When is it a good time to start college? What is the right path for me? Can I even afford it?
These and many other questions can be overwhelming when it comes to choosing a career or college degree, especially amid a global pandemic that limits one-on-one counseling.
But, higher education officials say one answer is key: There is no wrong time to start.
So why not take that first step and research your options today?
The main paths to choose from are a traditional four-year degree at a university, or a technical degree or certificate from a community or technical college — and there’s always a mix of the two, of course.
“When you go to a four-year university you are entering an academic, multi-disciplinary path that is going to take four years or a little bit longer depending on the career,” said Dara Newton, associate VP for strategic enrollment at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “Students seeking a technical degree are looking for a particular type of vocation or certificate that can take from six months to two years depending on what they are pursuing.”
Knowing what is available to them and what might best fit their goals is an important first step. This ensures that students get the guidance needed to start and finish their degree plan.
This is where college counselors and recruiters step in. When it comes to higher education, a little guidance goes a long way.
“Some students know very clearly what it is that they want to do. Others know what they enjoy doing and don’t know that they can build on that talent,” said South Texas College President Dr. Shirley Reed. “Others are clueless … they don’t fully realize that going to college and getting a certificate or degree is the best hope for their future.”
At STC, which offers 120 different degree paths, these resources can be found at the career center. “A student can come in and take an aptitude test and learn where their talents and interests lie,” Reed said. “From there you can take the next step and learn ‘these are the career opportunities I could have. These are the kinds of jobs I could pursue. This is the kind of salary I could earn.” Students can also find similar guidance at UTRGV where counselors and recruiters are also available.
The two Valley institutions work hand in hand, as they share many students who bounce between their different campuses pursuing degrees and certificates.
“Having those strong partners and strong collaborations with institutions across the Valley is so important because we want to be able to support students no matter where they start,” Newton said. “There really is an opportunity to start at either institution and reach their ultimate goal.”
Whether a student is leaving their hometown to pursue a degree or staying at a local institution, it is important to visit the campus or campuses of their choice prior to registering.
“There’s a number of research studies that show one of the really important factors in deciding is to get on the college campus,” she said. “Once you are on the campus you have a feeling for the place and the people you meet. How you are treated and whether you feel welcomed.” Being on campus also gives potential students a chance to see what else is available if they are still weighing their career options.
Another big factor is cost. The overall cost of a four-year degree at a university and a two-year technical certificate at a community college can vary greatly depending on the institution. But talking to a counselor or recruiter could help students figure out what the financial aid and scholarship opportunities are.
“You want to weigh what you will pay out of pocket at each institution, how much financial aid may cover,” Newton said. “I think it’s important to weigh overall cost and what potential financial aid and scholarships you may be eligible for.” Once students have been admitted into one or more institutions, they can apply for financial aid prior to actually registering for any courses. Students can then compare awards and costs.
“There’s staff that will help students compare awards, read their award letters,” Newton said. “That’s also part of our job, helping them understand the financial implications.”
Many students choose to perhaps start their associate degree at a community college, such as STC, and then transferring their credits to a university of their choice. This could help stretch any financial aid they may qualify for.
Even today, with the complications brought by COVID-19 and the need for social distance, colleges and universities are offering guidance virtually, by phone, or by appointment. The goal, officials said, is not to enroll anyone into any program, but to help students make an informed decision and place them in a successful path.
“We are here for everybody without regard to your financial circumstances or whether you are the first in your family to go to college,” Reed said. “There’s something for everybody.”