is anything but overwhelming. In fact, most students find it exciting to narrow down their career goals, find a degree that works best for them, and pursue admission to the best university for their academic and occupational needs.