Smart Money Podcast: How Nerds Choose the Best, and Paying for College

NerdWallet's Content team leader explains how Best-Of Award winners are chosen and why you can trust our picks.

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.

This week’s episode starts with a discussion about how Nerds choose the best financial products for consumers — while keeping their editorial integrity.

Then we pivot to this week’s money question from Richmond, who left us a voicemail:

“A couple of my coworkers say that they can't afford to go to college because they would miss out on income that they're getting from their current job. I was wondering if you knew of any other means to support yourself, to keep your head above water, pay your bills, and whatnot, as well as pay for college other than tuition assistance and stuff like that? Thank you so much.”

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Our take

Shopping for financial products can be confusing — but it doesn’t have to be. Our team of Content Nerds spent countless hours digging into financial products across nearly 60 categories to help determine our 2022 Best-Of Awards. Consumers can use this list to make shopping for new products easy. And rest assured that these awards are unbiased and backed up by our stringent editorial guidelines.

When it comes to paying for college and working while getting an education, find your unique balance. That may mean working part time and taking classes part time, working and going to school full time, or dedicating yourself full time to college. A work-study program might also be an option. The route that is best for you may depend on your unique goals, finances and working style.

Regardless of how you pursue higher education, know that those who earn college degrees tend to earn more than those without degrees. While student loans can be costly, the earning potential that they can unlock can offset the financial burden. But four-year degrees aren’t your only option. Trade schools and apprenticeship programs may help you land on a career path where you can work and earn money while learning your trade.

Our tips

  • Find your balance: Whether you do school part time and work part time or commit to school full time, think about which route will work best for you.

  • Consider lifetime earnings: Those with college degrees tend to make more than those with high-school diplomas alone.

  • Know that you have other options: Trade schools or apprenticeship programs can help you find a career path without attending a traditional four-year undergraduate program.

More about paying for education on NerdWallet:

Here are some resources mentioned in this episode’s Money Question segment:

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Episode transcript

Liz Weston: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money Podcast, where we answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I'm Liz Weston.

Sean Pyles: And I'm Sean Pyles. To send the Nerds your money questions, call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-N-E-R-D, or email us at [email protected]. Also, hit that subscribe button to get new episodes delivered to your devices every Monday. And if you like what you hear, leave us a review.

Liz: This episode, Sean and I answer a listener's question about how to pay for college. But first, in our This Week in Your Money segment, Sean and I are talking with the head of NerdWallet's Content team, Hanah Cho, about our Best-Of Awards and how we stay consumer-first in our content. Welcome to the podcast, Hanah.

Hanah Cho: Thanks for having me, Liz and Sean. I'm a longtime listener, first-time guest. I always wanted to say that.

Sean: We are so happy to have you on. All right. Let's dig into it. We are about to grill you, so I hope you're ready. NerdWallet recently released our 2022 Best-Of Awards, where we announced the best financial products across a range of categories like credit cards, personal loans, car insurance. The awards list is a result of countless hours of work from Nerds across the Content team. Can you explain why we put ourselves through this every year, Hanah?

Hanah: Ultimately, this is really about our consumers and users. If you look at the information that's out there, especially about financial products, we're inundated with information. Take credit cards, for example. There's new cards, new features, new bonuses, and it's really hard to keep track of them. And here at NerdWallet, our team of editors and writers are following these changes year-round. So the Best-Of Awards is really a culmination of all the work that we do year-round so the consumers really have the best product available to them that is really, again, best for their personal financial situation.

Sean: Our Nerds determined winners across nearly 60 categories. A few examples of the best products we reviewed this year are the best mortgage lenders, the best airline rewards program, and even the best crypto platform for beginners.

Liz: So Hanah, can you describe how our Nerds approach judging a product to determine whether it's best?

Hanah: We take our judging process for these awards really seriously. Each team comes up with a comprehensive scoring rubric, or methodology, to assess each financial product’s key features, and then we weigh them according to their importance to consumers. We also talk to consumers, and we get feedback from them on what they liked about products as well. Collectively, we've spent countless hours looking through terms to be able to provide consumers with jargon-free, convenient lists of the very best options out there.

Sean: One question I get from folks when they find out that I work at NerdWallet is whether I get free credit cards or other financial products because I work here, and I have to politely say, "No, we do not, because that would be a breach of something we like to call editorial integrity." Can you explain how we approach our editorial independence in our content, and why it's important for consumers?

Hanah: You can ask any of our Nerds, in or outside the Content team. And you'll see that we take pride in our editorial integrity. And these awards are an extension of that. When we talk about our editorial independence, that really means that we want to be objective and independent without having any sort of influence from the business side of NerdWallet. And that allows us to continue to earn your trust and consumers, rest assured that no company has bought our award or bought our best picks.

