How to Get the Best out of College? Bring Your Questions

We recently put out a two-part podcast called “Freakonomics Goes to College” (Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and together as an hour-long special). The main question we tried to answer was if, and on what dimensions, a college education is “worth it” — i.e., whether the returns to education are as robust as we’ve been led to think. (Short answer: yes.) Along the way, we talked to economists including David CardBetsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers, and  poked into the market for counterfeit degrees.

But let’s say you’re interested in the question from a practical, rather than a theoretical, perspective. That is, let’s say you’re an actual college student, or related to one, already deep in the throes of higher education, and that your primary question is: Okay, now what? Now that I’m here, what do I do to get the very most out of this expensive, time-consuming endeavor?

Glad you asked. Peter D. Feaver, Sue Wasiolek, and Anne Crossman are the authors of Getting the Best Out of College: Insider Advice for Success From a Professor, a Dean, and a Recent Grad, and they have agreed to field questions from Freakonomics readers. As Feaver writes to us:

“Our argument is that most students focus on getting into college, but do not focus adequately on getting out of college.  They coast, or make bad decisions, or simply fail to take full advantage of what is available to them. Students at prestigious schools may be wasting their money on a mediocre education, whereas a student who chooses wisely can get an excellent education at even a less-celebrated school.”

Their key point is that most students focus hard on getting into college but fail to take full advantage of college opportunities once they’re in. When asked to weigh in on the question of whether college is generally “worth it,” Feaver replied to us: “Our answer to the question is college worth it is ‘it depends.’  It depends on choices the student makes while in college.”

Post your questions in the comments section below and we’ll publish their answers in short course. To prime the pump, here is the book’s table of contents:

Chapter 1: “You Expect Me to Live with a Stranger?”
Managing Life in the Dorm

Chapter 2: “Leaving Home, Phoning Home, and the First Trip Back to the Mother Ship” 
Maintaining Relationships Back Home

Chapter 3: ” I Have the Perfect Schedule– All My Classes Are on Wednesday” 
Writing the Personal Narrative Called Your Transcript

Chapter 4: Alliance, Fellows, and Clubs, Oh My! 
Engaging in Extracurriculars

Chapter 5: Memories You’ll Want to Remember
Maneuvering the Social Scene with Aplomb

Chapter 6: What Professors Wish You Knew 
Paying Attention to the Person behind the Curtain

Chapter 7: Getting What You Came For
Studying Smarter (and Why It Shouldn’t Be All That Hard)

Chapter 8: You’re Not From Around Here, Are You? 
Advice for international students and their domestic friends

Chapter 9: “I’ve Never Needed Help Before…” 
Navigating Campus Resources

Chapter 10: This Just Isn’t Working 
Delaying, Transferring, Studying Abroad, or Dropping Out
Chapter 11: So What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? 
Choosing Your Major vs. Choosing Your Career

Chapter 12: It’ll Be Over Before You Know It
Preparing for Life after College 

This post is no longer accepting comments. The answers to the Q&A can be found here.

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  1. Steve Nations says:

    I went to a very good school, but fairly small. (My college graduating class was smaller than my high school class.) How important would you say a good alumni network is to getting the most out of college?

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  2. TiredGraduate says:

    Why are we forced to take classes that have nothing to do with our degree instead of focusing in on what we are actually here to study? Feels like high school continuation on some level. Especially the GE science classes

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    • Enter your name... says:

      And why so many of them, and such specific classes?

      I understand “take two science classes, take to social studies classes, take two humanities classes”. But why “all students must take one of these two history classes”?

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    • pawnman says:

      Because there is more to education that being able to punch buttons on a calculator.

      The classes where I learned the most, and that instilled in me a deep and abiding interest for learning, had nothing to do with my major.

      Interesting you posted this question, because my advice was going to be “take a few random classes that have nothing to do with your major, like a philosophy class, a history class, or an art appreciation class” (assuming, of course, you are not a philosophy/history/art triple major).

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  3. Bob says:

    I’ve completed three years of a four-year bachelor’s degree in physics. I’ve completed most requirements, just have two semesters’ worth of credits, all in physics, to finish. The problem is that I haven’t made all the right choices so far. Like Feaver said, I’ve been coasting along, which really doesn’t work for the higher level classes, and as a result I’ve failed to keep up with tracking for my major. I have to appeal to be allowed to continue.

    The other problem is that I think I might have burnout. I’ve lost a lot of motivation to complete my degree and I’m a lot less interested in it than I was when I started almost four years ago.

