Getting a College Degree is Actually Worth It if You Make the Most of It

The debate rages as to whether college is a worthwhile investment. No wonder, when half of new college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed “in positions that don’t fully use their skills and knowledge.” 

As a previous PolicyMic article points out, the millennial unemployment rate is almost 11%, more than three percentage points higher than the overall national unemployment rate. (It would be almost 17% if those who had given up looking for work were counted.) Astonishingly, this is several years into an economic “recovery” that is anything but. Neither President Obama nor Congress have developed, much less implemented, any concrete plans to increase employment dramatically. Going over the “fiscal cliff” would only make it far worse for millennials, as another PolicyMic article emphasizes.

The total amount of outstanding student loan debt conservatively exceeds one trillion dollars. With students deferring loan repayments while in graduate school, it’s only going to get worse. College graduates do earn on average almost $1 million more than high school graduates over their lifetimes. Those with professional degrees earn more than $3 million more than those who only earn a high school diploma.  However, those last two statistics are merely averages which don’t take into account the type of major, number of hours worked, or even life satisfaction. Moreover, those averages are historical. They may not hold over the next several decades, especially when so many college graduates are finding it so difficult to find financially rewarding work, or any work at all. 

So why should millennials consider going to college, or consider staying in school, rather than seeking to work full-time?

We’d like to share our experiences. In addition to being college professors with a combined four-plus decades of teaching and advising experience, we were also two college graduates who had mountains of educational debt when we graduated from college. (Aneil had $20,000 in loans when he graduated in 1984; Karen, $5500 in 1985, which would be a combined debt equal to over $56,000 in 2012 dollars.) We both graduated following a similarly horrific recession, the one from 1980-82. Although the economy was growing more rapidly in 1984/1985 than it is now, jobs were still very tough to find for new college graduates. 

Nevertheless, after college we both had very decent-paying professional jobs, with great benefits, and those jobs launched us into great professional and graduate schools and terrific jobs after we completed our advanced degrees. So, our key point is that college is indeed a very worthwhile investment, but only if you make the most of your very expensive investment, both in terms of time and money. 

Beyond the advice we’ve given in other PolicyMic columns about how to choose the right graduate school, here’s some advice based on our experience as students, as professors of thousands of students, and as mentors to countless alumni over the years who’ve sought our advice and help on finding better jobs or gaining entry into top graduate or professional schools.

1) Grades (and effort) do matter. 

Aneil didn’t qualify for some on-campus interviews with elite consulting firms because his grades weren’t high enough at the end of his junior year. If he’d had less fun his junior year, undoubtedly he’d have had higher grades. At least he had a second chance to pull them up his senior year, and he graduated with honors, but it would have been less work and he’d have had more job interviews if he hadn’t let his grades slip. 

Regardless of your G.P.A., demonstrate your knowledge of your major by showing prospective employers team projects that you have worked on that show you know your subject matter. If our students make high-quality efforts on their team projects, we’re willing to give them great recommendations to a prospective employers, even if they lack stellar grades.

2) Study something useful, as well as something enjoyable, and make the most of your time

Karen’s dad made her double major in economics/management as well as her first love, church music. The added benefit of studying something practical was that she was able to be a co-op student at General Motors throughout college, which provided a whole set of additional useful skills and knowledge. Combined with holding several leadership positions in extracurricular organizations while in college, she was able to present a very attractive portfolio to prospective employers by the time she was getting ready to graduate.

No matter your major, get involved in the club for your major, go to meetings, listen to guest speakers, and learn as much as you can about the industry you want to work for. Those things make an impression on recruiters when they come to campus for internship and job interviews. They want to know that you are passionate about what you are studying.

3) Do something, anything, rather than sit on your butt. 

Karen was willing to work for five bucks an hour, that’s right, $5.00/hour before taxes, in 1987 just so she could land a decent marketing internship and make the switch out of a career in human resources. She earned tens of thousands of dollars less than she could have when she graduated in 1988 because the economy was just recovering from the 1987 stock market crash. What she did learn in both her summer internship and her first job after her MBA were great skills and expertise that allowed her to rapidly climb up the corporate ladder with corresponding large pay increases. 

Aneil had to be a summer bank teller, making $3.82/hour, during the summer of 1982 because that was the only full-time summer job he could land during that horrible recession. But having several summers of respectable (if not always high-paying) internships helped him land a very high-paying and wonderful skill-building internship with GM after his junior year, which helped him land a great job with GM after college. 

To reinforce this third point, you must be willing to jump into the job market with an open mind, everyone has start somewhere, and in almost any job you will be able to build on what you learn. If you wait for the perfect job, you’ll almost never get it, because everyone else is getting additional experience while you’re still waiting. Think broadly about your ideal job and what types of first jobs will get you there. 

One of Karen’s students from Michigan State University, Ricki, took a job with Fendi after graduation selling luxury handbags in a retail store. It was not the salary level she was hoping for, but she was able to quickly turn that job in the luxury industry into a new career in the luxury car industry, as a district manager for Acura. If she had waited for the perfect high-paying job to come along, she would not have been prepared when Acura came calling.

4) It’s okay to accept help from your family, as long as you make the most of it.  Aneil lived with his grandparents the summer he was a bank teller, an hour away from home and his girlfriend (now wife). His grandfather in fact had helped him land the bank teller job. (There were almost no full-time summer internships or jobs that summer for young people nationwide.) His grandmother loaned him her four-speed manual Pinto station wagon to get to work. (Yes, the Pintos whose gas tanks tended to explode, and Aneil had to learn quickly how to drive a stick.) 

His lifestyle was quite different from those older people he lived with, which involved a lot of compromises on his end. He of course also had to help with yard work, serve as bartender for their dinner parties, and fend off tennis dates with local gals that his grandmother thought promising. (Karen did not.)  Karen’s grandparents lent Aneil a very old “OldsmoBuick” to drive around one semester in graduate school so he could conduct interviews all over the Midwest for his research. (There’s a transportation theme here somewhere.) 

Without the very substantial help from these extended relatives, important professional opportunities would have been missed.

All in all, we would argue that despite the high cost, college is still a great investment.  But you have to remember that you are investing in yourself. Our daughter is now a senior in high school. As she applies to colleges herself, wondering which one is the perfect school, we remind her that she can get an excellent education wherever she goes to school, because you get out of college what you put into it. 

This article has focused on your role in making the most of your college investment.  In our next article, we’ll discuss the role your college plays in making your investment worthwhile. 

Aneil Mishra and Karen Mishra are business school professors and authors of Trust is Everything (2008) and Becoming a Trustworthy Leader (2012)