Liz: Hanah, break it down for our listeners. How can they use our work and put it to their advantage? What do the Best-Of Awards mean for them?

Hanah: The way that we've looked at and assessed criteria is really helping consumers figure out what is most important to them. At least categorize that by different financial products. So when I look at credit cards, I'm not really an optimizer of credit cards, so what I'm really looking for is the best, simplest cash-back award. So we have that category. Other credit card users, they want to optimize travel rewards. They want to optimize getting the most points out of retail. So that's what we do. We want to provide consumers with clear and helpful recommendations based on what is most important to them. We hope that this year that our consumers really use these lists as a tool to help them make the best smart money moves with confidence.

Sean: When I first started at NerdWallet, I found a really nice high-yield savings account back when they actually were high-yield, and I set up an account. Now I have all my various savings buckets in there. And I watched as the reviews have actually gone down year over year, and I was scrolling through the Best-Of Awards for best savings account. And it got me thinking, "Maybe now is the time to make the switch because what has my account done for me lately? Not very much." So I like that I can scroll through and find what is the best savings account for people who are primarily online bankers like me.

Hanah: That's why we reevaluate this year by year, because the financial market changes. And obviously, the last two years we've gone through the pandemic, so there's different features that appeal to certain situations. So we added the best crypto platforms. Just think about two, three years ago, that wasn't really in our conversation or it was really just emerging, and now it's more mainstream. And our methodologies evolve as things change, which is why I think these awards are so valuable for consumers because we're doing the homework for you and you don't need to necessarily do all that work to keep up with these changing things.

Sean: It's literally a full-time job for many, many people on the NerdWallet team.

Hanah: And they love doing it too.

Sean: Yeah. All right. Well, Hanah, thank you so much for talking with us.

Hanah: Of course. Thank you.

Sean: For more information on NerdWallet's Best-Of Award winners and to find a full list of the winners cross categories, visit nerdwallet.com/awards. And now let's get onto this episode's money question.

Liz: This episode's money question comes from a listener's voicemail. Here it is.

Richmond: A couple of my coworkers say that they can't afford to go to college because they would miss out on income that they're getting from their current job. I was wondering if you knew of any other means to support yourself, to keep your head above water, pay your bills, and whatnot, as well as pay for college other than tuition assistance and stuff like that? Thank you so much.

Sean: To help us answer this listener's question, we are joined by student loan Nerd Anna Helhoski. Welcome to the podcast, Anna.

Anna Helhoski: Hi, Sean. Thanks for having me. I wish there was a pithy easy answer to the question of balancing work and school, but like everything else that has to do with making decisions about higher education and job training, there are a myriad of factors to consider.

Sean: What do you think is at play behind the scenes here?

Anna: At the base level, I'd say it's important to remember that your ability to attend college and "keep your head above water" as this listener says, will depend entirely on your situation as well as the support that you have to do at least two things at once, which is work and go to school. There are plenty of college students that are also working, but you're more likely to do it if you attend part time.

Sean: Yeah, many people don't have the luxury of being able to dedicate all of their time to school. My partner recently started a grad program, for example, and he's working full time and taking classes part time this quarter. And he'll be doing full-time work and full-time classes next quarter, and it is a lot. We also knew it would be a lot. So to help, I am providing that support. I'm picking up more around the house so he can focus on his studies. Many people don't have that type of support.

Anna: He's definitely lucky to have you.

Sean: I remind him all the time.

Anna: As you should. And support is really another contributor to inequity in higher education to haves and the have-nots. Keeping up with coursework is a full-time job in and of itself. So, if you're attending full time and you're working, it can be extremely difficult to balance. It's why it's so challenging for adults who have an array of responsibilities for them to go back to school. It's also certainly difficult to do if you don't have support. If you're a parent, for example, and you're trying to go back to school, that would be easier to do if you have a partner, or there's a grandparent, or you can afford to pay for child care versus not.

Liz: There are a lot of people still out there who remember the days when you could work full time and attend college, or just save enough to pay for college. I was talking to somebody in their 70s and they were like, "Well, I worked my way through school." That's about the last time you could do that. If you look at what you would earn without a college degree and try to extrapolate that into enough work that you could save for a year of college, as it costs today, you literally would be working years and years trying to afford a single year of school.

Sean: Right. Plus housing costs have gone up so much, so that's another added expense.

Anna: Right. And wages haven't kept up with either one of these.

Liz: If you're older and you're ever tempted to say to somebody, "Why can't you work your way through school?" Just go look at the math. It doesn't work anymore. Now, our listener could work part time and also go to school part time. What are your thoughts about that possibility?

