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Every young adult hopes to ultimately find their way to the corner of the “Happy & Wealthy” quadrant by choosing a career that will provide them with a lifetime of earnings and personal satisfaction. The prevailing thought is that every high school graduate must apply for and attend a college of their choice to help secure their chosen career path.
Each year high school students and their parents engage in the mad scramble to apply to the elite colleges with hope of acceptance to the top choice on their list. Often concurrent with that effort is the frantic search for the funds to help pay for the education. Both students and parents firmly believe this ritual is the ticket to success in life, with the final destination being the intersection of Happy & Wealthy.
Parents play a critical role in helping their students pursue and achieve their college dreams. Most parents save and invest some of the funds their students need to attend college, many times putting their ability to retire at risk. Other professionals work at the end of the journey by helping college graduates (and some who never did graduate) manage the student loan debt they acquired while in college. This post will outline why career planning is an effective and efficient way for parents to help their college-bound students to achieve their dreams while not sacrificing their own financial security in the process.
How Are We Doing?
So as a society, how are we doing in preparing our young adults for a career? What grade should we give ourselves in guiding young adults to their chosen career and financial destiny? The reality is sobering, and the grade assigned is low. According to the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics (2018), of the full-time students entering college in 2010 (the study of the most current cohort) only 40% completed their studies leading to a degree within the typical four-year timeline.
Another 20% take up to six years to graduate, while 40% of students entering a four-year college never graduate (but likely still have student loan debt to repay). While 78% of college graduates find employment after graduating from college, 22% do not. Of the 40% that did not finish college, nearly all stated that affordability was a prime consideration in their decision not to complete their degree (Federal Reserve System, 2018).
Worse yet, many young adults that graduate from college and are paying their student loans are frustrated and dismayed by the career choices they made. Many say, “This is not what I thought it would be.” At this point, they either decide to work in an unfulfilling career or go back to the drawing board, all the while paying off their student loans and delaying their capacity to increase their earning power to save and invest for the long term. Young adults must embrace career development planning as a critical life skill and use it to manage their careers throughout life effectively.
The Lack of Pre-College Planning & Its Impact on Long-Term Financial Wellness
Statistics regarding financing a college education provide more reasons why recent college graduates face challenges to ultimately finding their way to the corner of Happy & Wealthy. The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (2019) indicated that:
- Forty-three percent of those who attended college, representing thirty percent of all adults, have incurred some form of debt for their education;
- Student loans are held by ninety-three percent of those with their education debt;
- The average student loan debt amount is approximately $32,000, with an average monthly payment of approximately $300-$400 per month;
- Four in ten adults would have difficulty meeting an unexpected $400 expense.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York (2018) indicated that during the first quarter of 2019, more than 9.5% of student loans were more than ninety days past due. In contrast, credit card delinquency rates were 5.0%, and auto loan delinquency rates were 2.3% for the same period. While the contractual timeframe for repaying Federal student loans is ten years, OneWisconsin Institute (2018) stated that the repayment period could be as high as 21 years.
The ramifications of these facts are far-reaching. Cooper and Wang (2014) and OneWisconsin Institute (2018) indicated that there is a strong correlation between student loan debt and the ability of borrowers to own a home. Mezza, Ringo, Sherlund, and Sommer (2016) estimated that every $1,000 in student loan debt delays the likelihood of homeownership for college graduates of a four-year institution by approximately 2.5 months. Elliot, Grinstein-Weiss, and Nam (2013) found that the median retirement savings amount for households with no student loan debt is near twice as high as for families with student loan debt. Rutledge, Sanzenbacher, and Vitagliano (2018) indicated that the existence of an outstanding student loan is a constraint on participation in a 401(k)-retirement savings plan.
The loss of early years of accumulating savings and investing in the long-term can impede overall financial wellness. The current societal beliefs about college and how students approach college likely have negative ramifications for long-term financial wellness. How a young adult initially chooses a career path, finances it, and ultimately enters the workforce will largely determine their economic destiny.
Solutions to Date Don’t Address the Root Cause
Solutions to improve the outcomes include (Edwards, 2016):
- Focus on in-state community colleges and transfer programs that cost less;
- Look for a part-time job on campus to help defray costs;
- Pursue available scholarships with vigor;
- Build and stick to a budget;
- Research future occupations before committing to a primary course of study;
- Assess the return on investment of any potential career;
- If currently in debt, consider refinancing options.
Also, the current political climate has introduced the notion of student loan forgiveness (Warren, 2019). However, none of these possible solutions focus on the root cause of the problem; which is a lack of planning for post-high school advanced training and education to help students identify a “best fit” career, and match the appropriate college (or advanced training opportunity) to help them prepare for and secure their chosen profession.
