Making college worthwhile with choices you make
By Peter D. Feaver
DURHAM, N.C. ― By May 1, many high-school seniors across America must make one of the biggest decisions of their lives: which college to attend. They (and their parents) will doubtless be wondering whether they will get their money's worth and whether college is really worth it anymore, especially given the rising tuition and uncertain employment prospects afterward.
We know that too many students are failing to get their money's worth, but not for the reasons you may think. We believe the root problem is that many students make bad choices in college. Bad choices run the gamut from sins of commission (think pop-culture depictions of undergrad carousing) to sins of omission (such as avoiding inspiring classes for fear of too much coursework).
And note we said "in college," not "of college."
Sure, choosing the right college is important. But we have known students who got a mediocre education at some of the most celebrated and prestigious schools in the world. And we have known students who got a world-class education from an unheralded institution. The former coasted, thinking that the name on the diploma was all that mattered.
The latter excelled, getting the best out of their college experience.
In our experience, students too often fail to be as intentional in the far more extensive and far more consequential set of choices they will make after they arrive on campus: Should I take this course from this star professor even though he is infamous as a tough grader? Should I go deeper in my studies or should I add another certificate credential to my resume? Should I attend the visiting lecture that sounds interesting but is totally unrelated to my course work? Should I pick a major that my parents think is more marketable but is of no interest to me?
A student determined to get his or her money's worth will carefully weigh considerations like:
― What kind of story, or narrative, am I telling with my transcript about my educational journey, and how can I shape my course choices to influence conversations with future potential employers?
― How can I use my extra-curriculars to develop myself as a person and build networks, and not merely to let off stress or have fun?
― How much time should I invest in the roommate-relationship experience, and how can I be proactive in our interactions early on to sidestep any sort of miscommunications that might lead to stressful confrontations later in the year?
― What relevance do my relationships back home have with my relationships on campus, and how can I build both?
― Is it worth the effort to get to know a few professors before I graduate? (It is.) And how can I interact with them in a way that is professional and not annoying so that maybe I can earn a glowing recommendation down the road?
This is just a start, but too many students fail even to start well, let alone finish well. We are confident that unless students take just as seriously the challenge of getting the best out of college as they took the challenge of getting into the best college, their tuition will not be worth the hefty price tag.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University. This story was published and distributed by Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com).