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For money or love: choosing a degree

What do you want to be when you grow up?

When we're children, we can answer that question in a heartbeat: a doctor, a ballerina, a movie star, or perhaps a WWE wrestler.

How is it, then, that when faced with the same question as adults, many are completely stumped?

In regard to higher education, deciding what field to study and what degree to declare can often be nothing short of intense. Should students aim for the rising moneymaking fields or follow their bliss?

The decision, says Jennifer Sengenberger, coordinator of Career Services at Pikes Peak Community College, is nothing if not personal.

"Input from others is always important," she said. "But in the end, it is your decision and no one else's."

Melissa Reynolds, student adviser at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says that graduates with technology degrees continue to rank among the highest-paid. According to the Colorado Career Network, those in information technology -- or IT -- fields can expect entry-level salaries of $48,000 to $60,000.

"Even though Colorado Springs, and the nation, had a huge technology crash, it seems to be bouncing back," she said. "IT jobs still pay the highest and there are still a lot of job openings."

The nursing shortage

Nationwide, other top-growth occupations include aerospace and engineering, both earning an average entry-level salary of $48,000. Medical-related fields, such as pharmacy and nursing, are rapidly rising because of a growing level of demand. The Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UCCS has a long waiting list, and nursing students often have more than one job offer in hand by the time they graduate.

Responding to an overwhelming need to fill the nursing shortage, Beth-El recently began offering an accelerated nursing program, designed for those with a pre-existing bachelor's degree in any field, to be completed in 16 months.

"The nursing field is growing because all of the baby boomer nurses are now retiring," Reynolds said. "It's a field that's not expected to bottom out like computers did."

Sengenberger at PPCC also sees a rise in the numbers of those interested in nursing programs, but notes that she sees different reasons for the increased interest.

"Especially after September 11, it's definitely a trend we're seeing ... a lot of young people wanting to give something back," she said "This generation, the 'Millenials,' seem to have different values and priorities."

Jobs for everyone

High demand and dollars aside, both Reynolds and Sengenberger agree that just because a person does not want to get a degree in technology or nursing doesn't mean that they're doomed.

"The choice is much bigger and important than just what's labeled 'Hot Jobs,'" Sengenberger said. "The truth is, there are jobs out there for everyone, no matter what the field."

The more your degree can be mutated to fit into various jobs, the better, Reynolds says. Communications, for example, is a good field to be in, as far as how widely applicable it is.

"It has an average hire rate, but the degree can fall into a lot of different places and different jobs," she said. "It's often about finding the right employer for you."

A degree in education can also be used in many businesses and attracts lots of job offers nationwide.

For those who have not decided where their interests lie, Sengenberger suggests volunteering to find out what it is you like to do. Another possibility is to "shadow" someone in the field that you are interested in -- ask if they would allow you to follow them around for a day, in order to see what it is that they actually do.

Making money and having fun

Some, however, already know what they want their future to hold and aim for an even mix of enjoyment and a decent salary.

David Kent, a culinary arts major at PPCC, has had a variety of jobs throughout his life, including janitorial work. He loves to cook, and his dream is to own his own restaurant. "I spent too many years making money and not enjoying my work," he said. "Now, I figure if I can love what I do, making a lot of money is just a perk."

According to the Department of Labor's Monthly Labor Review, certain jobs are starting to wind down, including agriculture, animal services and work with historical organizations.

Still, as Susan Aaron recently reported on the MSN Careers site, "Workers in the declining jobs have skills that are transferable to jobs with more possibility. However, those related jobs demand a higher level of learning. More and more, education is the difference between employability and obsolescence."

-- Kara Luger

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