Career Development Planning as a Solution to Improve Financial Wellness
Personal financial wellness begins from the capacity to earn a living – being able to make sustainable wages and set aside a consistent portion of those wages towards future needs, wants, and wishes. In turn, the capacity to earn a living depends on matching and integrating natural abilities, skills, interests, values, goals, family background, and personal style to reveal “best fit,” sustainable, and satisfying career opportunities. Thus, it stands to reason that the best way to ensure long-term financial wellness and personal satisfaction is through a career development planning process that helps students identify, select, and secure best fit careers.
Parents of students have an opportunity to make their college-bound students aware of the benefits of career development planning. Such planning will help reduce the need for the student loan debt, improve their earning capacity and trajectory of earnings, and increase the odds for life-long financial wellness via an improved ability to save and invest for long-term goals.
There is a need to study the empirical relationship further between career development planning and subsequent post-high school educational and career success. However, it stands to reason that the more aware young adults are of their natural abilities and other career-related parameters, the better they can plan for their post-high school education and maximize the educational and financial opportunities that best match their initial career goals. In turn, career development planning not only lessens the need for student loan debt but hastens the subsequent launch of a successful and satisfying career path. Finally, minimal student loan debt and a higher earnings capacity will lead to more opportunities to save and invest for long-term goals and achieving life-long financial wellness.
A Hypothetical Case Study
To illustrate the importance and potential impact of career planning, let’s compare four hypothetical young adults to see how their initial career decisions and the methods they chose to pursue their careers impacted their ability to reach the intersection of Happy & Wealthy. The four hypothetical 18-year-old young adults include:
- Sarah, who has an interest in math and science, leading her to decide to enroll in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Illinois in her home State of Illinois. Sarah scored in the top ten percent of her high school graduating class but did not complete any in-depth assessment of her initial career choice. Sarah and her parents have saved some for her college but know that they will have to rely on grants and student loans to cover the majority of the cost of her college education. After two years of study, Sarah struggles and decides to change her major to Biology with the plans to become a Medical Laboratory Technologist upon graduation earning $52,000 per year. Sarah estimates that it will take her an additional year to complete her degree at age 23 (total of 5 years). Sarah anticipates she will have $37,000 in student loan debt upon graduation, which will take her ten years to pay off.
- Carl was an above-average student in high school and wants to attend college, but he is unsure of his career choice. Rather than risk enrolling into a program and college that does not lead to any meaningful and personally satisfying career, Carl and his parents decide to devote time and money to have Carl complete an in-depth career assessment and development plan. Carl completes the initial work that includes an objective evaluation of his natural abilities, skills, interests, and values. He then works with a career development specialist to best match his profile to promising career fields. Following the advice of the career development specialist, Carl completes informational interviews with people employed in his top career matches and decides that a degree in Construction Management is a “best fit” career choice for him. Carl validates his decision through a summer internship program during his summer vacation between junior and senior year of high school. Carl applies and gains acceptance to the University of Colorado because of his targeted focus, enthusiasm, and confidence. The School recognizes that Carl is a great candidate for the program and offers ample scholarships and grants that eliminate his need for student loans. Carl also qualifies for 15 credit hours of college credit via his high school AP classes, assuring him that he will be able to graduate within four years with no significant student loan debt. Best of all, the Company where Carl interned during his summer vacation offers to employ Carl during his succeeding summer vacations and ultimately hire him full-time immediately upon graduation at age 22 at an annual salary of $91,000. Carl does not anticipate any student loan debt upon graduation.
- Roxanne was an average student in high school but could quickly understand how machines and instruments work. Roxanne loves to spend time with her Father diagnosing the family automobile, lawnmower, and anything mechanical. She had no interest in attending college but knew she had to pursue some form of advanced training and education to land a promising career. Fortunately, Roxanne’s high school has an industrial arts program, where Roxanne explored different trades and discovered how much she enjoyed and excelled in Industrial Automation. Roxanne visited her area junior college to research the Industrial Automation Program. After an initial consultation and assessment, she decided to enroll in the two-year training program. Roxanne expects to graduate at age 20 and immediately secure a full-time position as an Industrial Technician with local high-tech manufacturers earning $55,000 per year. Roxanne will have no student loan debt upon graduation from the program.
- Mike is an outgoing, athletic student that likes to engage people. Mike’s high school grades were good but not the top of his class. Mike’s personality led him to choose a Marketing & Sales degree in college. He applied and was accepted to the Marketing program at the University of Florida because his best friends were also attending the school, and they enjoyed the year-round weather. During his four years at the school, Mike found ample opportunities to party with his buddies while his studies suffered. Mike never recovered, and after four years, he had too many courses to repeat, no money, and decided to drop out at age 22. Mike was unable to complete his degree but landed a commission-based job as a copier salesman in Florida, earning $45,000 per year. Unfortunately, Mike amassed $37,000 in student loan debt that took him 15 years to pay off.