    I have a few questions. I’ve been thinking of just taking a break from college and coming back with a more mature mindset and work/life experience. Do you think taking a break from college is a good idea?

    Second, if I return sooner and successfully petition, do you think I should change majors? I’m a little apprehensive about changing majors because I’m so close to finishing, and can’t decide if it’s a good idea. If I had to pick another major, I think I would choose something with computers, like computer science or engineering, though that might require too many new credits for the university to allow it.

    Third, if the university does not allow changing majors, or I fail to petition or take a break for a few years, should I change university? Since I would be changing university in-state (I don’t plan on going out-of-state to finish bachelor’s), a lot of the basic credits would transfer over, so I wouldn’t start completely new, but do you think it’s a good idea?

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    • Steve S. says:

      Bob, good questions and your name might as well be Steve because I found myself in a very similar situation about 7 years ago as an undergrad.

      I think that taking that intermission break can be beneficial; particularly if you feel the need to sort out your priorities and chose a new course of study. I would go give yourself a definite deadline to return to school – and I would make it sooner than later (ie. 1 semester or so). Many might say that you’ll loose momentum, but I doubt that is the case (you sound like you’ve given this considerable thought already).

      As for switching universities you might create a longer road to graduation if you do that. Pretty much all state universities offer the same things, but they are branded differently. I would reconsider why you would want to transfer in the first place.

      In the meantime you might want to consider focusing some of your time on creating a plan (long and short-term). Consider what your end goal is – and how you want to define success. Good luck!

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I suggest that you figure out the shortest path to a degree from your current university — any degree. Many schools offer, but don’t promote, a “liberal arts” or “general science” or “independent studies” major that you might qualify for. (Think of it as a major in graduating). You can always go back and take a few more classes sometime in the future.

      Five years from now, employers aren’t going to care what your major was or what your GPA was, but they will very much care whether you were able to graduate.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Also, your existing work almost certainly qualifies you for an associate’s. If you decide to take a break, apply for that two-year degree.

        I don’t know why schools don’t issue them automatically to people who qualify (thus reducing the institution’s non-completer’s rate and making more students “graduates” instead of “dropouts”). Credits on a drop-out’s transcript “expire” in many school systems after ~10 years. An A.Sc. is a way of permanently stopping that clock, so that you will never have to repeat your first two years’ work.

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  4. Pdubble says:

    I signed up for the Army shortly after graduating from college. Got deployed a couple times and now I’m looking at getting out and going on with life. There are some things I want to do in the Army, but in my early 30′s I feel like I can go back to school and have a decent career as a lawyer, the original reason for going to college. I’ve got a wife who doesn’t work now, but has the ability to get a job while I’m in school. I don’t even have kids, just two dogs, so I think I could make a good run of it.

    I’m halfway through my MBA right now and I did reasonably well on my LSAT. Members of my family are split in interesting ways about what I should do. Ones who thought I should get out in the mid 2000′s think I should stay in until retirement due to the economy. Can I expect earnings that would match my expected retirement as a Major or Lietenant Colonel if I go back to school? Is there a cutoff in the rating of or qualities of law school I should go to in order to make becoming a lawyer not just the fulfillment of a promise to myself, but a worthwhile career? Are there things I’m not thinking of that I should be in deciding this?

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    • Chris V says:

      @Pdubble, while some (including me) question the economic return on college for the average student, it seem to be way way worse for Law School students. They have very limited job prospects and compete in the job market against previous years students who have been doing free work in the meantime to build up their resume. Plus in Law School you can’t even rationalize that you personally will work hard and therefore get a good return on your time and money since you are competing against other people who are also working their ass off. Do some reading about recent law school grads prospects first – then run away.

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    • J1 says:

      If you’ve got an MBA and a good LSAT score, don’t overlook staying in and getting the Army to pay for that law degree. You’ll have a paycheck and will walk away with actual experience as a lawyer, rather than document reviewer or bartender. And you won’t have a mountain of student loan debt to deal with. Yes, you’ll have to stay in a little longer (though I have one buddy who was able to become a reservist almost immediately), but unless you can get into a top school, a Major or LC on active duty makes a lot more money than a lower tier law grad. Also, if you stayed in under that scenario, you’d be at least an O6 when you retired.

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      • Pdubble says:

        Thanks for the ideas, but I’m JUST beyond the time in service where the Army will pay for a law degree. I have a full GI Bill and if there are some schools I can go to for free. Just wondering what the returns I can get for 7 extra years of practicing law vs 10 more years of staying in my current job and then 3 years of law school after that. It’s an either/or and I need to decide pretty quick here.

