My sister is the eldest of us three, so I was in middle school when she started high school. Whenever she’d head off to a college fair or tour, I always wanted to go with her.
I loved the booths, the information packets, and the welcome sessions. I loved the orientations, the “O” weeks, and the seminars. I loved the FAFSA workshops and the Intro courses. I loved the energy, the excitement, and the buzz! I even loved the overpriced college t-shirts, the key chains, and the mugs. I couldn’t wait until it was my turn.
Despite my growing disenchantment with higher education (College isn’t the answer.) — which has more to do with school funding, politics, and politickin’ than the institutions themselves— there’s very little I would do differently (except probably more sand volleyball. I’d definitely do more of that).
Before you venture off to college, I think there are a few things you should know (or do) first:
Things You Should Do
1. EARN COLLEGE CREDIT BEFORE YOU GO.
Most colleges use a “credit” or “credit hour” system for each course. For most undergraduate courses, one class equals three credit hours or three credits. Many undergraduate programs require that students earn at least 120 credits in order to graduate with their 4-year Bachelor’s (which you can finish in less than four years, if you’d like).
I took a few Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school, but I wasn’t especially motivated to earn college credit. There would be plenty of time for that when I was actually IN college. AmIright?
Nevertheless, at my teachers’ insistence, I took an AP test and earned a whopping 3 college credits.
So what’s the big deal with that?
Well as luck would have it, a few months shy of college graduation, I found myself in a pickle. I was short (you guessed it) 3 credits in order to graduate. These were my choices:
Option 1: Take summer school, graduate in August instead of May, and pay about $3,000 in fees. (For 3 credits?! Yes. For 3 credits. It doesn’t make sense to me either.)
Option 2: Use the 3 credits I earned in high school, graduate on time (in May), and pay NOTHING (well, except whatever the AP exam cost back in high school. I forget).
Can you imagine how much I could have saved if I had transferred credits from a community or city college first (more on that later)?
2. BECOME FLUENT IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE. ACTUALLY, BECOME FLUENT IN AS MANY LANGUAGES AS YOU CAN.
Not everyone agrees on the explicit purpose of education. I tend to believe that one of the goals of higher education is to make us more well-rounded people, better advocates and stewards, and better able to communicate. I see no way to do this without learning another language and trying to immerse ourselves in another’s culture– one that is potentially foreign TO US.
If you know me, you know that I care a lot about diversity. I care about culturally-relevant pedagogy. I care about human rights, civil rights, equality, and equity. I care about justice in all forms. For the moment, this isn’t actually about that (at least, not completely).
In law school I interned with the Legal Assistance Foundation and with Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. In both circumstances my supervising attorneys said the same thing to me, “You do good work, but you’d be even more effective if you were bilingual. You should learn another language as quickly as you can.”
3. LEARN TO SAVE MONEY, TO MANAGE IT, AND TO INVEST.
I make better financial decisions now than I ever did before, and I manage my budget well. Unfortunately, I have a lot of debt from the decisions I made when I was younger (more specifically, the debt I took on for college and graduate school). I can manage and save money well. I have no idea how to invest it.
You should learn that now. Start early. Start when you’re like 2.
4. VOLUNTEER AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. IF YOU’RE ABLE, VOLUNTEER AT PLACES OR IN FIELDS WHERE YOU’D EVENTUALLY LIKE TO WORK.
Volunteering is a great way to add value. It is also a great way to learn marketable skills, to learn the culture of an organization (or your career field), and to develop long-lasting friendships and partnerships.
If you’re able to volunteer in an area that interests you, you’ll gain first-hand insight into what that role (or the roles you aspire to) will be like. You’ll also learn the language and jargon that’s used by industry professionals. This is especially true when you’re able to commit to a longer period of time than a few hours, days, or weeks.
Volunteering– and the resources and knowledge I acquired in those positions– has helped me raise funds for organizations, has helped me secure opportunities to advance my career, and has helped me find resources to overcome some bad patterns of behavior.
5. LEARN A TRADE. START A BUSINESS. START A SIDE HUSTLE THAT YOU CAN EVENTUALLY TRANSITION INTO A FULL-FLEDGED, FULL-TIME BUSINESS. CREATE PASSIVE INCOME.
Full disclosure: I’ve never cared very much about money. I’ve never cared too much about how much I made or how much other people made. I’ve cared when people who seemed to have a lot chose to waste it. I’ve cared when people with great inherited wealth chose to maintain a caste, oops!, class system. But for the most part, I’ve never really cared about money.