Data on first-year career earnings were obtained from O*NET Online, a national career database sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. Information regarding student loan debt and years to pay off the debt comes from the sources cited in the previous discussion.
Further assumptions include:
- Each student experiences a 3% annual pay increase until the retirement age of 70.
- Sarah and Mike make a monthly payment of $393 towards their student loans and as a result, are unable to contribute anything towards their retirement or investment plans until they pay off the student loans;
- Carl and Roxanne immediately start to add fifteen percent of their annual earnings to retirement programs and other long-term investment programs.
- Participants invest all savings and investments into a passively managed portfolio of exchange-traded funds using a moderately conservative diversified portfolio of equities, bonds, and cash, rebalanced annually.
It is no surprise that Carl and Roxanne fared much better. Upon graduation, they had a higher capacity to begin saving and investing for their long-term goals. Their post-high school career development planning gave them a better career focus and helped minimize the need for student loans. Sarah and Mike did not fare as well. They did not devote time and effort to match their natural abilities with “best fit” career options and made different decisions regarding their career paths – ultimately resulting in much less wealth over time as compared to Carl and Roxanne.
There is a significant gap in wealth between the totals for Carl and Roxanne ($9.2 million and $6.5 million respectively) at age 70 versus that of Sarah and Mike ($2.9 million and $1.9 million respectively) at age 70. If Sarah and Mike started their careers with no student loan debt and immediately began saving and investing, they would have “retired” with more wealth to enjoy during their retirement years. Sarah’s total at age 70 would have had 66% more wealth while Mike would have more than doubled his total at age 70. The significant difference in long-term wealth underscores the need for initial career development planning before deciding on a first career.
Losing those initial 10-15 years of initial saving and investing and allowing the magic of compounding to occur significantly impacts the result. While many young adults lament the fact that their investing dollars show little progress in the early going, the effects of compounding take effect near the fifteen-year mark. After that, growth and accumulation make a significant leap. Losing those precious initial years to paying off debt and not being able to save and invest for other longer-term goals is devastating from a financial wellness standpoint. Many people never catch up and are destined to a less than adequate nest egg.
A More Effective and Efficient Pathway to the Intersection of Happy & Wealthy
What pathway did Carl and Roxanne follow to help ensure their eventual success? What can young adults learn about the process of planning for a successful and satisfying career that will ultimately lead to higher earning power and a brighter financial destiny?
As stated at the beginning of this post, many young adults and their parents may be focusing on the wrong things–that being choosing a post-high school institution (predominately a college) based upon a “top-ranking” by reputation or third parties More important would be to consider how the choice of education institution best fits the student’s ideal career development plan and what an appropriate return on investment may be. The students, anxious to experience the freedoms of a post-high school environment, typically focus on their interests and the location of the institution rather than what program and learning environment match with how they best learn and will enhance their career success.
What’s wrong with this approach? Interests change throughout life, thus resulting in a need to adjust career plans when interests change continually. An initial career choice based mainly (or solely) on interests will typically lead to career “unrest,” dissatisfaction, frustration, and increased anxiety. From a personal finance standpoint, it disrupts the earning power of the individual resulting in less capacity to save and invest over time. Those critical “early” years of accumulating wealth and allowing the magic of compounding to work are lost. As for the desire to get into “top” institutions? It may not be the “best fit” for the student based upon the natural abilities, personal style, or learning abilities of the student, leading to changing majors and a higher potential for transfer or dropout.
A better “pathway” would include:
- Objective assessment of the students’ natural abilities (i.e., what they are born to do best);
- Incorporation of other critical aspects of life, including interests, skills, family background and influence, personal values, career goals, personal style, and preferred work environment;
- A written plan that includes a career vision statement and definitive action steps;
- Validation of the student’s initial conclusions through informational interviews, internships, etc. to give candidates a fuller sense of the chosen career path before devoting time and money to pursue it;
- Establishment of a budget that is reasonable, affordable, and agreed upon before the parents and student consider which schools to apply to;
- The planned pursuit of all available financial aid (scholarships, grants, AP credit, paid internships, union sponsorship, etc.) to help finance the chosen education track or advanced training that leads to the chosen career field;
- A targeted and disciplined course of study within the chosen major field of study to help ensure graduation within 4 years;
- Thoughtful networking and relationship building through school contacts, social media campaigns, etc. to expand the candidate’s sphere of influence and ready them for the job search activity before and upon graduation;
This process emphasizes the assessment of young adults’ natural abilities as the foundation for the initial choice of a “best fit” career. Natural abilities are those attributes and tendencies that a person is born with, can perform with relative ease, and that often produces a high level of satisfaction. Understanding one’s natural abilities and having the opportunity to use them in a career will likely lead to higher overall career success and happiness. It is important to note that natural abilities stabilize when someone reaches the age of 16-18, and materially doesn’t change over time. That’s why it is critical to discover and understand natural abilities before high school graduation since they provide the foundation of your career decision making and development process.
