The Smart College Roadmap

Part 1. The College Decision

Welcome to Part 1 of this three-part series of The Smart College Roadmap!

If I cared about this information when I was 15, I would have been a retired millionaire by 30. Cared being the keyword because I was probably told many times, but I didn't care to listen. I was young and stubborn, you, on the other hand, have the choice to be different.

"You may delay, but time will not." -Benjamin Franklin

Transitioning from high school to college can be a difficult task. It's the point in your life when everyone reminds you that it's time to prepare for the real world and to think about what you want to do with your life. It's an important time to envision yourself on your own and figure out how to make that dream a reality with the skills and resources you have at your disposal.

Looking back, almost 13 years after graduation, I am lucky that my parents guided me in the right direction when I didn't really care to think about the future. I was too busy having fun playing video games, talking to girls and going surfing that I couldn't wait to be done with school after years spent grinding through it. I was ready to have all of my time back for fun and finally feel independent (…while remaining dependent on my parents by living at home).

My mindset in high school kind of reminds me of when people say "I never want to retire." Never say never, right? The truth is that you just don't know what you'll want or where you'll be in the future. The best you can do for yourself is getting into the habit of caring about your future self as early as possible. This is the age where you have the most time and energy to start setting yourself up for a comfortable life before you're restricted by marriage, kids, pets, and bills. Like my grandfather used to say, “Never a dull moment!” This is your chance to get a head start on everyone else your age that is oblivious (or scared) of the real world.

Learn From My Story

At some point, my wife and I knew we'd have to transition from living at home to being on our own. Our bills were basically limited to our vehicle needs, and when we purchased our house they skyrocketed up around $3,000 a month from our mortgage, utilities, groceries and other house needs. Our time also took a hit—we had to mow the lawn, clean the house, work on never-ending improvements, and cook every meal. Time, energy and money constraints were now limiting our ability to take care of our future selves.

Building Your Roadmap

College decisions can be made easier if you look beyond your college years. It helps to define big goals 5-10 years out and then fill in a roadmap to get there. Ask yourself questions like: Why do I want to go to college? When do I need to be on my own? What do I love to do? What career opportunities are there for what I love to do? What are the education requirements for that career? Do I have the skills to get a job or start a business in that field without college?

These kinds of questions will hint at where you want to be after college or if college should even be considered in the first place. There are many people without college degrees that are very successful in life. Yes, the employment rate of a college graduate is higher than someone without a college education, but it could also put you behind financially if it's not a necessity.

Learn From My Story

I really enjoyed playing video games on the computer when I was a teenager and my parents took notice of how well I understood them. My mother forced me to sign up for the computer networking class at the Advanced Technology Center (ATC) trade school, for my junior and senior years of high school (I was more concerned about having a lunch block with my friends). Fortunately for me, my parents saw the roadmap and gave me the head start in life that I couldn't imagine not having.

At the trade school, I learned computer networking and obtained my Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification, paid for by the program. When I looked at the requirements for the computer-networking field, I learned that this certification was more important than a degree was. I was also an intern for the second half of my senior year at a computer networking company, where I gained experience in the field before entering the workforce. I took these steps because I wanted the opportunity to speak with professionals in the computer-networking field and learn the roadmap to get to where they were.

Trade schools, aka. vocational schools, provide amazing education in various trades including carpentry, automotive, medical, cosmetology and technology, just to name a few. These schools offer free public education and I highly recommend them.

In this stage of life, when you're still maturing, the 5-10 year goals most likely circle around your professional, family or life experiences. Whatever it is you want to do, you have to plan a way to get there financially and as quick as possible. You don't want to miss out on life because you spent more hours at school or work than you needed to.

Sure, you can go to college without a clue and try to figure it out as you go, but that will end up being much pricier and waste your precious, limited time on this earth. Going to certain schools just for the fun factor or to follow your friends could end up being very costly for your future. I have discovered over the years that friends come and go and you start to meet people in similar stages of life and with similar interests as time goes on. You'll keep a few core friends, but life will make it too difficult to keep up with everyone on their own roadmaps.

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." -Benjamin Franklin

In my opinion, the most important time to really start thinking about college and beyond is in your sophomore year of high school so that you can mold your last two years of high school around your roadmap. If college is the answer, you can focus on selecting classes that relate to your real-world roadmap and get you excited about performing well. This will also let you find out early what you love to do before you waste too much time and money investing in something you may change later.

