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Insiders Advise on Getting Most for the Money in College

Enough with the frenzy of getting into college. Freshmen are arriving on campus burnt out and ready to coast, say some in academia. Why not bottle some of that energy that went into the application process and redirect it to excelling in college?

After all, it matters less what college you attend than how you perform once you get there. That's the message of Getting the Best Out of College (Ten Speed Press, 2012), written by Peter Feaver, Sue Wasiolek, and Anne Crossman.

As a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, Feaver said in a phone interview today that he often encounters students who arrive with the attitude: "I worked like a dog to get here, now it's time to enjoy my life." The name on the diploma is not enough. Students need a pep talk to work hard, get engaged, and leverage the most out of their college experience, maintains Feaver. More students will finish a degree and be prepared for meaningful careers if they can learn to navigate campus, study smarter, getting help, and cultivate mentors.

Co-author Wasiolek is the assistant vice president for students affairs and dean of students at Duke and Anne Crossman studied at Duke and Stanford Universities.)

Take class selection.
"Students pick classes exactly backwards," says Feaver. They look for a class in a certain window to maximize their free time or gravitate toward ones they hear are easy. Students should choose the courses with the best professors and ones that will challenge them. Don't rush through general education requirements, advises Feaver. Instead, students should find a class that will inspire them.

And majors? It's not so important what students declare, as much as how passionate they are about the choice. "If you do something you are interested in, you work harder at it," says Feaver. The authors are big fans of a liberal arts education that teaches students how to organize knowledge, breakdown a problem, do research, and come up with a solution. Having a broad base of knowledge is especially valuable in today's new economy where the jobs that might be in demand five years from now are unknown, he adds.

Studying is a different ballgame in college. Many students don't realize that college grades are based on a smaller sample of testing moments. Students can be unprepared for a high school test and recover more easily, says Feaver. Mistakes in college suddenly become more consequential.

"A lot of students have made it successfully to 12th grade though the combined labors of them and their parents," says Feaver. Parents can serve as a backstop to protect students in high school, but that protection is gone at college. Before they leave home, Feaver encourages parents to better equip students to make their own decisions and to live with the consequences of those decisions. Colleges should also do a better job of advising students and providing supports, he says.

And teaching in college is different. Feaver has a whole chapter on what professors wish students knew. Students are well known by their high school teachers, but in college professors juggle classes, research, and other university responsibilities. It's up to the students to take the initiative to connect and build a rapport with their instructors. If a student blows off an advising session, they might not get another opportunity all semester. It can be an adjustment for students with no one to check up on them, says Feaver.

The book emphasizes that as hard as it is to select and pay for college, the unexpectedly hard part is getting your money's worth once you arrive on campus. Just as the policy focus is moving from access to completion, this information can be useful with retention and graduation efforts.


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