College: Making the Most of Your Investment

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Four-year college? Community college? Trade school? High school students have a plethora of choices when preparing for their career of choice. Many studies indicate that a college education is well worth the investment, both in dollars and energy, for the return in future years and earnings potential.

It’s a fact that the college track may not be appropriate for everyone. However, for those who know that college is definitely for them, there’s always the quest to make the most of the college experience. So what can you do to maximize your investment?

It may help to know that investing in college is quite different from any other investment. First of all, you’re investing in yourself, so you know more about your product than anyone else. Secondly, you have some control over the return on your investment. You have the opportunity to make decisions that will help you through the college experience and beyond. Bearing this in mind should give students and parents some peace of mind. We’ll examine some other measures, financial and otherwise, with advice for how to get the most for your bucks when it comes to the college experience.

First of all, choose the right school! Look for schools in the right location. Do you want to pay out-of-state tuition, or would an in-state school fit your needs just as well? Look at the various majors. Does the school offer a major in something you’re passionate about? What about extracurricular activities? You want a complete, well-rounded college experience, and not just academics. And finally, is the school affordable?

Once you’ve determined your school, it’s time to figure out financial aid. The first thing you need to do is file the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This will dictate most of your need-based aid such as grants from your school or the government, work-study programs or student loans. You should always file the FAFSA; it’s free and you have nothing to lose. File it as soon after January 1 as possible.

Most students have to take out some kind of loan for college. If you do, be smart about student loans. Repaying the loans could be easier than you think. The federal government offers a variety of plans to repay federal student loans. Grants, such as Pell grants or TEACH grants, may be available based on financial need; again, this is based on filing the FAFSA. Be sure to talk to the financial aid counselors at the college, because they can help you sort through the various programs offered.

While you’re in school, take advantage of the career services office. These coaches can help you with your résumé, career coaching and fill you in on networking events in your chosen field. These services may even be available after you graduate.

Join clubs and organizations. The more the better! These will offer you real-world skills such as event planning, management skills and exposure to new and unique fields. Not to mention you’ll develop numerous social skills through these activities.

Attend lectures on campus. Colleges bring in some of the greatest minds from around the country. Always check out the school’s website and residence hall bulletin boards for exciting speakers who may be in your field or not. It will make you more knowledgeable and better-rounded when you hear the brightest minds on various subjects.

A sage bit of advice is to graduate, and graduate on time! When you’re scoping out a particular college, find out the percentage of students who fail to graduate in four years. If that number is higher than 15 percent, do some investigating to find out why. If you’re not satisfied with the answers, move on and find another school. Adding a fifth year to college means more tuition and extra college costs. It also sets you one year behind in the labor market.

Also, take into consideration what will happen after you graduate. When you’re choosing a major, find out how your major fits into the world outside of college. Do people in your field earn a comfortable living? Do the professionals in your field get fulfillment out of their careers? Check out the various websites that break down earnings per major. Try to find mentors in your field who can give you firsthand knowledge of how things work in your profession in the real world. This may bring you out of the clouds and provide a wakeup call as to how your career field really works.

Remember, you’re not just investing in your college education; you’re investing in yourself. If you are worth it, which you are, then take every advantage of all the opportunities available to you so that you and your parents will get the most out of your college experience! HLM

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