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.


Steve Nations

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?

TiredGraduate

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

Enter your name...

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"?

Bob

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?

Read more...

Steve S.

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!

Read more...

Pdubble

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?

Read more...

Chris V

@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.

Interested Dad

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.

Enter your name...

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.

Bruce Howard

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?

George Bohmfalk

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?

pawnman

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.

RyanLumb

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?

J1

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.

Micah

As someone who interviews and hires many recent college graduates, I wonder what the authors would say about how to make one a great potential hire for a company.

I work at a mid-sized company (we called ourselves a "startup" for a long time, but at 125 people it may not be appropriate anymore) and have noticed that the traits that I associate with my top performers - intellectual curiosity, tenacity to track down solutions for tough problems, teachability/coachability, self-awareness - are not things that are typically part of a normal college curriculum.

However, those are absolutely the things that I look for, and I can think of many ways that students might go about developing those attributes. Thoughts from the authors on best ways to do that?

Carey Rowland

What is the best major, these days, for a person who is not inclined toward quantitative studies such as engineering, chemistry, or business?

pawnman

I learned about my first semester of sophomore year that, despite a deep love for science (chemistry, in particular), I was not very good at calculus. I became a business major, and overnight I was the smartest person in the room.

Kimberly Shin

For whom would college NOT be a good pathway?

Lauren Duncan

What would the authors have to say regarding internships and/or opportunities within the university to gain practical experience in their chosen field? In my experience post-college, people care about what you can actually DO, so I'm wondering how students can be aware of developing their transferrable/marketable skills. I wish I had been more aware of thost things during college.

Becky Bonner

How do I know if a particular college is a good fit for me?

Nikolas

How should a soon-to-be college student think about the tuition cost vs. prestige factor? Should he/she get into the most prestigious school they can, no matter the cost? Or should they aim to be more realistic about accruing less debt and going to a "middle of the road" school?

pawnman

I'd advise middle of the road every time, rather than take on thousands in student debt. After five years or so, your work experience will become MUCH more important than where your degree was from.

Diana Anderson

Can you identify any specific skills (academic, social or otherwise) with which high schools may be failing to equip young people making it more difficult for them to achieve success in college? Similarly, in what ways might parents be letting down their college-bound kids?

Regret Free Life

"...most students focus on getting into college, but do not focus adequately on getting out of college." Amen! Couldn't agree more...

Question for the authors:

If you were heading back to college today, what specific "outcomes" would you manage yourself towards? In other words, what exactly is an "excellent education?" And how would you suggest tracking/monitoring your progress over the 4 year undergraduate experience?

Barbara Philley

Why do colleges require certain subjects to complete a degree, but when it is time to take the class, it is not being offered. This causes a student to delay their graduation date. This is so frustrating when a student only has so much time and money to complete their education. How can this be avoided?

James

From your table of contents, you seem to be addressing the traditional "graduate high school in the spring, go to college in the fall" type of student. What advice would you offer those who go to college later in life, perhaps after military service, perhaps after having to work a few years to save enough money?

Adam Lausche

How important is it to consider future career options when choosing a major? It seems that certain majors might give you a better chance of getting a job post-college than others. But does that mean you shouldn't pursue a degree you find interesting, even if you can't immediately see how it will help you get a job after college?

Claire

I had a similar question. I didn't really know what kind of career I wanted post college, but I really loved learning languages, so I decided to major in Spanish. Now I have a degree in Spanish, but as a non-native speaker I don't have a whole lot of career options in that field. Nor do I have much interest in careers like translating or interpreting.

I think that my advice to others would be to figure out the career that they want first and then get a degree in the appropriate field--not to do what I did.

Did I just learn that one the hard way, or is there value in having any degree even if your career doesn't follow in step?

David Delao

I'm graduating with a business degree from a state university in the spring, and I'm wondering if its going to be a wise decision for me to take on graduate school in the fall. My other option would be to get an internship and hopefully turn that into a full time job. Would my next two years be better used 'paying my dues' or going to school for my MBA?