If you're planning to go to college this fall, or a year from then -- or even if you're heading back to campus for your second or third year -- it's time to start making decisions about what your college years will look like that'll pay off in years to come. Unfortunately, building a smart, sustainable future may require letting go of a few of your fantasies about the ideal college experience. With that in mind, here are a few of the most important things to consider when it comes to balancing college dreams with college costs:
What the Dream Will Buy You
Counting tuition, fees, room and board, the average four-year college costs more than $22,000 a year -- the kind of sum that's hard to justify without a serious consideration of the return on investment. Luckily, PayScale, an online salary comparison company, offers a yearly rundown of the best (and worst) schools when it comes to ROI.
Of course, the most profitable school on your list may not be the one you love the most. However, as The New York Times recently noted, when you measure the prestige of a university against the cost of enrollment, the school you love the most may not be the school you should invest in.
Summer Dreams, Ripped at the Seams
Forget road trips and sweet jobs in sunny climes: If you want to trim the price of your college years, you may have to suffer through some summertime blues. Summer classes at a community college, while not a lot of fun, can be a great way to cut a chunk out of your education costs.
Prices vary widely among schools, but a good rule of thumb is that a credit hour at a community college will cost less than half as much as the same credit would at a nearby state university. As an example, taking two classes each summer for two years at Northern Virginia Community College could save an University of Virginia student about $6,100. And that's not counting the cost of additional room and board: Those four classes would take care of most of a semester, making it possible to graduate early.
It's a well-worn trope, but it bears repeating: That bachelor's degree in family counseling probably won't leave you sitting in the lap of luxury. As you might expect, six of the 10 highest-paying majors are in engineering, three are in math, and the last is computer science, which is basically another form of engineering.
This doesn't mean, however, that a lack of scientific and mathematical ability will consign you to riding the counter at McDonald's. Government and international relations make the top 20, as does economics (the "dismal science"), and several other majors in the humanities and social sciences are in the top 50. The key isn't forcing yourself to find a major you'll hate -- it's finding a major you love and can make a living from.
Just as your undergraduate major can have a major impact on your earnings, choosing the right graduate degree can mean the difference between a tiny salary bump and a big earnings explosion. "What's It Worth?," a publication by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, ranks majors by the size of the graduate degree boost. At the shallow end of the scale, meteorology, studio arts and petroleum engineering majors all get less than a 5 percent salary bump to go with their grad degrees. On the other end, a graduate degree in genetics, mining engineering, or geological engineering can almost double your earnings.
On another note, it's worth remembering how expensive grad school is: The added debt you could accrue by paying for a master's degree can make your fiscal situation far more dire when you finally leave school. If you can't get your university to offer an assistantship, fellowship or scholarship to help fund your degree, you'll want to take a serious, clear-eyed look at the economics of getting -- and paying for -- that extra few years of schooling.
Dream Jobs, Nightmare Timing
As endless news reports have pointed out, the job market remains sluggish, with employment -- and wages -- seriously depressed. Worse yet, the National Bureau of Economic Research has determined that people who enter the job market during a slow time often accept lower salaries -- and it can take years to make up the difference between where they started and where they should be.
So what can you do? Well, one answer is to intentionally postpone hunting for your first job. A few days ago, I looked at strategies for staying out of the job market until the economy improves. Another popular option is internships; unfortunately, however, these can cut both ways. On the one hand, a 2010 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers determined that students who complete an internship in college are 38 percent more likely to get hired after graduation. On the other hand, a growing number of recent grads are finding themselves in the difficult position of working as unpaid interns in what would normally have been entry-level jobs.
Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings editor. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.