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How to maximize your college journey and land a good job

Soon, high school graduates will be making monumental decisions that will determine their future quality of life. These decisions include whether to attend college; if so, where; and what degree program to pursue. Research shows that while not guaranteeing career success, a college degree often affords students more control over their destiny and enables a higher quality of life.

College graduates face two additional issues that plague higher education in the US: Rapidly increasing cost and the declining value of a college degree.

A 2020 Forbes article, “Wake up higher education. The degree is on the decline,” casts doubt on whether higher education will answer the wake-up call. However, if students couple early strategic planning with a careful selection of degree programs and elective courses, they can address many cost and value issues.

Here’s how.

Address strategic goals

When selecting a college, assess possible career interests, then establish a budget, determining the amount of acceptable debt following graduation, and plan the work/course load/life balance.

Laurence Peterson gives some tips and tricks of getting the most bang for your buck in college.
Laurence Peterson advises college students how they can get a job after college.
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Too many students blindly assume a college education will produce a degree creating professional career options. Unfortunately, nothing is farther from the truth. Many college degrees fail to provide graduates with skills that are valued and needed in the workplace.

Instead, recent graduates often undergo expensive postgraduate education to become employable. Even then, many graduate degrees have negative returns on investment. Economists say the future of work is not about college degrees but job skills.

An undergraduate degree should provide students with the skills and credentials to enter graduate school, obtain a professional-level position with an employer or start a business.
Unless a student is incredibly focused and plans to become a medical professional or target a particular vocation, their goal should be to create multiple career options.

Many students have to take an additional year by not taking their intro courses.
Taking your introductory classes early can save you time and money in college.
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Figure out your major

Students benefit immensely from selecting a discipline major the first week on campus despite advice to the contrary from many university guidance counselors, who recommend completing general education requirements first.

For example, in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, when students don’t declare a major and consequently delay taking the required science courses, they will lose progress toward graduation.

At Kennesaw State University, we found that STEM majors who failed to take the required introductory science courses in their first year took at least five years to graduate, since higher-level classes require successful completion of the foundation courses. Additionally, stalling graduation by even one year typically increases the cost of a college education by over 20%.

Colleges do not change the price of tuition if you take more than 15 credits.
Taking more than 15 credits per semester can save students money and allow them to graduate faster.
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Rack up the credits

Beyond 15 credit hours a semester, additional courses don’t incur more costs at most universities. If students take one additional class each semester, they won’t increase their educational expenses and will graduate sooner.

Even though the additional course load may reduce students’ free time, the rewards are enormous. The financial benefits of early graduation are clear, as is an earlier start in the workplace.

Take courses that employers value

Today, corporations expect new employees to have the skills necessary to do the job. As a result, in 2019, over 60% of employers required previous work experience for entry-level positions in their industry or business sector. All students can address this need by taking extra optional courses.

Students can take elective courses within the 12 to 14 courses (42 credit hours) of core curriculum requirements for most degree programs. Judicious course selection can enhance the value of a degree and reduce the cost. Unfortunately, without planning, students can unwittingly take electives that have little or no practical value in building their portfolio of strategic skills.

Top choices include one-semester accounting, focusing on identifying, recognizing and understanding the critical elements within profit & loss statements and balance sheets.

Also consider negotiation strategies, addressing everyday transactions such as purchasing products, interacting with children or spouses and engaging in business.
Technology commercialization prepares STEM majors to start technology-driven enterprises. Business law is another good pick, and deals with contract law and preparing graduates for personal and business-related legal situations.

Another plus is public speaking, focusing on the communication critical for success in any personal or professional endeavor.

Finally, professional selling addresses the entire sales process, psychology and self-marketing.

Coursework can provide hands-on experience to prepare a student for the workforce.
Taking the right courses can be key to getting your first job.
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Be industry ready

A relatively new concept involves industry-vetted courses and certificate programs, where the curriculum has been reviewed, critiqued and approved in advance by hiring managers. Such programs provide graduates with many skills related to their degrees that have value in the workplace and often lead directly to employment, sometimes even before graduation.

Industry internships are often available as three-credit-hour courses and enable students to learn the expectations of corporate America, understand the workplace environment and use the skills they have learned in their classrooms. In many instances, job offers result directly from students’ internship experiences. Industry employment during the summer is an alternative to acquiring similar experiences.

Learn a language

Acquiring a conversational foreign language skill is invaluable.

The benefits include the cultural and international perspectives gained, and distinguishes the graduate on job applications, during interviews and in the selection process.

These strategies benefit students in all degree programs, particularly those pursuing degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences, where the curriculum typically has less direct relevance to employers.

Additionally, there is infinite flexibility and no “one-size-fits-all” recommendation. Every day our world changes and will continue to change even more rapidly, as should guidance in developing college educational strategies.

Laurence Peterson is dean emeritus, College of Science and Mathematics, Kennesaw State University. He is the former vice president of research with BASF and Celanese Corporation. He can be reached at lpeterso@kennesaw.edu. This article represents his views and not necessarily those of the university.

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