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Student Debt and the Dream Job

I spent most of last week at the National Career Development Association's (NCDA) Global Conference participating in a wide range of conversations about the roles of the modern career advisor and realities of today's job market. One of the questions that emerged after a session focused on online students was, "How can they balance all the debt they incur with the search for their dream job?"

Education and career decisions are complicated, and the variables and conditions that surround them frequently change. Balancing the cost of pursuing a career with the potential outcomes quickly became a theme of attendance for me. I sought out other conference sessions focused on changing students demographics and expectations for education and careers. Many speakers also highlighted the importance of finding not only employment, but also meaningful work.

Changing Demographics and Expectations 

Many of the career advising professionals I met at NCDA observed that the population of students they are serving is shifting. In addition to the traditional four-year students entering college right out of high school, they are also seeing older students returning to school after an absence, military veterans, and working parents. These students bring more diverse backgrounds to their classes and their decisions about education and careers are increasingly driven by economic conditions.

According to The Wall Street Journal, student debt is increasing: "Americans are borrowing more to pay for college while reducing other debt as a weak job market prompts more people to go to school and tuition keeps climbing." It seems like a vicious cycle, and one that prospective students are starting to consider as part of their decisions about higher education, both online and on-campus. The article included the example of a student who recently transferred from a small, liberal arts college to a community college as a cost saving measure through which "financial aid, including federal grants, now covers all his tuition." More students are also choosing public institutions over private, a trend that is anticipated to continue. And an increase in online options at these schools will likely play a role in extending their reach to more non-traditional students.

College is generally viewed, in the context of lifelong earnings, as a worthwhile investment of time, effort, and money, but the associated costs may mean sacrifices in other areas. A recent series about student debt in The Washington Post, tells the stories of students struggling to pay back their loans through multiple part-time jobs, while others are putting their plans for home or car purchases on hold. Priorities are shifting around the debt, especially in situations where the dream job, or career field of interest, isn't a high paying one, even though the academic preparation is costly. Many of the students profiled felt they didn't receive the advice they needed or have resources available to find out more about the decisions they were making, before they made them.

Making Informed Decisions

So, how can today's college students, and those who are considering higher education, prepare to make the best decisions possible about their futures? Managing debt and dreams requires some research, an understanding of the options available, and careful consideration of finances.

  • Do the math.'s advice for prospective students making decisions about loans and other types of financial aid is to "avoid over-borrowing. … A good rule of thumb is that your total education debt for your entire college education should be less than your expected starting salary after you graduate. Ideally your student loan debt should be less than half your expected starting salary." Calculating the monthly re-payment amount that will be expected at the completion, or withdrawal from, a program is critical to understanding the level of salary that will be required after graduation. How much debt will you be able to afford?
  • Monitor the job market. Take the time to research the market for the type of work you expect after graduation – what industries are hiring and what are their needs? The Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook provides detailed projections for jobs in 25 career fields. These and other resources (e.g.,, can help you estimate the demand for workers in your field and a starting salary for your target job in your local area. Develop an understanding of how specific majors relate to employment opportunities. Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce publishes helpful reports, such as What's it Worth: The Economic Value of College Majors, which allow you to research expected earnings and employment information by major.
  • Take advantage of available resources. Assemble your own personal and professional advisory board to help you weigh the pros and cons, and to suggest areas where you need to gather more information before making a decision. Set up appointments with your school's academic advising and career counseling professionals to find out more about the support and guidance available as you move forward with career planning. You can also add members of your family, classmates, and work colleagues to this group. Who is your network has access to information or experience in the field you want to enter?

"Find something worth doing."

This was a clear message from NCDA in the form of advice for counselors and students alike to focus on total well-being and find meaning in what we do. Finding value is critical to helping each of us achieve success and satisfaction in our many, and increasingly fast-paced, life and work roles.

That dream job may not be completely out of reach, but consider all of the options available to you and use your education to expand, not limit, the possibilities, especially in a difficult economy. It is easy to get caught up in trying to find that one, perfect job description, or position title, which reflects your passion and goals. Flexibility and adaptability are should be key components of your career development moving forward. Think of all the ways in which you might pursue your passion, including volunteering in your community, when the job market doesn't match up with your dreams.

Preparing for the future can seem like peering into a cloudy crystal ball. No one knows what the future holds, but there are trends to watch and resources available to guide you through the decisions ahead. 

Image credit: Tulane Public Relations, Flickr, CC-BY