Anna: It might be a more viable approach for students to attend part time and work part time — again, if you still have the support in place to do so. That's going to take you longer to do than going full-time, to get that degree, but you may have an easier time balancing work and school if you're dividing your time more evenly. So, for some people working part time is not an option, so they need to work full time and then go to school part time. If you're going to do that, that's going to be really hard to juggle.

Sean: I imagine it would also take a lot longer to finish your degree, and then there would be more chances of something coming up in your life that would make it so you wouldn't be able to finish that degree.

Anna: Absolutely.

Sean: So what about not working at all and focusing entirely on school?

Anna: So if you can't work and go to school at the same time, but you still have to pay for living expenses, you can use student loan money. Many people don't realize this, but a student loan can be used to pay for really anything included in the total cost of attendance. That includes your room and board for students who live on campus, but it can also include rent, utilities and food for those who live off campus. So each school will actually have a different cost of attendance calculation, depending on that status, whether you're on campus or off, whether you're dependent or independent. It is, however, a really expensive way to pay for your rent since you'll have to repay the amount that you borrow plus interest. But for people who, again, can't work but still need to go to school and still have to pay living expenses, it could be the way for you to get through school and get the degree that will help you pay off the debt that you've taken on.

Sean: Those who get a degree are more likely to earn more over their lifetimes. The Social Security Administration found that men with bachelor's degrees earn approximately $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates. Women with bachelor's degrees earned $630,000 more. So that is a pretty significant difference in what you can earn over your lifetime.

Anna: And attending college is largely seen as a vehicle for socioeconomic mobility. How powerful a vehicle that is will really depend on what you major in, which will determine the field that you enter, as well as other factors — your race, gender, where you live after you graduate, all the different things that will factor into how much money you're actually going to make. What you study, the type of credential you earn, and where you attend all do matter to your success. There are two resources that I highly recommend students turn to if they're interested. You can research jobs, find out what's in demand and the type of education that's needed to pursue that job using the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and then compare credential type, schools, earnings, using the college scorecard, and that's from the U.S. Department of Education.

Liz: And where can people access these resources?

Anna: Those are both available online for free. So anyone who has an internet connection can access them.

Liz: And we can include links to those resources on our show notes. Let's continue on that idea of earning power. So how does that break down for those people who have a college degree versus just a high school diploma or some other educational certification?

Anna: We do see generally that having a college degree results in higher earnings, and that typically follows the credential level. So if you have a certificate program, that will equal higher earnings than just a high school diploma. An associate's degree will generally lead to higher earnings than many certificate programs. Bachelor's degrees will typically lead to higher-paid jobs, and so on and so forth all the way up to Ph.D. programs. Traditionally, four-year college is certainly the gold standard for higher education, especially since those schools are eligible for federal student aid, but there are other options that may be better options for working adults. For students who don't necessarily thrive in a traditional classroom setting, there are plenty of other training options. Certificate programs like community colleges, for example, as well as trade schools. A really great resource to get you started on what type of work you'd like to do is goodjobsdata.org. It provides state-by-state information on jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree. And that is a project of Georgetown University's center on education and the workforce. And it's a really interesting website.

Sean: Anna, you mentioned community college, which I think is an option that a lot of people don't give enough time to. Can you talk more about how that fits into the various options that people have for higher education?

Anna: Yeah. Community college often has a negative stigma attached to it, but it really is a valuable resource for societal good. These programs are inexpensive, they're local, they have flexible hours. All are ideal for working adults. Community college enrollment has been declining for several years now, and it was hit particularly hard by the pandemic, which is disappointing because these programs are so accessible and they really address a wide variety of interests. You can study trades, get an associate’s degree, or knock out a year or two of your credits that you would need to transfer. Over half of all states even have bachelor's degree programs at community colleges, and that's something that is definitely being talked about a lot more lately.

Free community college came up a lot in the last year because for a brief shining period of time, we thought there was going to be free community college through a federal-state partnership, but that was one of the first things on the Build Back Better chopping block. However, I would note that many states, including Tennessee, Oregon, Washington, California, Maryland and a bunch of others, do have free broadly based community college programs. Certain states — like West Virginia, South Dakota, and Kentucky — also have free community college programs if you plan to study an in-demand field and agree to work in state for a certain period of time after graduation. It's also worth noting there are community college programs, particularly medical programs, that will lead to jobs that pay better than many bachelor's degree programs. It's certainly the most affordable option because students are still eligible for federal student aid, including Pell Grants that are available for low-income students, as well as loans. So community colleges should not be slept on.

