How to Get the Most Out of College

A college degree is expensive. If you're going to attend university, you need to know how to get the most out of college.

It's tough out there for college students. The cost of tuition continues to rise. We're still trying to figure out what student loan forgiveness might look like. It's wildly popular, but the sticking point remains around the issues of:

  1. How much should be forgiven? $10,000? $20,000? $50,000? Blanket cancelation?
  2. Who gets to access forgiveness? Should it be means-tested for those below a certain income? Or should everyone access student loan forgiveness? And what about people who have private loans?

And, of course, none of this looks to the future. How do we avoid ending up back in this spot later? Some states offer free college tuition for community colleges and trade schools. That might help reduce student loan debt. Others point out that federal student loans should probably carry lower interest rates — and refinancing should be an option.

Even with all of this, many young people are still contemplating college. And if you decide to attend, you need to know how to get the most out of college.

Tips on how to get the most out of college

Everyone likes to point to the story of the communications major with $200,000 in student loan debt. I laugh, too, because I was a Communications major, and my M.A. is in Journalism. But I sure as hell don't have $200,000 in student loan debt. I have more student debt than I should (I was on a scholarship for undergrad so all my student loan debt in that regard is superfluous and stupid), but I don't have that much, all things considered.

Just because you might end up with student loan debt is no reason to avoid college. A good education can still be a great tool in your financial arsenal, and you don't want to avoid it. You just need to know how to get the most out of college

Choose the right major

The reality is that some majors are “worth” more than others. Do some research. That communications major would be lucky to earn $65,000 upon completion of her degree. That salary doesn't justify the huge (doctor-level) debt she's getting into. Look at your career path and what you can expect to earn. If you're spending a lot of money on school, you'd better have a career plan for paying it back.

Sure, I make six figures with my comms degree, but I didn't spend a ton. There's nothing wrong with getting a history major or going into teaching. These are important to society! But be realistic about how much debt you'll incur and balance that with your expected salary when you graduate. A website like PayScale.com can help you research the options.

If you go on to grad school, the ROI becomes even murkier. You can use a tool like this one from Wharton to gauge the ROI of a graduate degree.

Consider your school

The right school can reduce your need for student loans. My ex-husband started out at a community college (and now he has a Ph.D.). I did my undergrad at a small state university. If you know that you are going on to earn an advanced degree, there's no real reason to spend a ton on your undergrad. Unless you're going to go to Stanford and then do your graduate work at Harvard, going to an Ivy League school as an undergrad isn't a good way to get the best bang for your education buck.

Even with my lowly undergrad degree, I got into a pretty good journalism program for my graduate work. And no one cares where I went to undergrad anymore. And my husband is so far removed from his college beginnings that it doesn't matter that he started at a school that's kind of an inside joke in his hometown.

My son is attending our local community college and is debt-free. He's looking into a program that will allow him to work after two years.

Look into financial aid

This goes along with choosing the right school. It can make sense to check into your financial aid options. You might be surprised at what's available. Even low-cost online programs often offer financial aid. These programs provide you with a chance to study on your own terms, and on your own time, and you can still get financial help to complete your studies. Remember, too, that financial aid isn't just about scholarships. There are other forms of financial aid. Subsidized loans delay the payment of interest. Additionally, it's possible to qualify for work-study programs, which guarantee you a minimal amount of work to help make college more affordable. Find out what options you have so you pay less overall when you attend school.

Don't forget about saving up for yourself. If you're saving for a child's college or your own, a 529 plan can help. I had enough saved up for my son's schooling in his 529. He probably won't use it all, so I can use up to $10,000 of it to pay off my student loans later.

Get involved

While you attend school, get involved. Just as extracurriculars in high school can help you get into college, involvement as an undergrad can help you find good jobs later, and help you get into grad school (if that's your thing). Clubs, internships, honor societies, alumni networking, and student government involvement can help you have a better college experience, and help you improve your marketability.

My son is on the e-sports team. This has helped him get involved and form useful connections. Plus, the skills he practices for e-sports are translating into better results (read: money) when he plays online.

Don't discount the trades

And, of course, realize that not all education has to be tied up in a four-year college degree. There are plenty of certification programs and associate degree programs that can help you learn a marketable skill so that you can head out there and make good money — without getting into all that debt.

A good friend of mine is returning to school after dropping out 20 years ago. But he's going to a trade program at the community college to learn to weld. He's already got a job offer.

Bottom line

Sometimes the debt is worth it. I don't regret my education. My college degree has proved useful and it allows me to work from home while supporting my family financially. But before you load up on the student loan debt, stop and think about whether or not your college experience will be worth it, and how you might be able to get a different sort of education without as much debt. And if you decide to attend university, make a plan to guide you as you figure out how to get the most out of college.

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