Is a college degree a good investment?

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - "I'm going to Auburn University, and major in pharmacy."

"I'm going to Nashville Auto Diesel School in Tennessee."

"I plan to attend the Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy."

While there's no way predict their future success, one thing is certain: to make money, each student must invest money at the next academic level. But in a slumping economy, the return on that investment is the wild card.

"The numbers don't lie," advises Auburn University Career Advisor Jay Skipworth. "The economy is tough right now. It's tougher if you don't have a degree."

Skipworth is an advocate for a college education. While he agrees students may not have a job immediately after graduation, the education itself has a transferable rate that will exceed a high school diploma.

"What you have in the bachelor's degree, the knowledge base there, you could pick up on your own. But being able to follow the kinds of instructions and the time management goals to earn a four year degree says a lot about you," Skipworth says.

The 2010 Census Report reveals workers with a college degree earned an annual salary of $58,613 dollars in 2008, as opposed to $31,283 for high school grads. That's roughly 90% more.

Before you can begin earning those big bucks,however, college students must have a way to pay for college.

In 2010 - student loan debt totaled at least $830 billion. At Auburn University, 6 out of 10 students are financing their education.

"We ask our students, does the career you have chose give you the ability to repay these loans?" explains Auburn University Financial Aid Director Mike Reynolds.

Reynolds says it takes the average student five years and about $150,000 to earn a degree. That's a debt Prattville High School student Austin Mullins says he won't have. He's taking another route to a career.

"It was the choice I was most comfortable with," Mullins said. When he graduates from Auto Diesel school next year, he's promised a job, and possibly a debt-free start, a skill-set Mullins fine tuned in a career shop class.

Gordon Allen, the teacher of the automotive class explains Mullin's decision. "If you look at the jobs in the marketplace, most are not college requirements to do the job. This is a career field they can go into and immediately make money."

Prattville senior Paul Powers will pay for his education at the Naval or Air Force Academies, giving time and service to his country. With a military education, Powers will automatically qualify for jobs that civilians wouldn't have access to.

"Most are looking for workers who graduated from service academies."

Sommer Branning is taking the traditional route to become a pharmacist. That means a minimum of 8 years of in college and more than $200,000 in debt when she's through.  Her decision though, has nothing to do with dollars and cents.

"I love chemistry, it's my passion," she smiles. "I didn't take into account that it would be the timely choice as a growing industry."

For many of the high school seniors, the choice is straightforward: Accrue college debt with strong earning potential, learn a trade and get into the workforce quickly or consider the longer term military service option with its benefits later in civilian life.

It's not a one-sized fits all world anymore.

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