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In recent decades, attending college after high school has become practically a no-brainer. However, with mounting student loan debt and a notably tough job market, many students and their parents are questioning whether higher education is really worth the investment. But how do you decide whether college is the best next step for you?

Ben Feuer, professional educational consultant with Forster-Thomas Inc., identifies three major points of consideration. As he puts it: “Whenever I encounter a student who is considering skipping college, it immediately activates my GAG reflex. No, not that gag reflex—it’s my little acronym to help students decide if college is right for them.”

The steps of GAG should be considered (and prioritized) in order: Grades, Ability to pay, and Goals.

Grades

The first thing to consider is your academic standing. Your GPA and standardized testing scores will heavily influence what kind of schools and programs you can enroll in, as well as impact financial costs if you qualify for scholarships.

“If your grades aren’t up to snuff, it really doesn’t matter that you think you’d be interested in being a doctor,” Feuer says. “On the other hand, if you have great grades, maybe you can trade prestige for scholarship dollars by going to a local or state school.”

Ability to pay

This shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but college costs a lot of money—enough that you’ll likely be paying for it years after you’ve graduated. That kind of investment shouldn’t be made without careful consideration.

“The average tuition for a state school sits at $23,000 per year, while the average tuition for a private university is double that at $45,000 per year,” says Max Alexander, co-founder of Scholarship Superhero, LLC. “Approximately 75 percent of students currently in college have taken out students loans, and experts project that students graduating in the class of 2014 will leave school nearly $30,000 in debt*. Students need to realize that college loans are real and that they can cause serious problems down the road if a student is unable to pay them back.”

This doesn’t mean you should disregard college as an option if money is tight. There are plenty of scholarships, payment plans and other programs designed to ease the financial burden tuition can put on students. However, when contemplating your next move after high school, the monetary cost of college is well worth considering.

Goals

“I’m not so much concerned about career goals at this early stage, because 18-year-olds don’t really know what their options are,” Feuer says. “I’m more concerned about what environments allow a student [to] thrive, and where he or she does his or her best work.”

So much attention is focused on how to convince schools that you’re a good fit for them that it can be easy to forget that not every type of college may be a good fit for you. Whether it’s four-year, community or technical college that’s a right fit, or going straight to the workforce while considering your options, you have to determine what’s the best next step for your future.

Making an informed decision

“You have to do what’s right for you,” can be frustrating advice, especially when it’s offered at moments when you may not know what’s “right for you.” How are you supposed to figure it out?

You can start by consulting the data. Economic Modeling Specialists Intl.’s Career Coach tool helps college students create clear plans to reach their academic and professional goals. And with growing concern about whether higher education is the best choice to begin with, EMSI will soon be launching “Find Your Calling,” a free, national website, similar to Career Coach, specifically designed to help high school students understand the labor market and determine the path that’s right for them.

Of course, doing what’s “right for you” is a lot easier if you have a general idea of where you want to end up. “My recommendation is for students to take the time to think about what it is they want before automatically getting into the college search, and for parents to respect that time of introspection,” says Stefanie O’Connell, Millennial finance writer and founder of thebrokeandbeautifullife.com. “Limiting post-high school choices to the selection of a major is just that—limiting. Everyone thrives in a different environment, and each student should think carefully about his or her options before committing to any one ‘set’ course. College is too expensive to commit to half-heartedly.”

*Source – Scholarship Super Hero

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