Fifteen years old, in particular, is an important age because it's around when you may start working and learn how to drive. These new experiences introduce you to the balancing act of managing time and money with school, work and entertainment. Many choices will present themselves that could benefit or hurt you in the future. I personally disagree with the overwhelming amount of homework, projects and stress high schools put on students during these critical years, but you'll learn in life that some things are out of your control, so hard work and discipline must be learned quickly. Don't worry if you're past the age of 15, these concepts can still be applied much later in life.

Learn From My Story

Even though the profession I originally desired, computer networking, did not require a college degree, I knew that a college degree in Business Administration Information Systems would be beneficial later in my career. I had talked to someone in the field who acquired the degree to learn how to manage computer networking projects and relate the engineering plan to the business plan. So, I tailored my senior year of high school to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes and some mathematics courses that would help kick start college when I was ready. AP classes give you the opportunity to earn college credits while in high school. I encourage all high schoolers to speak with their guidance counselors about ways to obtain college credits if it’s on their roadmap.

Build Your Roadmap!

Your roadmap can be as simple as a numbered list that begins with short-term goals that work towards achieving a long-term desire by filling in the steps in between to get there. Think about the most affordable, fastest way to achieve your goal while doing the things you love.

We usually seek higher levels of income to fund a future desire. Here's an example of a roadmap from my early years created to eventually own my own house:

  1. Find a part-time job preferably close to home or school and computer-related.

  2. Build computers for extra cash.

  3. Start saving for a house down payment.

  4. Improve grades to get accepted into the Advanced Technology Center (ATC) trade school.

  5. Modify high school schedule to take AP and math classes for degree later.

  6. Obtain Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification.

  7. Complete internship in computer networking.

  8. Become a professional computer networker.

  9. Start college part-time to obtain Bachelor's degree in Business Administration Information Systems.

  10. Become a computer networking team manager.

  11. Buy a house.

If you can envision your long-term goals, like buying a house in this example, you can start figuring out a roadmap that includes doing what you love to get there. In this case, planning for the down payment on a house needs to start early so that more money can be saved over time, and the love for computers can be used to finance the route to get there.

Share your roadmap with your peers to get their thoughts and learn their roadmap to help them with the process. It helps to have multiple eyes on your roadmap to spot flaws and to keep your expectations realistic. If you're scared to show them or don't have anyone worth sharing it with, find online forums and communities where you can post your roadmap for advice. Try to find a few mentors in the workforce that you can get advice from on your roadmap—always get their business card because they may have a job or internship for you later. LinkedIn is a great resource for finding professionals in your desired field; Look at their background that got them where they are today and ask them for some guidance.

It is much more difficult to go back to college after working full time, starting a family or living on your own. Financial and time constraints will limit your ability for quick changes once you start adding more obligations to your life and may keep you trapped in a field of work that you don't love. Fill out the roadmap to recognize your goals and try not to do more than you need to in order to achieve them. There are people, like myself, with bachelor's degrees (or no degree) that are making more money than people with master's degrees in the same field because those with higher degrees began their careers later and in lower-level positions. It is important to understand the level of education required and where experience trumps credentials.

You Have to Want it

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

You'll find that you are more passionate about the things you really want. Think about the last thing you really wanted. Did you do whatever it took to get it?

When you really want something, you tend to find ways to get there faster. The passion consumes you and you can't stop thinking about it. This will cause you to constantly evaluate your roadmap for ways to save time and money and find items that can be removed. You may be excited to get better grades, strengthen friendships, network with new people or save money.

Really focus on the next item in line on your roadmap so that you can do everything in your power to conquer it. Break your roadmap down into small steps so you can achieve success more frequently and celebrate your milestones. For example, saving for a house down payment can be further broken down into first opening a savings account and then scheduling automatic transfers into the new account. You can make the roadmap as granular as you’d like to lay out the exact steps and cross items off the list more often. An excellent roadmap would contain real numbers and dates.

Learn From My Story

While I was in the Advanced Technology Center (ATC) trade school during my senior year, I knew I'd be looking for a job right out of high school to start my career. I found all kinds of study guides for the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification and completed practice tests with my peers. I was one of only three students that passed the test in a class of about twenty. I was ready to be done with full time school and knew that with this certificate, I could get a head start in the field without a college education. I really wanted it.

We would also occasionally have guest speakers from the workforce or previous students come and talk to our class. I knew these speakers saw potential in us and wanted to help, so I made it a point to shake all their hands and get their business cards before they left which didn't seem as important to many other students. After I received my certification, I called up everyone I received a business card from and had a few interviews lined up. This led to starting a $40,000 career at the age of 17!