Liz: No, absolutely not. Although, we should point out that if you're looking at somebody who is trying to get a four-year degree, it's often recommended that they start at community college to save money, but you want to make sure you have a very dedicated student because the dropout rates are very high. When you compare people who started a four-year school versus people who start at community college, even when they intend to go for the four-year degree, the dropout rate is much, much higher at community college. So if you are a parent thinking about this option for a kid, you want to make sure the credits are going to transfer. If you are the kid or if you are a person going to school and your ultimate goal is the four-year degree, absolutely make sure that those credits are going to transfer because I think that's where a lot of people get hung up. Right, Anna?

Anna: It is, absolutely. I mean, some of your credits just probably aren't going to transfer depending on what school you're going to, and that can really set people back, and it can be also just really frustrating that you already worked so hard for this. But a lot of community colleges have transfer agreements. So definitely look into that sort of thing before you attend. And if that is your intention, you're going to community college specifically so that you can, again, knock out a couple years, do it on the cheap and then transfer, have your four-year plan already in place so that you know exactly what you're trying to do. And you're going to want to be in contact with the aid office at both colleges just to make sure.

Liz: All right. That's good advice. So let's talk about a few of the options for education outside the classroom. I'm thinking about things like apprenticeship programs, trade schools.

Anna: Sure. So apprenticeship programs are also an option if you can find one that works for you. They will pay you to work full time and train you at the same time. So some typical professions that have apprenticeship programs include carpenters, electricians, iron workers, musical instrument repairers and plumbers. And there is a big list of apprenticeship opportunities in the U.S. Department of Labor website. Trade schools will also offer hands-on training for specific fields, but you won't get paid for it. These are typically certificate programs that last one to two years or less. They usually have flexible hours, which is definitely attractive for students who are working, and they can be just the thing that leads to you directly to licensing and a job.

Sean: But there are also more predatory institutions in this space compared with community colleges and nonprofit colleges, right?

Anna: That's right. So choosing one of these programs will require you to be a really discerning consumer. Not all programs are legit. For-profit trade schools like Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech were shut down in the last decade for predatory practices. It's a really good idea to compare programs. Look at graduation rates, look at job placement rates using trainingproviderresults.gov, and, like I mentioned before, the Education Department's college scorecard as well. So make sure the program is accredited and is recognized by licensing agencies in your state. It's extra work to figure this out, but it really is important to do.

Liz: So how does financing for trade school programs work? Do the students have the same loan options as people who would attend a four-year undergraduate program?

Anna: That's going to depend. Some of the schools will be eligible for what is called Title IV funding. So that means that you can access federal student aid, but that will vary from school to school. Ideally, you'll want to find a school that will do that, but a lot of very short-term programs, even at community colleges, will not necessarily be eligible. And things like coding boot camps, those are not eligible for federal student aid, so you'll have to pay for that out-of-pocket. If you're trying to figure out how to pay for trade school, your costs are also going to really vary pretty drastically. Some programs can be just as expensive as traditional private four-year colleges — private four-year colleges, not just public. And you could get similar training at a community college instead. So definitely check out what's available in your area. If you're someone who's low income and you want to pursue a trade school, the college scorecard includes a section on training programs that do accept Pell Grants.

Sean: OK. So would a program or a school accepting Pell Grants or being eligible for Title IV funding be a marker of whether it's legit or not, or is there not much of a correlation there?

Anna: It really is going to vary from school to school. I know ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges, they still were eligible for Title IV funding. So it's not the only marker of legitimacy.

Sean: Good to know.

Anna: But it's a good step one.

Sean: Any final thoughts for our listener or those trying to figure out how to afford college?

Anna: No matter what type of schooling you pursue, making sure that you can complete the program is key. What you don't want to do is end up with debt and no degree. And we know that around 40% of those with student loan debt today do not have a degree, which means they still have to repay the debt, but they don't reap the financial benefits that tend to go along with the degree. So in the long run, borrowers who don't finish school are the ones who tend to default on their loans, which has a load of negative consequences from wage garnishment, to a negative credit score, and your account being sent to collections agencies. It's something you really want to avoid. To bring it back to this listener's original question, if you're someone who's working while going to school because you need that income, it's going to be more difficult to complete that degree or program, especially if you have those other responsibilities at home that we talked about.

Sean: Right. Well, thank you so much for talking with us, Anna.

Anna: Yeah, of course. Thanks so much for having me.

Sean: With that, let's get onto our takeaway tips. Liz, do you want to kick us off?

Liz: Sure. First, find your balance. Whether you do school part time and work part time or commit to school full time, think about which route will work best for you.

Sean: Next, consider lifetime earnings. Those with college degrees tend to make more than those with high school degrees alone.

Liz: Finally, know that you have other options. Trade schools or apprenticeship programs can help you find a career path without attending a traditional four-year undergraduate program.

And that's all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-N-E-R-D. You can also email us at [email protected] Visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more information on this episode, and remember to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.

Sean: And here is our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet's legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes, and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Liz: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds