By Eric Tyson

You and your family probably don’t have an unlimited supply of money to spend on furthering your education and training. So, just as with buying anything else — computers, clothing, and so on — you should look for value when spending your education dollars. Value means getting the most (quality) for your money

Keep the following pointers in mind to ensure you get value for your educational dollars:

  • Realize that you don’t always get what you pay for. Just because you spend more for education doesn’t mean that you’ll get better quality than something costing less. For example, the best state colleges and universities offer better value to in-state residents than do some private colleges and universities.
  • Look beyond sticker prices. Because of the availability of financial aid, including grants and scholarships you don’t have to pay back, you can’t simply compare the sticker price of various schools and assume that the price is your actual cost. Apply to a range of schools, apply for aid, and then compare your bottom-line cost at each school.
  • Be careful when examining rankings of colleges and which colleges’ graduates earn the most. Lots of data and rankings on the best colleges and universities are available. One challenge when evaluating such data is that many of the highest-rated schools are private and quite expensive, and they selectively admit the most qualified candidates. So their graduates tend to earn more. Be sure to compare what each school provides and what each costs after factoring in financial aid awards.
  • Consider employer assistance. Check out what education assistance your employer may offer. Just be sure that it makes sense for you and your career to stay with that employer for whatever additional time may be required.
  • If you have specific fields of work in mind, research what education and training best prepares you. Talk to folks currently in those fields and consider training programs as well as technical training programs where appropriate.

Considering a liberal arts education and alternatives

First it’s helpful to define what is generally meant by a “liberal arts education.” My alma mater, Yale University, defines a liberal arts education as one that teaches students to think critically and express themselves clearly. Yale asserts that a liberal arts education is a solid foundation for all professions and can help students lead successful and meaningful lives.

That sounds all well and good, and for some people, a liberal arts education may be a good fit. But for others, in our increasingly competitive global economy, I think there are some potentially better alternatives to consider.

Also, please keep in mind that many folks like myself, who attended the leading liberal arts colleges and universities, end up going on to graduate school for advanced degrees, for example in business, law, medicine, and so forth.

For some folks, a liberal arts degree can be a significant waste of time and money. Trade or technical schools (including community colleges) can provide specific training in particular areas such as automotive technology, carpentry, computer-aided drafting and design, computer information systems, or manufacturing technology, or prepare you to become a dental technician, medical assistant, nurse, paramedic, or physical therapist.

Solid technical training has the advantage of providing skills that should lead to jobs upon graduation. The counterargument to getting technical training is that you’re more limited in the range of work you can potentially be considered qualified to perform. And what if, for example, you are trained to be an auto mechanic and then end up hating the actual work after a few years of employment?

Also examine the various surveys that are done from time to time identifying occupations where the demand for new workers is exceeding the supply of such workers. For those who like to think opportunistically, consider the recent analysis done by The Conference Board that shows future labor shortages that are expected to cluster around three major occupational groups:

  • “Health-related occupations: The same aging of the U.S. population that will curtail working-age population growth to as low as 0.15 percent by 2030 is also driving up demand for medical workers. At the same time, high education and experience requirements limit entry into the job market. The result is a dearth in many healthcare professions, including occupational therapy assistants, physical therapists and therapist assistants, nurse practitioners and midwives, and dental hygienists. Among doctors, optometrists and podiatrists are the specialists most at risk of shortage, with the general physicians and surgeons category not far behind.”
  • “Skilled labor occupations: These jobs typically require more than a high-school education, but not a bachelor’s degree. Unlike healthcare, the primary driver of shortages here is not increased demand — employment growth is expected to be low in the coming decade — but instead a rapidly shrinking supply of young people entering these fields as increasing numbers retire. Skilled labor occupations most at risk include water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators, crane and tower operators, transportation inspectors, and construction and building inspectors.”
  • “STEM occupations: U.S. policymakers have long been concerned about shortages in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but many of these fields rank surprisingly average in a national context. Moderating the risk of shortages is the relatively high number of young entrants compared to baby-boomer retirees, as well as the large proportion of new immigrants in STEM jobs. Moreover, strong productivity growth means that output will continue to expand in areas like information technology, telecommunications, and high-tech manufacturing even as workforces in these jobs are expected to shrink. Nevertheless, certain STEM fields — including mathematical science; information security; and civil, environmental, biomedical, and agricultural engineering — do face significant shortages.”

Learning the world’s number one universal language: Business

Everyone can benefit from gaining background about business. It’s the universal language of the workplace. Even if you want to work for a nonprofit, you should understand concepts such as revenues, customer acquisition and service, marketing, expenses, financial statements, and so on.

If you’ve already completed your college degree or are attending a college that doesn’t offer business courses, don’t despair. You can learn about the world and language of business in numerous other ways:

  • During the summers of your latter years of college and immediately after, go to work in business. Find the best organizations that you can, work hard, and be a sponge, soaking up all you can.
  • Read the best business books and publications, especially those on small business and entrepreneurship if that’s what you’re most interested in. Among books that I recommend are those written by James C. Collins, my Small Business For Dummies (coauthored with Jim Schell and published by Wiley), the classic How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie (Pocket Books), The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino (Bantam), and How to Win at the Sport of Business by Mark Cuban (Diversion Publishing). Inc. Magazine is a monthly publication that has lots of worthwhile content, in print and on their website.
  • Take some free or very-low-cost online business courses from leading colleges and universities. You can do this through Coursera (which offers online courses from top universities like Northwestern, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Yale), EdX, MIT’s OpenCourseWare, and Udacity. Also check out the short courses/videos offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
  • Watch the best business television shows. Among those worth checking out are Shark Tank and The Profit.
  • If you’re willing to spend money and want to take courses online, check out those offered by some of the leading online colleges, institutes, and universities (such as Kaplan and University of Maryland).