You don't necessarily have to know what you want to do before you enroll in school. Degree programs usually allow you to apply as an "undecided" major, and you can spend some time taking different classes to figure out what interests you.
But if you're paying for classes, spending a long time deciding what to study could end up costing a lot of money. A school’s career services can help speed things up: book an appointment with a counselor to learn more about your interests, what jobs exist in different fields, and what it takes to get where you want to go.
Here are other ideas for how to decide.
How do I figure out what to study?
Here’s some advice we got from college counselors and other experts (you can find similar suggestions in more detail in the “Should I even go to school?” section). You can take any of these steps before or while you’re enrolled:
Take a career assessment test. These are short surveys that ask questions about your personality and interests, then try to match them with various careers. You can take assessment quizzes on websites like Gladeo, My Next Move, California CareerZone, and more. Many of these sites also profile different jobs and list the skills and education needed to get them and move up the ladder. You can also take a quiz in person and talk through your options at a career services center (read more about them further below in this section).
Look at the data. Government agencies and research organizations are keeping tabs on which industries in Southern California are expected to grow quickly in the future. Here are a few sources:
- California’s official Labor Market Information page lets you see employment rates and trends across different counties, industries, and occupations. You can also see lists of occupations that are projected to grow the most in the coming years in different counties across the state.
- California CareerZone lets you view lists of California’s highest-paying, fastest-growing, and most-employed occupations in different fields. It shows numbers of annual openings for each job and what education or training it takes to get in the field. You can also take a career assessment quiz, find out what budget you need for the lifestyle you want, and search for schools and education programs in California.
- This list from the Center for a Competitive Workforce outlines middle-skill jobs in L.A. County that are projected to grow in the next five years. You can sort by average hourly wage and the number of job openings that are expected to be available in that timeframe. It also links to reports that have more detail about the projections.
- This report from think tank Third Way outlines the return on investment for different higher education programs, looking at bachelor's, associate, and certificate programs. For instance, a quick glance shows that bachelor's degree students in fields like nursing or engineering are almost certain to be able to recoup the costs of their education within five years or less. Meanwhile, it also shows that the majority of students who earn bachelor's degrees in theater arts don't earn enough to recoup their costs at all.
- Schools also have data on the kinds of jobs students get and the salaries they make after finishing their programs. Read more about that in this section further below.
Talk to people, talk to people, talk to people. There's nothing like connecting with a real human, whether it’s a mentor who can help refine your goals or a person who can share details about their journey and experiences. If you’re not sure where to find someone doing the job you’re interested in, this section has tips on how to find someone.
Visit a career services center. Why not do all three of the above steps at once? An appointment with a career counselor at a job center or community college can help you narrow down your options and find a good match. Some campuses like the L.A. Community College District schools allow non-students to meet with counselors. Schools may require you to have a student ID number in order to access these services, but you can submit an application for free and get a student ID without registering for classes.
Take a career planning class. You can find one at many community colleges. These classes can help you better understand your interests and values, along with narrowing down what you want.
Job shadowing or internships. These give you the closest view of what a particular job would actually be like. Some schools’ career centers will be able to connect you with job shadowing or internship opportunities, but you can also reach out directly to companies and organizations to find opportunities that are open to both students and non-students.
What kinds of programs are out there?
There are many, many different kinds — some that take several years to complete and some that take just a few weeks. Picking the right program depends on what your goals are, how much time you can commit to school, your financial situation, your ability to take on debt, and the field you’re interested in. Job listings and websites with career profiles (Gladeo or CareerOneStop, for example) can tell you which credentials are required for certain jobs, and research data (see the section above) can tell you which jobs are expected to grow in the future.
Degrees are required by many employers, especially for professional and management jobs, and usually take several years to complete. Degree programs include general education courses like English and math, on top of courses specific to your field. There are different types of degrees:
These typically take at least four years to complete for a full-time student. Bachelor’s degrees are required for jobs in a lot of different fields, from teacher to engineer to financial adviser, and more. Professional and managerial jobs will usually ask for a bachelor’s degree as a minimum requirement. You also need a bachelor’s degree in order to pursue advanced degrees like master’s degrees or doctorates. By the year 2030, around 40% of jobs in California will require a bachelor’s degree, according to projections by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Pros: Money and stability. Californians with bachelor’s degrees make $40,000 more annually, on average, than those with only a high school diploma. Job security is another big plus: Almost all the jobs that were lost in California during the first part of the COVID-19 pandemic were among workers with less than a bachelor’s degree. Researchers also project that there will be a lot of demand for workers with a bachelor's degree in the coming years.
