Competition is a good thing in any market, but it’s been particularly beneficial for higher education. For one thing, many employers have begun to question whether the four-year degree accurately signals that a graduate is ready for the challenges of the new economy. That notion has arisen because not enough universities have updated their course offerings and curriculum to keep up with the rapidly changing demands of the global economy.

In part because their smaller size gives them more flexibility and adaptability, and the wherewithal to make changes relatively quickly, alternatives to the traditional four-year college are offering students a more focused and specialized education.

Regardless of which college or major you pursue, you must be a lifelong learner. Our world and the way it works are changing rapidly. Imagine being a marketing major 15 years ago – before social media. Or a computer network major – before cloud computing. Or a medical doctor – before…you get the picture.

Select the school and major that meets your needs and interests. You must decide whether you should go to a public or private school, a liberal arts or technical school, or whether to pay in-state or out-of-state tuition.

But don’t rely unduly on annual ratings/rankings of colleges and universities, such as those of U.S. News & World Report, the Princeton Review or Forbes. Those ratings are of more concern to the schools themselves, particularly the Ivy League Schools and others in the Top 25, which are always maneuvering to move up in the ratings, or at least to avoid dropping — or worse, falling out of the Top 25 altogether.

That said, if you have the opportunity — as well as the financial resources — to attend one of those Top 25 colleges and universities, by all means go. Having Harvard, MIT, Stanford or Princeton on your resume still carries weight with employers.

For many of you who can’t attend an Ivy League school, don’t despair. When you graduate, most employers will place more value on your major than your alma mater. As your career proceeds, your work history will distinguish you.

The choice of a school, then, comes down to three factors: Cost, major and alumni support.

Cost (or perhaps more specifically, cost-benefit): Ask yourself whether accruing tens of thousands of dollars in extra debt to attend a private college because it’s ranked in the top 50, rather than a public school ranked in the top 200, is worth the investment. All other things being equal, it’s unlikely that having that private school’s name on your resume will be worth enough in future salary to cover the difference. However, if you’re offered substantial financial aid to attend one school as opposed to another, that will most certainly factor into your decision.

Major: While a school’s overall rankings don’t matter much, consider its strength and reputation with respect to your major. If you want to pursue an engineering degree, search for schools with strong engineering programs, irrespective of rankings.

Alumni support/networking: Don’t wait until after graduation to consider the importance of a school’s alumni network. The established network you can tap into by being a graduate of a given college or university can do just as much to open doors as your degree. That includes the relationships the school has with certain companies and industries, typically made possible by alumni. Tap into these indispensable networks while still in school.

Ultimately, remember that what you do at college and what you learn there matters more than where you go, so sit down with your parents and high school guidance counselors and decide which school makes the most sense for you.


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