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Congratulations on Your Graduation! Now What?

by on April 30, 2019 5:00 AM


Graduation season is surely a time for celebration of a great achievement, whether you are graduating from high school, a trade school, business school, basic training, junior college or a university. It is a time to recognize a significant personal milestone and to look forward to future successes.

But graduation also often comes with the age-old stresses of the unknown in your next chapter of life. So now what do you do with your freshly printed degree?

For high school grads it could be the anticipation of heading off to a post-secondary vocational school, college or university, a military career, or starting out into the workforce. It may also come with many unanswered questions about choosing the right subject to study or career to pursue. For college graduates, there could be the excitement of a first job or preparation for going on to graduate school. Or it could be the frustration of still not having secured a job knowing that bills will begin to pile up, including those nasty student loans that you will have to begin paying back soon.

Regardless of the circumstances, I would humbly suggest what might be a great gift for any high school or college graduate. Here is the shameless self-promotion for my book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” The seven common sense principles explained in the book help achieve personal and professional success, and this is the perfect time to “Dream Big, Keep it Real, and to Get it Done.” It was written to help you figure out a success plan for your career and life. The book (available here) is full of thought-provoking exercises that will challenge you to dig deep about what matters most in your life.

People spend a lot of time on trivial matters without ever doing a “You Review,” and determining a course for future success. Many times, we make our next steps in life according to conventional wisdom and simply following the crowd. An example is when a high school graduate will enroll in college after high school without really knowing a direction and perhaps not having the maturity to begin such a difficult journey. In such cases, I am a strong proponent of a “gap year” where the student works in a service industry job while exploring realistic options, doing job shadowing, spending additional time with a school counselor, and perhaps hiring a career coach to help fine tune their next steps. I guarantee you the time spent in a structured gap year will be worthwhile. Taking an extra six months and enrolling in school in January, or even taking the entire year to help determine your own unique path, will be time well spent and avoids false starts that often come with a rush to follow the crowd.  

We have significant gaps in the number of Americans earning both college and trade/technical degrees compared with the number of jobs that will need to be filled. This is due in part to the large number of Baby Boomers set to retire in the next decade. That spells opportunity.

While it is true that college graduates earn more money and have a higher standard of living over the long haul, not everyone is meant to go to college. This is especially true considering the staggering amounts of college debt that exist today. The key is to pre-position yourself for success.

Here are just a few “non-traditional” and “non-linear” educational and career paths to consider:

  • High school (HS) grad to military to college on the GI bill

  • HS to gap year to community college to transfer to a four-year school

  • HS to post-graduate prep school to four-year college or university

  • HS to the workforce to community college to college or university

  • HS to trade school to work to night school for associate degree

  • GED to work to trade school

  • HS to college ROTC to military to workforce

  • HS to a large university to gap year to transfer to a small college

  • HS to a small college to gap year to transfer to a large university


Pragmatic Point: According to Tradesmen International, there is a severe shortage of applicants for well-paying, skilled labor jobs, and that is predicted to grow through 2024.  

Home Depot CEO Craig Menear announced in March of 2018 that his company would be donating $50 million to train 20,000 people in the trades over the next decade to help fill in the gap. Again, this spells opportunities that too often you may miss because of the “sea of sameness” that everyone must go to college to be successful.

We now have 44 million people who owe $1.5 trillion in student debt. That’s a large percentage of the populace and a lot of money owed. While there is some talk of forgiving student loans in some political circles, the reality is that you can’t count on that as part of your financial strategy. The lesson here is to think in terms of R.O.I (return on investment) before just blindly starting college when you don’t have a real sense for what you want to study.

For those of you graduating and moving into the workforce with a job, let me give you some advice. One of the best predictors of future success is delayed gratification. Make sacrifices in the short run to keep life in perspective. The old adage of saving for a rainy day is terrific and timeless advice. No, you really don’t need the new cellphone, car or premium running shoes just because of some slick marketing campaign. Learn instead to “pay yourself first.” That is, direct deposit a portion of your paycheck into savings, personal investments and retirement accounts. Put away money in your company’s 401k at least to the amount that they match your contributions (that’s free money to you). The earlier you learn the concept of paying yourself first, the earlier you get to take advantage of the miracle of compound interest.

A lot of young adults don’t plan enough for the next stage of life. Marriage? Wedding and honeymoon expenses? Kids? Childcare expenses? Insurance? Perhaps you should cut back on the amount of time spent on video games and play the online or even old-fashioned board version of “The Game of Life.” Create a budget and stick to it. 

High Schools Fail at Teaching Personal Finance, Millennials Say,” was the headline of a recent article by Motley Fool, looking at a study done by, a free website designed to help students and their families evaluate how to responsibly pay for their college education.

“A majority of today's young adults say that their educations were too heavy on algebra and chemistry, too light on things like stock market basics and how to file your taxes,” according to the article.

As a funny meme from Sage Boggs goes: “I'm glad I learned about parallelograms instead of how to do taxes. It's really come in handy this parallelogram season.”

If you are a high school graduate who is still not sure of what direction to go my suggestion is to take a step back and think the process through. Develop realistic options and make informed choices.  

Cost matters. You find a university and it has everything you want, but it comes with a hefty price tag. You must consider that when weighing your options. You can receive a $20,000 scholarship from that school that costs $60,000 and still pay twice what you might pay at a different school. You have to do your homework to determine if the R.O.I is truly worth the extra money you will spend on your education. No offense to sociology majors but unless you see yourself going for at least a master’s degree, and more likely a Ph.D., then the cost of your undergrad degree will matter even more. To go $100,000 to $150,000 in debt to get certain degrees that don’t lead to high-paying jobs simply makes no sense. Be sure to learn what starting salaries are like in your anticipated field of study. Know the facts before rushing off to schools who simply entice you to be in the band or play on a sports team.

Don’t be in such a hurry, and remember to enjoy the journey. Many of you are young enough to overcome a poor decision or two (as long as they aren’t too big). So what if you don’t pick the right major at the start? You can always change majors. It’s OK if a certain school doesn’t turn out to be as great as you thought, you can always transfer. 

I will leave you with this final piece of advice from Harvard Professor Tal Ben Shahar: “Find the sweet spot of something you are really good at, passionate about, and really enjoy doing.”

There are options out there for everyone. You need to do you! Create your own sweet spot.

Congratulations to all the graduates out there and to the parents and others who have assisted to this point.  It’s time to Dream Big. Keep it Real. Get it Done!

Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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