I’ve also never cared much about entrepreneurship. I thought it’d be perfectly fine to have a regular job with a decent wage and a decent boss. THIS IS FALSE.
I wouldn’t say, necessarily, that I’ve fundamentally changed. What I would say is that when you’re older– especially if your health isn’t always what you wish it would be– you start to really understand the value of your time. With this (perhaps) can come an overwhelming dissatisfaction if what you’re doing, or who you’re doing it with, don’t live up to your expectations.
Sometimes you need another stream of income because there’s an unexpected expense.
Sometimes you want to work from home, or not work at all, because you have children, or extenuating circumstances, or you just need more flexibility in your life than your 9 to 5 will permit.
Sometimes you live in a different state than your family, and you just want to see them more often than your vacation days will permit.
Learn to make money without NEEDING a boss.
6. ENJOY YOUR TIME. ENJOY YOUR SPRING BREAKS, SUMMER VACATIONS, WEEKENDS, ALLA THAT. TRY TO FIND A HEALTHY BALANCE BETWEEN WORK AND PLAY.
Learn to make, use, manage, and grow your money now so that you can enjoy what you want to enjoy, when you want to enjoy it.
Things You Should Know
7. NOT ALL BACHELOR’S DEGREES ARE TREATED EQUALLY.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that those with Science, Technology, Math, or Engineering (STEM) degrees fare better, financially speaking, than those with degrees in social sciences or liberal arts. The same may be true for those with degrees in Business or Law.
I’m not telling you how to live your life (I was an English major), but you should know this now if you don’t already.
8. YOU CAN SAVE TIME, HEARTACHE, AND MONEY (perhaps thousands!) IF YOU KNOW BEFOREHAND THAT YOU’LL COMPLETE GRADUATE SCHOOL, TOO.
There are programs that will let you earn a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s degree concurrently in five years instead of six.
There are programs that will let you earn a joint MBA/JD or joint JD/MD or joint JD/PhD or joint INSERT AREA OF INTEREST in less than (or half the time and half the cost) of what it would take to earn both degrees, separately.
There are programs that will let you earn credits towards INSERT DESIRED GRADUATE DEGREE while you are still in college (i.e. undergrad).
Research those programs NOW, before you start college. Search for “joint-degree” or “dual-degree” programs.
9. ALTHOUGH IT IS *SUPPOSED TO BE* AN INVESTMENT IN YOUR FUTURE, TRY YOUR DAMNEDEST NOT TO GET LOANS. ANY OF THEM. NONE OF THEM. IF YOU MUST, NEVER GET UNSUBSIDIZED LOANS. UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.
Even though it doesn’t feel true (because education was always important to my family, and college was expected not optional), I’m technically a first-generation college graduate.
When Laura from Family Matters got into Harvard, but wasn’t sure if she could pay for it, I cried. Literally bawled my eyes out.
When I was growing up, I was always taught (by more people than just my parents) that higher education was an investment in your future. You should aspire to attend the best school you could– no matter the cost. You would reap great rewards in the end.
This is false.
You need to go to an institution that is regionally accredited by one of the six primary accrediting bodies. Beyond that, the sky is the limit.
I’ll be 36 years old in June. From college graduation at 21 until the age of 31, I earned less than $38,000 annually, despite my best efforts, DESPITE MY DEGREES.
This is my personal business that under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t share obviously. I use it here as an example that degrees, in and of themselves, don’t yield immediate rewards.
I have no doubt that you’re smarter than I am, and that you’ll make better academic and professional choices.
10. IN MANY CASES (ARGUABLY, MOST), EXPERIENCE MATTERS MORE THAN WHERE YOU WENT TO SCHOOL. GET BOTH: A DEGREE AND THE EXPERIENCE. (See #4 above).
This is the last thing I’m gonna say about it.
Have you ever had one of those really annoying, super-competitive, group interviews? I’ve had a few for some education-related and education policy positions. We had to do a few rounds of interviews, sometimes three or four.
Spolier alert: I didn’t get the job. LOL. The struggle.
But here’s the rub, some of the people I interviewed with (competed against)– for more than one position, mind you– graduated from Harvard.
Spoiler alert: They didn’t get the job either.
I’ve learned this in the years since I completed school, not just from these isolated experiences. Experience matters more.
If you have the resources and the time, get both.