I would never, ever discourage a student from pursuing a particular career just because the salary potential for that job is low. Nor would I ever encourage a student to major in a certain field just because jobs in that industry tend to pay a lot.
However, I do consider it my job to make sure students investigate what kind of salary they can expect from the careers they are considering. Even more importantly, they must understand what it might be like to actually live on that amount of money.
That might sound simplistic to most adults. But think back to when you were a teenager. Even if you had a job, and even if your parents expected you to pay for your clothing or put gas in the family car, you probably had no idea how much money it really took to enjoy the kind of lifestyle your family had.
It’s the same way with teens today. When a student finds out that her dream job has a starting salary of $28,000 annually, I’ll ask whether she thinks she can live on that salary. To a student, that often sounds like a lot of money. More likely, they simply don’t know.
So I recommend what I call a “reality check.” The student researches what they might have to pay for basic needs, such as an apartment, utilities, car payment, health insurance and groceries. Then I ask them to estimate what they might like to budget for clothes, hair and nails, dinners out, furniture and maybe even a vacation.
Finally, we usually add student loan payments. (About two-thirds of all college seniors graduate with at least some debt, and the average borrower will end up with more than $25,000 in loans, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. That student would probably pay about $300 a month for 10 years.)
If a student finishes this exercise and feels comfortable living on that budget, that’s great. But sometimes, we find he or she wants to rethink that career path and switch to one with higher earning potential.
This doesn’t mean we ignore their talents and interests. We just refocus them.
For instance, one of my students was interested in missionary work because she wanted to help people and make the world a better place. She also enjoyed writing. So we considered other careers in which writing plays a big part. Eventually, she settled on law, with an eye toward focusing on human rights or social services.
For a student interested in music, we might consider careers related to the music business, such as studio engineer, record industry executive or agent. A student set on becoming an artist might become a graphic designer or art director instead.
Degrees don’t come with a guarantee of a job or a certain salary — but students who go in knowing what to expect are likely to avoid disappointing surprises when they graduate.
Donna Spann is CEO of Capstone College and Career Advising in Tyler. A college advisor for 11 years, Donna leads a team of professionals who take a personal approach to advising that helps students navigate through career and college exploration, admissions, financial aid, and find the college that’s right for them. Have a question for Donna? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. You just may see your question answered in a future column.