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    • caleb b says:

      @Pdubble

      1 – law school is 100% not worth the expense. My wife graduated from a Tier 1 school, did well, and spent 6 months unemployed and makes less than I do with only an undergrad degree (banking). If you are paying for law school, you’d be financially better off becoming a heroin addict for three years than going to law school. Seriously, I’ve run the numbers. Literally. Go smoke crack for three years, get clean, find a job. The first day you start that job, you’re financially better off than if you’d went to law school. I have spreadsheets proving this if you need them.

      2 – let’s say the Army pays for law school. You still need to take 3 years out of working to get your degree. With an MBA, you should be making at least between 70-90k out of school, meaning that going to law school would cost you $210-360k in lost (admittedly gross) income. Is it really worth it?

      3 – My wife being a lawyer, I know a lot of lawyers…at least 10 that we regularly see at parties. They all hate being lawyers. HATE IT. Half are full blown alcoholics. Well, one guy does like being a lawyer, but he’s still an alcoholic.

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      • J1 says:

        Caleb – Just to clarify point 2, when the military sends you to school full time while on active duty, you still get full pay while going to school; under the program I described, lost income is $0. It is a smoking deal, to put it mildly.

        Pd – If you stay in another 10, you’ll be getting retirement pay while you go to school, which will take some pressure off your wife. On the other hand, if you got out now you could almost certainly make better money in some field other than law, but the decision to go to law school is pretty tough if you’re making good money. Do you desperately want to practice law, or is law school just a goal you had earlier in life?

        Caleb’s points are a little hyperbolic (well, the heroin/crack addict business anyway) but it sounds like his observation is similar to mine. I know a lot of lawyers too, and the ones that actually practice law tend not to like their jobs very much.

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  5. Interested Dad says:

    My daughter is a freshman in college and intends to become a veterinarian. She is, at least initially, making good grades and is at a school that should prepare her well for graduate studies. We are both keenly aware of how difficult it is to gain admission to vet schools though. My question, is what would be some reasonable options to start thinking about as “Plan B” if she can’t get over the admission’s hurdle? And what can she do during her undergraduate time to both help get into vet school, and to prepare for the plan B scenarios? BTW, I ordered the book as a Christmas gift. Thanks.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Help her get a job as a vet assistant (usually requires no license or credential) or even a vet tech. It will give her practical experience, help her decide if she really wants this as a career, and make vet school easier, as well as giving her a leg up in the admissions process.

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  6. Bruce Howard says:

    What perceptual baggage are some of us carrying (as parents of college or near-college kids) from our own college experience? Any suggestions for how to help your children think through these issues, and to both apply what we know from our own experience as well as adjust to today’s realities?

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  7. George Bohmfalk says:

    It seems there are at least two reasons for college – the intellectual growth aimed at a degree and career, and the experience – social, sports, etc. If one is primarily seeking the former, do you think attaining that with online courses is pretty equivalent to the on-campus experience?

    Inasmuch as college costs are excessive for many students, and that there are substantial negative and anti-intellectual aspects of college sports and fraternities, do you foresee schools eliminating such extracurricular activities and focusing more on good education at a lower cost?

    In other words, would one get the best out of college by either doing it online or finding a school without the distractions of sports and fraternities & sororities?

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    • pawnman says:

      I think you will deeply regret passing up the other experiences if you do the classes only online or don’t get involved in any activities.

      I sort of thought the same thing going in…I had a job and classes, I was going to do what I needed to graduate and start a career. But the things that taught me the most about living on my own as a responsible adult, and interacting with other adults, did not occur in the classroom.

      Granted, if you are someone who is going back to school, maybe you aren’t really looking for the extra-curriculars. But if you are a recent high school graduate, you are short-changing yourself if you focus solely on the studies and don’t make friends, join a club with your interests, and hell, maybe even go to a party or two.

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    • m says:

      Online schools cannot give you a fraction of the networking and potential leadership experience a brick-and-mortar college will – no matter what age you are. Online schools are a lot like the coasting this book is talking about.

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  8. RyanLumb says:

    As a college senior from a well regarded Ny state school (Geneseo) trying to make my way into the finance industry, I have found that all prestigious finance firms recruit almost entirely from ivy leagues. Are ivy league graduates really that much better?

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    • J1 says:

      No, but they have a much more influential network. That matters after college. A lot. Also, hiring only from top schools bypasses screening processes that can get a company sued or are illegal outright.

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