How to make the most of your college education

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college education

college educationIn the last couple of years, there have been quite a few debates about whether or not attending college is worth the cost. After all, outstanding student loan debt is more than $1 trillion in the United States, and in 2014, the average amount of student loan debt was $33,000 for a four-year degree.

It’s not a surprise that some are starting to question the worth of a traditional four-year degree. There are even more questions about the worth of a graduate degree.

However, like many issues related to personal finance, the worth of a college education depends on a number of factors. No two people will get the same thing out of college, and that means that you need to consider your own situation, and what is likely to give you the best bang for your college buck.

Your degree matters

Based on median starting salaries, chemical, electrical, and computer engineering offer the best ROI for college, according to John McKusick, an education expert and the CEO of Universities.com. Other top-paying four-year degrees include actuarial mathematics, physics, computer science, economics, and statistics, according to PayScale.

If you want to get the most out of college, it starts with a degree that is likely to provide you with the ability to easily repay your loans, and go on to make more money over time. Even if you don’t choose a degree that is going to offer you a high ROI, you can increase the value of your college education by choosing the right college. 

Deciding on a college

“Students should pick a college based on a multitude of factors, one of which includes tuition,” says McKusick. “Size, location, program ranking for your area of interest, diversity, club sports, and student organizations are all key considerations.”

He points out that an in-state college with a strong ranking in the particular major you are considering can be a better choice, in terms of ROI, than spending a great deal more to go to a prestigious private school. 

Cost consideration is especially important if your degree won’t earn you much after you finish school. There are horror stories all over the news about liberal arts, social science and communications majors who have attended expensive schools and can’t afford their student loan payments. Even MBAs can have a hard time finding work that pay them enough. 

In many cases, you can get the most out of your college education by attending a smaller school with lower costs. I know I benefited from completing my undergraduate degree at a small public university. All of my instructors either held PhDs or had worked long years in the field. Class sizes were small, and I never felt like a number. I was able to participate in a number of resume-building activities, and receive personal attention from instructors. That doesn’t happen for students who spend four times the cost of my school’s tuition to attend big-name schools.

Get involved at school 

You can also make the most of your time at college by getting involved. McKusick says that participation in clubs and student government can help you develop leadership and team building skills that many employers value in today’s landscape. “Leadership also shows that you possess time management, communication, and organizational skills,” he says.

Even more important than your club activities, though, is your internship. “Internships are critical for gaining on-the-job skills and an understanding of the workplace,” says McKusick. 

A good internship can also provide you with a wider career network and result in good references for when you finish school. Taking advantage of internship and research opportunities is one of the best ways to build our your resume and make good use of the time and money spent earning a four-year degree.

What about grad school? 

All of your costs go up a notch when you add grade school to the mix. This means that your ROI should be carefully considered before you decide to attend. Many high-paying jobs in engineering fields don’t require anything beyond a four-degree, so it might not make sense to pursue a graduate degree. Double-check your field to find out what you can expect, depending on the level of education you attain.

Unfortunately, some of the lower-paying fields do require advanced degrees. Teaching is a good example. Some professions, such as those in psychology and sociology, require additional schooling if you want to make more money. Other professions, like those in communications fields, aren’t going to result in a pay bump if you obtain a graduate degree, so it might not be worth the expense. 

Carefully evaluate your situation to determine what will make the most sense for you in the long wrong. Choose an affordable school with a degree program that is likely to allow you to at least afford your student loan debt when you finish. And, of course, make sure that you take advantage of other opportunities at school. With the cost of a higher education going up, it makes sense to gain experience where you can, get involved, and build connections that will help you later on.