Cons: Four years is a substantial chunk of time to dedicate to school. Plus, options are more limited for going to school part-time. Bachelor’s programs also tend to cost more overall than programs for associate degrees or certificates, although more financial aid is often available for bachelor's degree programs.
Where to get these degrees: Four-year colleges, including California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) schools, all offer bachelor’s degree programs. You can also find them at private and online-only schools. Some community colleges also offer bachelor’s degrees under a pilot program.
Cost: How much you pay for a four-year degree varies dramatically depending on the school and how much financial aid you can get to attend. Tuition costs around $7,000 a year at a Cal State school but could cost $50,000 a year at a private school. That's IF you're paying full tuition. At UCLA, for example, 45% of students don't pay any tuition, and some schools, like Occidental College, pay 100% of students' demonstrated financial need.
According to the Institute for College Access and Success, 47% of four-year college students in California graduate with student debt, and their average debt is $21,485. But bachelor's degrees are also more likely than any other credential to give students a return on their investment.
Make sure you know about financial aid options — read about that in this section.
These generally take at least two years to complete for a full-time student. There are many jobs you can get with an associate degree, including dental hygienist, air traffic controller, teacher’s assistant, and more. Associate degrees can also help you break into entry-level positions in new fields, although you may need a bachelor’s degree to move up.
Pros: These programs are shorter than most other degree programs. Associate degree holders in California make $13,793 more a year on average than those with just a high school diploma. And if you plan ahead, you can transfer your credits to a bachelor’s program, which could save money in the long run.
Cons: The amount of money you can make depends on the field, but associate degree holders as a group make significantly less than bachelor's degree holders. In 2020, workers with an associate degree made $938 in median weekly earnings, compared to $1,305 for bachelor's degree holders.
Where to get these degrees: Community colleges and vocational schools offer associate degree programs. If you get your degree at a community college, it will likely be easier to transfer to a four-year program later (read more about that in this section).
Cost: This depends on where you go to school. Community colleges have the lowest tuition, at $46 a unit, while private schools generally charge more. (A “unit” or “credit” is how schools measure the value of classes — it usually refers to how many hours of instruction a class has per week. Most college courses are 3 to 4 units, and an associate degree typically takes 60 credits to complete.) An associate degree can range from around $2,700-$3,000 in total tuition at a community college to more than $20,000 at a private vocational school.
However, the amount you end up paying also depends on how much financial aid you get and how long it takes to finish your degree. Read more about the cost of college in this section.
Master’s, doctorates, and other advanced degrees are usually only necessary for specialized jobs like physician, attorney, or licensed clinical social worker. Some advanced degrees, like a master’s of business administration (MBA), might not be required for jobs but can prepare you with certain skills or help you move up in an industry. Some programs allow you to study a bachelor’s and master’s degree at the same time — they’re sometimes called “concurrent enrollment,” “cross enrollment,” or “combined degree” programs.
The time it takes to get the degree depends on the field — some master’s programs are only one or two years, while some Ph.D.s may take seven or eight years to finish. You have to have a bachelor’s before getting an advanced degree.
Pros: People with advanced degrees earn more money and have lower unemployment rates on average than all other workers, although your income depends a lot on where you’re employed and what field you’re in. Some Ph.D. programs also cover the cost of your tuition.
Cons: Advanced degree programs are generally more expensive than undergraduate degrees. Federal student loan interest rates are also higher for graduate students. Average student debt is also higher, especially for medical and law school.
Where to get these degrees: Many four-year colleges— including CSUs, UCs, and private schools — offer advanced degree programs. You can also find online-only master’s and doctoral programs through extended education divisions and some private schools. Professional doctorates, like medical and law degrees, are not typically offered online.
Cost: There’s a big range, depending on what kind of degree you’re getting and which school you’re attending. For instance, a master’s program at a CSU costs around $7,000 a year, while a law degree from USC is nearly $70,000 a year. But you can still get financial aid as a graduate student — read more about that in this section. Those who take out loans to pay for school have an average student debt of $186,600 for professional doctorates and $66,000 for master’s degrees.
