High School Career Exploration Can Help With College Costs

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Parents struggling to deposit cash into a 529 education savings plan may have a hard time imagining saving for grad school when their child wants to be an electrician, but kids change their minds--before and after entering college.

"A C student may get to college and decide to apply themselves," says Monson High School Director of Guidance Robert Bardwell. "Before you know it, your high school C student is on their way to an MBA."

While career goals won't help parents know how much to save, Bardwell says, students who are excited about a career, whether or not the profession chosen is their final choice, are more motivated to get good grades, apply for scholarships, and work part time to help invest in their own 529 plans.

[Take these steps before opening a 529 plan.]

"If I had my way," Bardwell says, "every kid would have to do an internship." At the Monson, Mass., school where Bardwell works, internships are offered as an elective with a 90-day or 1-year commitment. Half of eligible students take the course. The commitment is one of eight classes in their senior year.

Those who complete internships leave with a better focus on what they do or don't want to do, Bardwell says. He's seen high school interns come home for college vacation and work for the same company for which they interned. According to Bardwell, the employer's thought process is, "If he can do this job in high school, he's only going to get better."

He encourages a variety of career exploration steps, from taking assessment tests to volunteer work. Students wanting to study physical therapy, for example, need to have completed volunteer work or they won't be considered for college acceptance, Bardwell says.

Professions such as biomedical engineering will start recruiting for interns as early as middle school, according to Edwin Koc of the National Association of College Employers (NACE). Students interested in this field should talk to their high school counselors about opportunities, he says.

[Find companies hiring grads from your school.]

High school students completing internships are building skills that translate into immediate benefit: part-time jobs to earn money for college.

"It makes sense that those who have well defined career goals--whether that be college, work, military--are more likely to work as they know a part-time job not only gives them income," Bardwell says, "but valuable experience hopefully in the area in which they wish to pursue."

"With college costs so incredibly high in many schools, these days most students are scrambling to find part-time work," Bardwell says. "Those who have worked while also in high school are sure to have an advantage because part-time jobs teach students time and money management as well as help them develop a strong work ethic and interpersonal skills."

If students worked 40 hours per week at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 for two summer months, they'd earn approximately $2,320 before state taxes. If a teen worked just two summers, they'd accumulate about $4,640 to contribute to their own 529 plan, about two thirds of 2011-2012's annual tuition and fees at a four-year public university, according to College Board data.

[See how students are paying an increasing share of college costs.]

Finding a summer job in the same field as where students earned their internship credits is not impossible but is more difficult, says Cheryl Abbot, a U.S. Department of Labor Statistics regional economist. However, as someone who has hiring ability, she says she prefers to employ individuals with some work experience. "If I see any sort of work background I'm going to give that person a leg up."

Reyna Gobel, frequently quoted as an expert on student loans and college costs, is the author of "Graduation Debt: How To Manage Student Loans And Live Your Life" and "How Smart Students Pay for School: The Best Way to Save for College, Get the Right Loans, and Repay Debt." She has appeared on PBS's Nightly Business Report and speaks regularly at CollegeWeekLive.

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