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Some call college the best time of your life. It can also be the most stressful. Is it worth it? Yes. Now more than ever, you need a degree. Bachelor-degree earners make about $1,100 a week, while those who finished only some college make about $740 a week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- If you’re questioning whether college is for you, what’s not working? Finances? Time? Grades? Personal issues? Then think about your academic and career goals. What would it take for you to make progress in this (or another) college environment?
- “Move away from big resolutions. Instead, think about competing commitments that are getting in the way and how to resolve those conflicts,” says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs & enrollment management, San Francisco State University, California.
- Know what academic, health, counseling, career, and social supports are available. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, college students’ most recurring regret was not taking advantage of campus resources sooner.
1. School better have my money
When money may be a deal breaker, get guidance from the right sources (e.g., a financial aid advisor or the sites recommended below). “You don’t want to (by default) seek financial advice from people who aren’t financial experts just because they’re your parents or friends,” says Zac Bissonnette, author of Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents (Portfolio, 2010).
How to get a handle on your finances
- Even if you don’t think you’ll need loans, submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) early on so you can get federal loans faster if you need them, says Rachel Fishman, senior education policy analyst at the New America Foundation.
- Find out whether your school has hardship policies, emergency grants, installment payment plans, and support with scholarships based on academic excellence or financial need, says Amy Baldwin, director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas. Search online for additional scholarship opportunities.
- Talk to an advisor or financial aid officer about finding a part-time campus job that can help you pay for books and other swag.
- Avoid shopping. Save as much as you can.
For in-depth savings tips and other strategies, try these sites recommended by author Zac Bissonnette:
2. Scandalous scholastics
Almost every student has moments of academic failure. “Students who get knocked off their feet academically need to know that they are not alone and that there is help,” says Amy Baldwin, director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas.
How to get a grip on academics
- Show up for class, show up for class, show up for class.
- Relieve the pressure: Ask your academic advisor how to get assistance with time management. Then speak to your professors about accommodations relating to assignment expectations, if needed.
- Get to know your faculty; take advantage of your professor’s office hours to discuss questions, ideas, and study strategies.
- Form a study group with people who have taken the course or are doing well in it.
- Search online for supplemental YouTube videos that cover the concepts.
- Talk with a university counselor about available help and how to make sure your schedule matches up with your level of experience.
- Even if you don’t expect to stay in school, keep your grades in shape. It’s way better for your future options to withdraw from a class than to fail it.
“We shouldn’t be discouraged after failing one exam. Instead, seek help from the professor and see how to do better next time.”
—Jie Z., third-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
“Students underestimate that showing up for class is essentially studying for a test! Also, many students think black or white, all or nothing and are too hard on themselves. Students don’t give themselves credit.”
—Sonya M., third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University
3. Better together
“The key to staying in college is making sure you take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to integrate yourself with your campus both academically and socially,” says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs & enrollment management at San Francisco State University.
How to feel like you’re a part of it
- Live on campus if you can.
- If you have to work, get a job on campus rather than off campus. “I worked on campus and made friends through my job, which made it easier to transition,” says John H., a fourth-year undergraduate at Redeemer University College, Ontario.
- Join a student club or start one.
- If you feel as though you cannot get socially connected, talk with a counselor or advisor, or even a professor. They may be able to point you to resources on campus that can help you adjust.
- Remember that many students experience “impostor syndrome”: the feeling that they don’t belong. “It often takes time to develop relationships and to find groups that you feel most comfortable in. This is normal,” says Amy Baldwin, author of The First-Generation College Experience (Prentice Hall, 2011).
4. Find your fight song
Hang in there if you can, maybe with the help of a short-term leave. Students who leave college and return later in life may have to navigate additional challenges, according to a 2014 study of 4.5 million “non-first-time” students.
How to approach a change of plan
- “If life is getting in the way of school, try to find a way to do at least two classes so you can build momentum toward graduating and stay eligible for federal financial aid,” says Fishman.
- You can take some classes in person and some online. “Your local community college’s online classes are likely cheaper than the competition’s,” says Fishman.
- Take the right classes: Always check which courses you need with an academic advisor or admissions officer.
- If you may transfer to another school, rigorously check that your credits will transfer too and accumulate.
- If you just cannot hack it right now, make sure you leave your future options open. Ask whether you can defer your enrollment (e.g., take a year’s leave) without academic penalty and without needing to reapply. Also find out whether you’re eligible for refunds on tuition and fees, and whether you’ll need to repay loans or scholarships.
Students’ stories: Should I stay or should I go?
“My parents were there to give me the support I needed to finish. I transferred to a university that was only 45 minutes from home as opposed to five hours, and also was literally five times cheaper. At my new university I don’t mind taking a little longer to finish because I’m not amassing debt. I also have come to terms with the fact that not everybody graduates in four years and that nobody really judges you for taking longer.”
—Spencer B., third-year undergraduate, Rowan University, New Jersey
“I stayed, because I knew it would pay off in the long run. Even though it seemed hard at the moment, I knew that supporting myself in the future would be even harder without a degree. I also thought about all the sacrifices my parents made in order for me to attend college, and I did not want to disappoint them.”
—Aliyah Giden, sophomore, University of Memphis, Tennessee
“No matter what I was told, I knew that it came down to myself. It was up to me to continue college and it still is. So another tip is to not be afraid to reach a point where you are not sure if you can go on. Pushing through it all was what I needed, and I feel amazing. I love college now! Plus, I am ready for graduation because I am no longer totally afraid of the future.”
—Amy N., fourth-year undergraduate, Western Washington University