A few years ago, my brother came to me for advice. He was a few credits short of earning his college degree, and he felt a little cheated.
Most of us know the statistics about the economic benefits of college. As a general rule, we understand that your level of education correlates with your wealth and annual income—at least that’s what we’re told.
Statistical data links wealth, health, and happiness to post-secondary education completion.
With a college degree the world is our oyster! Right? Am I right?
If I could relive the conversation with my brother all over again, here’s what I might have told him instead. Here’s what I think you should know about making sure your college experience is valuable.
But first, a few caveats:
1. Don’t believe that a college degree will propel you into your dream career.
It might and it can, but not all degrees are treated equally. Sometimes your dream changes. And sometimes you live your dream, but it doesn’t actually satisfy you.
Decide what you’re motivated by, and then figure out how your specific degree can help you gain the experience and skills that you’ll need in that industry.
If you have a non-traditional interest, it’s important to be strategic and intentional.
If you’re not sure what field you’d like to enter, it’s important to develop a solid base of tangible and transferable skills.
2. Don’t enroll in a degree program without evaluating the associated costs. All of them.
Here’s what I hadn’t figured out when I was in school:
More prestigious schools don’t always provide a better education than lesser known ones. Sometimes prestige just means more expensive.
Prestige doesn’t always open the door to better opportunities. I’ve lost opportunities due to lack of experience, not due to the merit of the schools I’ve attended.
I’ve lost opportunities when my transferable skills weren’t aligned with what the organization actually needed.
The cost of tuition doesn’t determine the quality of the education you’ll receive. If you are resourceful and committed, loan debt (in many cases) can be avoided, if not severely minimized.
It is actually more cost-effective and advantageous to attend a public in-state institution or community college, than it is to attend a private school (although there are some exceptions).
You may have greater access to hands-on experience and better connections as a result.
3. Don’t overestimate the impact of what a Bachelor’s degree can do for you.
Right now the market is over-saturated with Bachelor’s degrees. If you want to stand out to an employer, or if you want greater mobility, flexibility, and opportunity in the long-term, it’s important to develop additional skills during college, in addition to just earning your degree.
Do these things too. You won’t regret it:
- Become a persuasive and exceptional communicator.
- Become an expert at something.
- Stay abreast of new technology and become proficient in the programs most used by professionals in your field. Stay ahead of and learn to predict new trends in technology.
- Become multilingual, and you’ll become more marketable. Perhaps, more importantly, the experience will also give you a greater sense of the importance of language, communication, cultural bias, and humility.
Now, a few recommendations:
4. Before you enroll, learn about the school’s accreditation and retention rates.
Know whether your college is for-profit or not-for-profit. There’s been some controversy associated with for-profit schools, but this doesn’t mean they’re all bad. Do your research before you enroll.
Learn the retention rate for students at your school.
Are they vastly different for men as opposed to women? Are students of color graduating at much lower rates than their peers? This data might be reflective of the school’s culture or climate. To the extent that you’re able, learn this before you enroll.
Learn about your school’s policies for transferring to a different university.
Will all your credits transfer? If not, which ones won’t? Lost credits mean more out-of-pocket expense, lost time, and lost opportunity cost.
Learn about your school’s policies for deferring enrollment or taking time away from school due to health issues or family tragedy.
5. Develop solid relationships with your professors and peers.
Your professors can be your greatest assets in school, and your greatest advocates outside of school.
If you’re considering graduate school, these relationships are essential. If you’d rather just work after college, these recommendations can be instrumental for advancing your professional or future academic career.
6. Hone your entrepreneurial skills.
Think of an issue or problem that needs attention, a “pain point.”
Create a viable solution. Research competitors. Learn how to build a brand; market it. Develop a solid product or an exceptional service, and learn how to troubleshoot. Make a profit.
Use your alumni network, and visit your Career Center religiously.
Get as much experience as you can through internships and externships, and use social media to your advantage when building your brand.
When you’re in college, you not only have access to a wealth of resources, you also have access to a large network of people—friends, colleagues, and professors. Use this network to begin generating passive income, while you’re still in college.
7. Develop a consistent savings plan, and save as much money as possible.
Learn as much about personal finance, money management, and investing as you can. Take Accounting, Economics, Statistics, and a wide range of business classes. Learn about saving for retirement. Pack your lunch! Take stock of how much you spend eating out at restaurants. Limit how much you spend on alcohol, supplies, and textbooks. Don’t get an unsubsidized loan. Ever. Under any circumstances.
Start an Emergency Savings Account right now!
8. Become an expert.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating.
Expertise is valuable and highly marketable. You can use it; you can sell it. You can rely on it to distinguish you and set you apart. If you’re ever lacking for opportunity, you can create your own!
All college majors aren’t created equally.
If you’re not sure what you’d like to study, or you’re worried that your rugged idealism will lead to your financial demise, consider this: Degrees in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) tend to be more valued and more valuable. These careers tend to be more lucrative and more easily accessible.
Most significantly, unemployment rates for STEM graduates tend to be lower than those of graduates of other programs.
Graduating with an undervalued major doesn’t have to be your Achilles’ heel. We can get through this!
In order to make sure that your college degree is valuable, develop solid relationships and friendships.
Fine tune and develop as many transferable, technical skills as humanly possible.
Learn languages. Cut costs. Explore minimalism. Never buy new textbooks and save as much money as you possibly can. Don’t get credit cards.
Do whatever you can not to take on student loans.
This is what I would say to my brother twelve years ago, and what I would tell 18-year-old me.
What advice would you give to entering college freshman?
What lessons did you learn in college that transferred to your professional career?