Your Key Dimensions & Career Vision Statement
There are hundreds of assessment tools to help uncover unique personal attributes. It is essential to complete a mix of objectively measured (timed) assessments and subjectively determined assessments to assist in the discovery process. Collectively, the results can help define four critical dimensions of a career development path:
- Work Environment & Personal Style determines what work environment is most conducive to you to enhance your performance. It also outlines the ideal work pace, the required amount of teamwork, and the amount of interaction you prefer;
- Learning outlines how you take in and process new information. Understanding optimal learning channels facilitates learning, remembering, and applying knowledge. It also defines the best format for you to take in further information, whether it be words, diagrams, numbers, sounds, etc.;
- Problem Solving & Decision-Making refers to how you best solve problems, resolve issues, and approach opportunities. It also defines how you think through problems and opportunities, the timeframe you naturally consider, and the perspective you represent with your proposed solutions;
- Communicating refers to the context you are most comfortable interacting with others. Communicating also applies to the size of the group you prefer, the methods you use, and your awareness of how others receive your messaging.
Better understanding your four key dimensions leads to your “best fit” work types or ideal job functions, which are transferable regardless of what industry or employer may employ you. Using the four key dimensions as a foundation, a person must consider other critical aspects of their life including interests, skills, values, family background, goals, personal style, and “turning points” of life, or the point in the career development cycle the person currently faces. The collective consideration of all parameters is known as the Whole Person Model, as defined by The Highlands Company (www.highlandsco.com). The model gives the person a complete understanding of what they need to attain a balanced life and a successful and satisfying career path.
The creative integration of all parameters of the Whole Person Model leads to the development of a career vision statement, which aligns the personal and professional aspects of life. With the career vision statement in hand, a person can better target potential career fields and validate those initial choices through informational interviews and internships. Upon validation, the person makes their final career choice. In the case of a young adult, they can then make an appropriate choice for college or advanced training to help them pursue and achieve their chosen career. It also empowers a person to articulate and negotiate roles in which they are most productive, effective, and that is most satisfying.
Optimal Career Choices
Targeting optimal career choices based upon a career vision statement that has natural abilities and other critical factors as its fabric improves chances for success. Finally, validating the career choice through informational interviewing, “shadowing,” and summer internships leads to greater confidence for the young adult and improves their passion, desire, and commitment to complete their education on time and begin their career in earnest.
Other benefits of the pathway include:
- Provides stronger levels of confidence, passion, and motivation within the individual;
- Allows others to understand better what the individual desires to achieve and enable them to support and encourage in specific ways;
- Improves the candidate’s status to identify and qualify for scholarships and grants to complete their education, thus minimizing the need for student loans;
- Focuses the student on a target to graduate within four years;
- Helps secure additional internships and pre-job opportunities for the candidate, leading to better positioning upon graduation to secure the desired career position;
- It creates a higher earning capacity and a more exceptional ability to save and invest for long-term goals immediately and achieve financial wellness sooner.
An articulated pathway allows a student to continually monitor and adjust their career development plan based upon changes in the chosen industry, economy, and the world. Knowing how to identify potential career or life “stressors” will help ensure life-long career success and keep earning power intact. A career development plan is not a one-time thing – it is a work in progress as your factors and the world changes. Knowing and working the career development process is a critical life skill. Maximize your earning power by shifting your mindset from career stability to career agility!
The Pathway Forward – A Call to Action for Parents of Students
It’s clear that as a society, we must choose a do a better job helping young people develop an educational pathway and career development plan. Certain politicians profess that a free college education is an answer. But such a notion still leads to debt – born by all taxpayers rather than the students. It also ignores the critical need for early career development planning to identify natural abilities, integrate with other factors, and lead to a “best fit” career. The goal must be to equip young adults to identify their best-fit career options, maximize their human capital, and transform it into earnings potential throughout life.
Parents of students are in an essential and unique position to help their students realize the life-long benefits of career development planning. What better gift can you give your student than help to then succeed in life? Invest in early career development planning to help them identify “best fit” careers, reduce student loan debt, maximize lifetime earning power, and improve long-term financial wellness. All of this gives them a higher capacity to save and invest for long-term goals and realize greater levels of personal and professional satisfaction along the way.
Special thanks to Craig L. Israelsen, Ph.D. for his help on the hypothetical case study and editing. Dr. Isrealsen is an executive in residence at the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University and the creator of the 7Twelve® portfolio.
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. 2019. “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018.” May 2019. https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/2018-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201905.pdf
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