For the first time in American history, we are hearing people rightly question whether a college degree is worth it.
The short answer: It is.
We know that college graduates will earn, on average, about $1 million more over their lifetimes than high school graduates. But the better question is whether a college degree leads to a great life.
That's a longer answer.
The Great Jobs Great Lives Gallup-Purdue Index, released earlier this summer, sought to find answers to these questions by surveying more than 29,000 graduates. The survey assessed grads' well-being by measuring five elements: social support, financial stability, physical health, and senses of purpose and community. Just more than 1 in 10 respondents were thriving in all five areas, while more than 1 in 6 were not thriving in any of those measures.
But the most interesting takeaway from the study reveals the choices students can make that correlate most highly with their chances for later success. It doesn't matter so much where you go to college -- whether it's public or private, highly selective or less so -- or what your major is.
Here's the really killer advice on how to do college, according to Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup's Education division.
These six choices will do the most to boost the odds of a great life after graduation, Busteed says:
1. Take an internship or job to apply what you are learning while in college.
This has to be a job or internship in which the student applies what he or she is learning. Less than a third of all college graduates report having this experience in school.
2. Be extremely involved in an extra-curricular organization.
Being deeply involved in one thing, whether it's athletics or volunteering or a social organization, is better than being lightly involved in many things, Busteed said.
"Don't build a resume of 92 things," he said. Find meaningful, long-term engagement in one of those things. About 20 percent of respondents said they did this.
3. Do a long-term project that takes a semester or more to complete.
"A lot of students run away from courses that involve long-term projects, like a thesis," Busteed said. It's more work. It's harder to do. But having something you work on over a long period of time teaches persistence and grit.
Among graduates, 32 percent said they did this during college.
4. Find a professor who makes you excited about learning.
The great professors are not a secret on campus. Take a class from one of them. Even if they teach a more advanced class or a beginning class outside your major, the benefits of learning from a great teacher extend beyond the subject matter. You're not going to remember all the content you learned in college, but you will remember a great professor.
In the survey, 63 percent said they had one professor like this.
5. Pick professors who care about students as people.
Any chance you have to pick your professors, choose the ones known to care about their students.
In the study, 27 percent of graduates said their professors, generally speaking, cared about them as a person.
6. Seek a mentor who will encourage you to follow your goals and dreams.
This doesn't have to be a formal counselor or faculty member. It could be a coach, a parent, a business professional or an upperclassman. Most young people don't appreciate how important a mentor is for their development, Busteed said.
Among respondents, 22 percent said they had a mentor.
How many in the study hit the nail on the head with all six of these? Just 3 percent.
Those who experienced three or more of these six things doubled their odds of being engaged in their work later, and they were three times as likely to be thriving in Gallup's measures of well-being.
Parents and students can get caught up in the hype and prestige surrounding the college experience. But these six factors may be far more important in achieving the ultimate goal of landing a great job and living a great life.
Busteed added one last piece of advice, documented by research to impact future well-being: Try to graduate with as little student debt as humanly possible.