How you go to college

The Wall Street Journal published an article last week reporting on a Gallup poll  which shows that students who graduate from college with big student loans are less happy, for a long time, than students who graduate without debt. This didn’t really seem like news to me: People who have a lot of debt are logically going to be more anxious about their financial status, less satisfied with their ability to make purchases or invest in their futures, and experience constraints in the choices they can make about important aspects of life, such as which job to take, where they can afford  to live, or when they will have the financial wherewithal to have children.

The author of the article, Doug Belkin, was interviewed on the PBS Newshour, and gave some additional information that I found useful. He explained that there was no way to know if the results of the survey were causative (that is, having debt CREATES these feelings of unhappiness) or correlative (that is, people who have debt are unhappy, but it’s not necessarily the debt causing the unhappiness). As the interview pointed out, it could be that those who graduate without debt were wealthier, and happier, from the beginning. While wealth doesn’t always equate with happiness, it certainly goes a long way toward relieving at least some types of anxiety.

The article says that 70% of all college students in the U.S. graduate with some debt, the “tipping point” for debt unhappiness is anything over $25,000, and that the average amount of debt is just over $33,000. These findings suggest that a lot of college graduates are facing some difficult times. But other than suggesting that students go to colleges within their means so that they don’t incur a lot of debt, there isn’t a lot of advice in The Wall Street Journal article. However, in the PBS interview, the author had some additional suggestions that I want to share with you. I’m going to quote him in full here, because he said this clearly and succinctly:

Twenty years ago the conventional wisdom was you take out as much debt as you need or you go to the best school you got into and that’s sort of where the thinking stopped.

Now it’s more about how you go to college, so what this survey has found is that if you are connected to a professor, if you have a mentor at school, if you sort of have experiential learning in school, you’re much more engaged in work as you go.[emphasis added]

So, how you go to school, what you do while you’re there is as important or more important than where you go to school, there is no relationship to being much more happy in life or engaged in work, according to the prestige of the school that you went to.

My book has several tips that support Mr. Belkin’s suggestions, as well as other ideas about how to enhance your college experience. To see those suggestions, read the following tips:

TIP 1. Use online aptitude tests for personal exploration.

TIP 5. Before you graduate, try to complete at least one, and ideally several, internships relevant to careers that interest you.

Tip 8. Think carefully about where you want to live and work.

Tip 9. Consider the cost of living in any potential geographical areas.

Tip 14. Use the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Outlook Handbook to gain information about various occupations (job titles).

TIP 25. Use your campus organizations.

TIP 26. Join a local professional organization.

TIP 31. Stay in touch with your major department and professors who know you well.