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Should I Even Go To School?
Pro tip: Figure out what you want first.
Considering college?
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad
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There are years of data on the benefits of college. People with a degree or at least some college education have:

  • higher wages than those without
  • more job opportunities — a lot of future job openings are coming for degree holders
  • more job stability than those with only a high school diploma
  • opportunities to meet new people, explore a passion, and find personal and intellectual growth

But there are downsides, too:

  • College costs time and money, which not everybody has
  • Student debt can be a (really) big burden
  • Some programs pay off more than others, so you have to choose carefully

Questions to ask yourself

We talked to college counselors, consultants, deans, and other experts (see a list of names at the bottom of this page), and they recommend considering:

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What are your goals? Knowing what you want long-term will really clarify the costs and benefits of going to school. Do you want a specific job or career? More money? Are you trying to find your passion? After that, you can focus on whether school will actually get you there.

How would school help you? Sometimes this is easy to gauge, like if you need a degree for a promotion at work. Other times, it’s murkier: A program might promise you more career opportunities or a higher-paying job, but will it actually deliver?

Can you reach your goals without school? Think about the other avenues available to you. Are there ways to teach yourself the skills you need to learn? Are there other ways to meet people in a particular industry? What would you have to do to get to a higher-paying job from where you are now?

Can you make it work? Going to school requires time, and usually money (sometimes a lot). If these are in short supply for you, know that there is support — many schools and programs allow for flexible schedules, child care, financial aid, credit transfers, distance learning, and provide other resources that can make getting that education more doable. There are also specialized programs, scholarships, and personal guidance for people in specific situations — like if you’re a military veteran or your parents never went to college, for example.

What hesitations do you have? You may have very warranted reservations about going to school. But it’s also worth probing some of your assumptions — if you think you can't afford it, or might not feel welcome in higher education because of your age, background, or academic ability, for example, explore what’s out there first. You may be proven wrong.

What to do to find the answers

Talk to people who’ve achieved the kind of goal you want. Was higher education helpful for them? How did they do it? What might they have done differently if they could do it again? Think of people in your immediate or extended family, friends, or even acquaintances that might have valuable experiences to share. If you don’t have someone in your life who’s achieved that goal, here’s how to find a person to talk to. You can also have conversations with people who will listen to your questions and offer general advice, whether that’s a trusted mentor or a career counselor.

Look at data about jobs and where they’re headed. There’s a lot of information out there about which industries are growing in Southern California and what kind of jobs and pay students get after they graduate from different programs. Career profile websites like Gladeo can tell you what kind of education is typically needed for different jobs, and looking at statistics can help you get an idea of whether a degree or certificate might be useful. Here are some numbers about the job market in Southern California, and about student outcomes at different schools.

Visit a career services center. Many community colleges have career centers where you can book an appointment with a counselor, take a career assessment test, and talk through potential options. You can also ask to speak with alumni from the school to find out what things were like for them and whether school was helpful. Note that some colleges’ career centers are only open to currently enrolled students. But others, like the L.A. Community College District schools, also allow non-students to book an appointment. If you need a student ID to access services, you can submit an application for free and receive a student ID without registering for classes.

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America’s Job Centers of California are also available to help guide people through their options. You can talk with an adviser, tell them about your background and skills, and figure out a plan for what to do next. They also have specialized services for youth, people with disabilities, and veterans. Find a job center near you.

Take a career planning class. Many community colleges offer classes to help you assess your goals and values and explore different career options. This can give you a structured, supportive environment to narrow down options, find something that would be a good fit for you, and understand whether you’d need more education. Here’s a description of this type of class at Santa Monica College, for example.

Try job shadowing or an internship. If you want to go into a new field but aren’t sure which, or whether it would require school, you can try to get a close-up view. Job shadowing is when you follow someone around at their job for a few hours or a full day, observing what their day-to-day is like and asking questions along the way. Some companies will have job shadowing opportunities available for non-students. At the very least, you can reach out to a hiring manager and ask if they’d be open to it.

Internships typically last at least a few months to a year. Many are reserved for currently enrolled students and can give you credit or payment for working at an organization for a semester or longer. But some internships are available to non-students as well. The terminology can get a bit fuzzy — look up “apprenticeship” or “fellowship” for opportunities that are similar to internships.

Read about support for specific situations. There are college grants for foster youth, counseling programs for low-income students, help with housing, resource centers for veterans, and a lot more. We rounded up some basic things to consider and resources for specific situations — take some time to scan these options and see if they make college more realistic for you.

Have a question about getting to higher education?