Sara Routhier, Managing Editor of Features and Outreach, has professional experience as an educator, SEO specialist, and content marketer. She has over five years of experience in the insurance industry. As a researcher, data nerd, writer, and editor she strives to curate educational, enlightening articles that provide you with the must-know facts and best-kept secrets within the overwhelming worl...

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Joel Ohman is the CEO of a private equity-backed digital media company. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, author, angel investor, and serial entrepreneur who loves creating new things, whether books or businesses. He has also previously served as the founder and resident CFP® of a national insurance agency, Real Time Health Quotes. He also has an MBA from the University of South Florida. ...

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Reviewed by Joel Ohman
Founder, CFP®

UPDATED: Apr 11, 2012

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As much as we’d like to say that the nation’s college-educated debt-ridden youth protesting Sallie Mae and the $1 trillion of student loan debt they collectively owe are nothing more than irresponsible low-lives who should simply “get a job,” we need to take a step back and really take in what’s happening in our country.

Sure some of these angry debtors are irresponsible and lazy, but others (arguably the vast majority) are very respectable, did everything “right,” and still wound up in a seemingly never-ending financial nightmare that most won’t be awaking from anytime soon.

But if it wasn’t irresponsibility that caused this student loan crisis, what exactly did?

Kevin Wanek, whose story was shared by Bloomberg Businessweek, went to Western State College of Colorado in order to become an accountant. Western’s website boasts a predicted $15,000 annual cost for in-state students and a $25,000 annual cost for out-of-state students. By 2010, Wanek had taken out over $50,000 in student loan debt, and came to a foundation shaking realization: he didn’t want to be an accountant anymore.

His last few years in college had been a waste (at least as far as his accountant-specific studies went), and Wanek didn’t want to continue taking on more student loan debt that would go towards prepping him for a career he wasn’t interested in. So Wanek made the sensible (and smart) decision to cut his losses and stop pursuing his accounting degree.

As a quick side note, it can be argued that the most intelligent move would have been to switch majors and at least continue his pursuit for a bachelors degree, but when one sees $30,000, $40,000 then $50,000 of student loan debt build up before their eyes for essentially nothing, becoming “jaded” is an understatement.

Waken dropped out of college and found himself facing yet another problem: lack of employment. Being forced to reveal on his resume that he’s been unemployed for the past few years and unable to put the words “Bachelors Degree” on the piece of high quality card stock paper, Waken found his job opportunities extremely limited.

However, he was one of the lucky ones and managed to find an entry-level job with a mobile health care application company. By working with this employer and self teaching himself computer programming skills required to excel in his job, Wanek finally believes he found his calling: computer science.

It only cost him years of his life, countless stressful nights, and $50,000 in student loan debt to reach that conclusion.

High School Students Are Too Young To Declare Majors

Wanek’s story is a wonderful illustration of why so many students fall into massive pits of student loan debt: our nation’s youth is forced to determine their lives’ trajectories at an age that most really have no clue—no concept whatsoever—of what they want to do. Instead, they fill out the “Desired Major” line of their college applications with the words “Engineering,” “Mathematics,” “Economics,” “Accounting,” or, God forbid, one of the humanities or social science subjects.

The problem is students are told to make life-altering decisions about their future careers when they’ve never really stepped foot in the work force. Sure some are baristas and others throw pizza dough, but do they really know what corporate America is like? Or how difficult it is to live on their own in some California-based communities on a teacher’s wages? Or how most engineers sit in office cubicles simply reviewing formulas? Or how music degrees, art degrees, pottery degrees, and, let’s be honest, most humanities and social science degrees are rarely found listed under the “Desired Degree” category on the majority of online job listings?

But then there’s the dilemma of not going to college at all. Those holding bachelor’s degrees have a hard enough time finding employment, which speaks volumes for those trying to find employment with only a high school diploma.

So our youth are caught in this cycling catch-22, where they look one way and see their next 10 to 20 years riddled in student loan debt, and when they look the other way, they see unemployment or unhappiness in a job they don’t want.

‘Not All College Degrees are Created Equal’

As of now, however, the answer to that tough choice that our younger generations face in their junior and senior years of high school is to still go to college.

A report by Georgetown University, College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings, agrees: “High school students who can go on to college should do so—with one caveat. They should do their homework before picking a major because, when it comes to employment prospects and compensation, not all college degrees are created equal.”

The report goes on to say that “majors with high technical, business, and healthcare content tend to earn the most among both recent and experienced graduates.”

Contrast that to architecture, arts, liberal arts, and social science degrees, which carry the top five highest unemployment rates respectively.

Both a business degree and a humanities degree takes roughly four years to acquire and costs the same in student loan tuition, but they lead to severely different results. Other degrees take more time to complete and cost more in lab dees in lab fees than other fields of study, but lead to a discouraging job market. Architecture is a perfect example of that, currently yielding a 13.9 percent unemployment rate.

But nobody feels inclined to tell our high school students of these drastically differing statistics.

Education about the work force, about employment rates, about average degree-specific lifetime earnings is, for some reason, deemed not important enough to give to our younger generations who are contemplating one of the biggest decisions of their lives.

If we hope to reduce the college dropout rate, encourage student loan repayment, relieve (some of) the angst and anger in the Occupy Wall Street protestors, and promote decisions that will lead to happy lives, we need to help our high school students in their decisions pertaining to their future college degrees.

Only then will the $1 trillion of student loan debt begin to decline, or at least not pose such an enormous, looming threat over our nation’s economy.