If money is an issue, sometimes it makes sense to...

If money is an issue, sometimes it makes sense to take small steps toward a degree. Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto

Americans tell young people, “Do what you love and the money will follow.”

But as you might have heard, college isn’t cheap.

Increasingly, only those whose families have the resources or the willingness to take on student loan debt can afford to enroll in a four-year college, explore existential questions, and hope they’ll end up with a fulfilling, well-paying career.

If you’re considering what to do after high school, or counseling someone who is, here’s how to navigate the options for achieving your very own American dream.

  • Plan to pursue postsecondary education — of some kind. Despite the cost, college has become more and more compulsory. Automation has increased the demand for high-skilled workers, and jobs in fast-growing industries such as health care, education and finance often require education beyond high school.

That means you should plan to continue on in school. And don’t wait too long, especially if your family isn’t in the top 20 to 25 percent of earners.

In that case, “Every year you don’t go to college increases the chance you’ll never go by almost 25 percent,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

  • Choose a career path first. It will be easier to choose a postsecondary path if you have a career in mind. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook is a good place to start. Search potential careers by pay, level of education needed, growth rate and more.

The average bachelor’s degree recipient earns 168 percent of a high school diploma holder’s salary, according to an analysis by the Hamilton Project, a policy initiative affiliated with the Brookings Institution.

A bachelor’s isn’t the only path to good pay. Aircraft mechanics, for instance, enjoy median earnings of about $60,000 a year with a mechanic’s certificate and 18 months of experience, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Consider taking small steps to a degree. Many experts advocate for incremental education, especially for students who don’t have the money to pay for a four-year education outright. Consider alternative college paths: Start with a one- or two-year certificate at a trade school or community college, get a job at a company that offers tuition assistance, and pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree while you work.

Check that the school and the program of study you choose are accredited and licensed, if applicable, using the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce defines good jobs as those that pay at least $35,000 a year for workers younger than 45 and $45,000 for workers older than 45. In 1991, about 40 percent of those jobs required a bachelor’s degree; by 2015, 55 percent did.