Unfortunately, some of us wait until we feel we’re completely ready to do things. The truth is that you'll never be ready. If you have an idea of where you want to be, it's good to start taking the steps—even if they're baby steps—to start heading in that direction. You'll realize after high school that you basically have two options to replace the hours that you were spending in school: work or more school. Time for fun could be as limited as it was when in high school.

You can still have a fun young adult life, but you'll learn to notice when current actions will affect your goals. Full time fun and living it up sounds great, but you'll soon realize that it has its costs and can only continue if you desire to live paycheck to paycheck for the rest of your life. It's all about balance. You can balance having great young adult experiences with sticking to the roadmap. I know it's possible, because I did it.

Learn From My Story

After graduating high school I was working full time, making great money and ready to be done with school. I really disliked school and needed a break for some fun. I knew college was in my future at some point but I decided to take the first semester off for me time. I then realized I wasn't going to be living with my parents for forever and I needed to take advantage of the extra freedom at home for my roadmap. I actually wanted to go back to school and learn the skills to teach me about business and information systems. I had been working for a few months and already saw that the degree could give me an edge. An added help was that my company offered college assistance, which meant I would save money on classes.

I took a quick break, but then learned to balance my fun with my roadmap. I couldn't handle a full-time commitment for school and I wanted to stay near home, rather than going to a college far away where I couldn't go surfing, which I loved. I had access to a community college close to home where I obtained my associate's degree part-time for a low cost before transferring to a university further away for the same bachelor's degree a student would receive that did all four years at the more expensive school. The cost of figuring things out was much cheaper than I would have paid at the university.

I had a lot of fun in those years staying around the people and activities I loved while still moving forward on my roadmap. I had a great balance of fun, work and school.

Learning to Adapt

Your roadmap will change. As time goes on, your wants and desires will change, your life situation will change and your roadmap will have to change with it. Too much of anything gets old after a while and as humans we naturally get trapped in a cycle of loving something, getting bored and moving on to the next thing. Don't think you'll be doing the same thing forever. Learn to embrace change and adapt to it. Resisting change can leave you behind in a world that is constantly evolving.

One of the biggest changes in college is changing majors. Most people I know who have changed majors figured out they didn't enjoy the subject or that there were no jobs in the industry. If you plan your roadmap out early enough, hopefully you can avoid this through research and experience testing. If a change is necessary, it's best to figure it out as early as possible so you expend the least amount of time and money. You can test the experience by taking major-focused classes earlier in college, or if you have already experienced the field of work, then you can take the core classes first to allow for future fine-grained adjustments around the major-focused classes later.

Learn From My Story

Shortly into my career, I began writing code to automate some tasks in my daily job and fell in love with computer programming, aka. computer science. I started to hang out with the computer programmers in the company, in particular my good friend Lu, and they taught me some things along the way. Eventually they reeled me in and computer networking was no longer on my roadmap. Fortunately for me, I was able to stay on track with my college degree by changing my minor to add computer science courses, which supplemented the information systems classes I had already completed. The field had similar basic requirements and the small change to my degree and future roadmap goals didn't waste a lot of time or money.

Conclusion

Revisit the roadmap you recorded for yourself or the example I used above and after reading the last item on the list, ask yourself, to do what?

Buy a house, to do what?: to start a family, to own a business, to retire early? This exercise will continue to extend your roadmap and give you ideas for what you can start doing earlier in the roadmap that will lay the foundation for your later goals. The truth is that you don't know what you'll really end up doing and the roadmap will change. However, it helps to seek your purpose faster and figure out what ultimately fulfills your life.

You have the choice to free yourself from the time and money constraints that work, school and fun put on your life. Building a roadmap to the future will help speed up getting your time back for the fun and the freedom you desire. Tragedies happen and you will hit road bumps along the way, but following your roadmap to build some self-insurance through education and savings will help balance weathering storms with living an awesome life.

College isn't the golden ticket for everyone, but you'll never know if you don't think about where you want to be after.

A great mentor once told me, know thyself. Take the pieces of this article and pieces from other's wisdom that apply to your life. We're all in unique life situations and it's about knowing what works for you. Some things we must figure out for ourselves—but I hope this article can save you some time and money in the process.

Thank you for your precious time. I wish you great success!

Part. 2 - College Without Debt. Yes, You Can!
Part. 3 - Easing The Post-College Job Hunt

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Sean Merron
Sean Merron is a techie with a passion for finance that wants to share what he's learned with the rest of the world to not only free up your time but to continue learning from amazing people like you. You can find him on Twitter @SeanMerron or discussing early retirement on The 2 Frugal Dudes Podcast. Thanks for taking the precious time out of your day to be here!

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