Certificate programs, coding boot camps, and other short-term credentials let you learn a specific set of skills in much less time than it takes to earn a full degree (hence, "short-term"). These programs can:
- prepare you for a state licensing exam that you’re required to pass in order to do the job (e.g., phlebotomy, emergency medical technician, nail technician)
- set you up with base knowledge before you start an apprenticeship in the trades, like plumbing or electrical work
- help you build skills or expertise so that you can break into a field or level up at your current job
Pros: Most of these programs can be completed in less than a year — some as short as six weeks. There are free and low-cost programs available. You can earn a certificate without having a degree. You can also earn certificates after you’ve earned a degree in order to boost your skills or switch fields. Some certificate programs will even let you work your way up to an associate degree.
Cons: Hundreds of thousands of these short-term programs exist, there’s a big range in cost and quality, and it’s hard to figure out which will actually lead to jobs or higher pay.
Where to get these credentials: Community colleges, extended education programs, vocational schools, and some non-profit organizations and private companies offer certificates, training programs, and boot camps to learn new skills.
Know the difference: You might hear a lot of terms related to certificates, like certifications or licenses. They’re not the same (confusing, yes!).
- Certificates are awarded by schools to show you’ve completed a program or mastered a skill.
- Industry-recognized certifications are standardized and awarded by specific industry groups (for example, in information technology or human resources). Many companies may prefer or even require you to have certain certifications for a job.
- State-issued licenses must be earned in order to do certain jobs like real estate agent, barber, or court reporter. Sometimes you’ll have to complete courses at a school (which will give you a certificate of completion) and then take a state exam in order to get a license.
Building up to a degree: Some community colleges will let you earn a series of certificates that will eventually earn you an associate degree. That way, you can get higher-paying jobs as you continue studying. Or, if you have to take a break from school, you’ll still have something to show employers about your work so far. These are called “stackable” credits — call a school’s admissions office directly to ask if a certificate program they have can stack up to a degree.
Cost: Tuition depends on where you’re taking classes. A digital marketing certificate, for example, costs $3,950 at General Assembly, $5,800 at UCLA Extension, and $828 at Fullerton College, but the quality of the program and its connections to employers may be different across schools. Many programs offer financial aid, too — read more about that in this section.
Read more: Here’s a deeper dive into certificates and other short-term credentials, and how to figure out which are worth your time and money.
How likely am I to get a stable, well-paying job after I finish school?
We want so much to be able to predict your future. But since we can’t, here’s the next best thing: some ideas for how to find out if a program is likely to pay off:
Find out how people got the kind of job you want, and what employers are looking for. Do you have to have a certain certificate or degree to get the job, or can you demonstrate knowledge and experience in other ways? What are typical credentials of candidates that are usually hired? You can look up professional associations, social networking sites like LinkedIn, and visit career fairs to find employers and workers to talk to.
Ask about a program’s connection to employers. For instance, many graduates of the Aircraft Fabrication and Assembly program at Antelope Valley College get interviews and jobs at Northrop Grumman Corporation because of a strong partnership between the school and the company. Ask the program administrators, school admissions office, or career services center how a program you’re considering might be able to help you gain work experience or develop relationships with employers.
Ask how other students did after they finished the program. What jobs did they get? What was their average starting salary? How many are employed? Most schools should be able to tell you about student outcomes. Reach out to the program administrators or a school admissions office and ask to see what information they have. California’s public universities all have some data available on the kinds of jobs their graduates get. Below we’ve compiled all the public data we could find:
- Cal State has a public database of graduate earnings up to 15 years after graduation. You can filter by CSU campus, major, years since graduation, and more.
- The Community Colleges of California’s Chancellor’s Office tracks several things, including wage outcomes for graduates. Check out the College Wage Tracker, where you can see graduates’ earnings and filter by campus, field of study, and degree or certificate.
- The UC system compiles data on alumni earnings two to 15 years after graduation, broken down by major. Many UCs also send out surveys for recent graduates to report their job status after graduation. Here are some recent results:
The federal government’s Training Provider Results search tool can also show you completion and employment rates from different vocational training programs across the country.
Some other helpful data sources:
- The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ database of survey responses from college graduates all across the country lets you see information on jobs and earnings.
- Here’s a ranking of four-year colleges around the country, published by nonprofit group Educate To Career, based on the percentage of students that got a job in their field of study after graduation.