After six years pursuing my undergraduate degree and three years in graduate school, I finished my college career much wiser than the day I started. This wisdom didn’t necessarily originate from the knowledge accumulated in the classroom, although I enjoyed many of my classes. Most of my knowledge came from learning to navigate the complex university system and make my own decisions. Through mistakes and missed opportunities I picked up a few lessons that I hope to pass along.
1. The four-year undergraduate degree is a myth. So few people actually finish their undergraduate degree in four years that it should be considered false advertising to call it that. Most people finish in five or six years and many don’t finish at all. When exploring the options available for college, be sure to check out graduation rates. The more specific the information the better informed your decision will be. Finding the graduation rate for the University of Texas at Austin (currently enrolling 50,000+ students) provides little useful information. Graduation rates and number of years most students take to graduate for a specific program such as the School of Architecture, Urban Planning program is significantly more useful.
2. Don’t forget to calculate living expenses into your college budget. Yes, tuition and books took a significant chunk out of my college budget, but my biggest expenses were living expenses–rent, electricity, water, gas, groceries, clothes, transportation (car, gas, insurance) and other miscellaneous expenses. In Texas, a 2-2 (two bedroom, two bath) apartment in College Station for those attending Texas A&M ranges from the $400s-$900s per month whereas a 2-2 apartment for those attending the University of Texas ranges from the $800s-$1,800s–anywhere from a mini-mortgage to a full blown second mortgage for parents. Of course, there are the dorm room options which start at the $8,900s for the fall/spring semesters at the University of Texas Austin or $1,900s per semester ($3,800 for fall/spring semester) at Texas A&M. Keep in mind that these prices don’t cover phone, clothes, transportation, entertainment (cable TV), or many other miscellaneous expenses.
3. Choose the college that is right for you. Economics played a significant role in where I attended college, but some students are fortunate enough to be overwhelmed by the breadth of their options. It’s easy to narrow your options by applying to all the schools your friends are applying, but don’t. In spite of all the articles and research that say it doesn’t matter which school you attend, everyone knows that yes, it does matter which school you attend. Many students tend to look at ivy league and named universities as their first choices, but these schools have rigid admissions requirements and low admissions rates (fewer than 15 percent). Instead of obsessing over attending a university with a big name (or the schools your best friend or boyfriend are applying), focus on attending a college or university that will actually teach you something you want to learn. Look for schools with high five year graduation rates in your field, professors who are willing to act as mentors, and opportunities to network and explore your interests. When you target your efforts on mastering a field of expertise from a college or university that specializes in developing such skills, the aptitudes you develop will serve you well into your career and beyond.
A couple of pitfalls to avoid include attending a school that is more concerned with building and protecting its name than developing its students and believing the marketing pitch at for-profit universities. Neither of these options will help you achieve your academic goals
4. A college degree is worth any cost. One of the worst pieces of advice I received in college was to borrow as much money as it takes to finish. Student loan debt is a loadstone around the neck of too many college graduates who didn’t appreciate the reality of paying them off. Understand that a college education is an investment and not every college or degree will offer you the same monetary value. Don’t go into thousands of dollars of debt to graduate from NYU with a liberal arts degree. It will take years to recoup the investment and student loan repayment begins six months after you quit attending school (whether you graduate or not). Realize that the value of an undergraduate degree is significantly lower for us than it was for our parents and grandparents, and keep in mind that you may need a graduate degree in order to gain a foothold in your chosen field. The longer you attend school, the greater your opportunity for accumulating crippling student loan debt. Consider you may spend 5-6 years as an undergraduate and 3-10 years as a graduate student and pace yourself and your finances accordingly. There is nothing quite so sickening as graduating from college and finding yourself earning a salary that does not cover your adult living expenses including your student loans.
My personal advice is to find your estimated salary range from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and use the lowest number to calculate a ten year repayment plan that subtracts no more than 10 percent from your annual budget. Even at that, you may find you need a second job if your starting salary is $30,000 or less (ahem–teachers, social workers, artists).
5. Use your college experience to gain more than a degree. My entire college career was spent focusing on the end goal–the degree–and it wasn’t until after graduation that I realized I missed out on the college experience. There is no going back for me, but I hope my children are in a better position to make friends and establish strong relationships with mentors in addition to taking internships (at least one and preferably three) and participating in a study abroad program. Internships, even if they are just sweeping floors and running errands, offer fantastic opportunities to gain exposure, make professional contacts, and obtain an inside look at potential careers. Study abroad programs not only offer a chance for educational and career growth, they also offer opportunities for personal growth as well. Additionally, an often overlooked possibility for recent college graduates and graduate school students is fellowships, which resemble extended paid internships and offer the chance to learn through immersion. It’s a fantastic way to gain hands-on experience in cutting edge programs in your field.
College is an amazing opportunity–the first major decision in our adult life and the bridge that transitions us from childhood to adulthood. Like many decisions in adulthood, money plays a big role in the number of opportunities you can pursue. While the ideal is to have enough money and academic qualifications to attend your university of choice with a clear idea of your major and chosen career and the ability to seize all the internships, fellowships, and study abroad programs available, many students find themselves falling short. If you are one of them, don’t worry about it too much. Focus instead on making the most of the opportunities you are able to pursue and give yourself the time and space needed to know your own mind. As much as we may dislike it, our struggles build our character and how you handle adversity now is a much better determinant of success in the future.