College & Workforce Readiness

Five Things to Remember When Planning for College, by People Who Study It

By Catherine Gewertz — June 08, 2017 3 min read
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Don’t feel you need to make a mad dash from high school straight to college. Don’t assume you need a bachelor’s degree. And don’t listen to all the hype about elite, high-priced colleges.

Those are a few of the tips for teenagers and families thinking about college, from a group that’s been studying college-going for a long time: the Gallup polling organization.

Every year, Gallup surveys various facets of education, then slices up the research by topic and issues reports. The reports explore a range of issues, such as parents’ satisfaction with their children’s schools and students’ satisfaction with their college choices and experiences.

Earlier this month, Gallup and Strada Education Network reported on an aspect of the college conversation that typically doesn’t get much notice: what people regret about their college choices. There was unmistakable poignance in the study; half of Americans said that if they had it to do over again, they’d attend a different college, major in a different field of study, or pursue a higher- or lower-level degree.

Those who earned bachelor’s degrees were more likely to regret their chosen field of study than those who earned associate, vocational/technical, or graduate degrees. Those who didn’t earn degrees until they were 30 or older had fewer regrets, too.

Those findings prompted the folks at Gallup to try to offer a bit of constructive advice to young people thinking about college, so they might avoid or minimize regrets down the line, said Brandon Busteed, Gallup’s executive director for education and workforce development.

Gallup researchers combed through their findings based on interviewing people at the heart of the college experience—students and alumni. They noticed five themes that seemed to offer some collective guidance.

  1. Sure, get that postsecondary degree, but it’s not a bad idea to wait a little while. Labor market studies show that most good jobs require at least some training or education after high school. But Gallup researchers say their studies suggest that avoiding a rush to college can pay off. “Think about career and life goals first,” Busteed writes. “Then think about where you want to go and the majors and fields of study that align with those. Then decide how much you are willing to spend—or take out in loans—on your education. Many Americans do all of this backward today.”
  2. Don’t assume you need a bachelor’s degree. Associate degrees and technical and career certifications can offer pathways to fulfillment and good wages. (This is an argument that’s winning more and more support from policymakers lately.)
  3. Don’t take on too much debt to pay for college. And here they get specific: Don’t assume any more than $25,000 in loans. That figure is based on Gallup research showing that people with more than $25,000 in debt are more likely to regret their education choices, and report lower levels of well-being than those with less debt.
  4. That elite, expensive college might not be the best choice. People who attend them don’t have fewer regrets about their education choices than those who go to other colleges, and don’t report being happier or more engaged in their jobs, according to Gallup.
  5. What you do in college, not which college you attend, is what will really make the difference. Gallup says its research points to certain things that are important to do once enrolled in college. Focus less on which courses you take and more on choosing professors known for being good teachers and mentors. Be sure to take at least a couple of courses that require long projects, perhaps even longer than a full semester. Get a job or internship that allows you to apply your classroom learning. Don’t run yourself ragged participating in a zillion activities. Deeper, meaningful participation in a few that really light your fire is a better choice.

Busteed couldn’t help but notice some key things that the adults with the fewest college regrets had in common. By and large, those were people who chose career-and-tech-ed pathways, majored in STEM fields, and did graduate-level study. What do they have in common?

“There’s a direct alignment between what they studied and their careers,” Busteed said. “They’re more specific pathways.”

Food for thought.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.