As September approaches and a new class of freshman head off to college, many are looking forward to enjoying the ‘college experience’ that they read about in brochures and potentially experienced during campus visits. But what is the ‘college experience’ and how long will students end up paying for it?

The College Experience

When you hear the words ‘college experience,’ you likely think of students enjoying their time on campus and meeting new friends. It might mean a beer at the local pub for some people or participation in Greek life for others. It could mean an opportunity to get involved in campus clubs or debate Shakespeare with classmates in the student building.

But in recent years, competition over the best students has meant that schools are taking pains to improve their campuses which means that the college experience has evolved. It's come to include things like luxury dorms with rock climbing walls and rooftop infinity pools. It now means brand-new football stadiums and state-of-the-art campus gyms. College campuses are starting to look more like luxury resorts than the educational institutions that they are.

There's also an emphasis when it comes to having a good ‘college experience’ on students taking advantage of the social life that college offers. Many parents had a good time and made great friends while at college and so encourage their sons or daughters to enjoy going to parties, meeting new people, getting involved in Greek life, and going on Spring Break vacations. These parents encourage their kids to make their potential ‘college experience’ a key deciding factor when it comes to which school to attend and don’t see a problem with the higher tuition prices at schools where their kids could have a better experience.

The Cost of College

The problem is that the cost of college has greatly increased since these parents went to school and the job market has also changed. Today’s students are graduating with an average of over $28,000 in student loan debt and will likely struggle to pay off their student loans, no matter what state they move to. Having too much fun in college could mean big student loans which might translate into having to delay or forego important life milestones like buying a first car, getting married, having children, and moving out of their parents’ home.

If today’s undergrads spend too much of their time in college taking advantage of the ‘college experience’ they also might have a harder time finding a job after they graduate which will make student loan repayment even more difficult. The current job market is very competitive and graduates are facing high unemployment and underemployment. In order to make sure that they’re not one of the underemployed, it’s critical that college students do everything they can to distinguish themselves from other applicants. That means getting good grades and getting work or volunteer experience that is relevant to their future careers.

New Study Finds Loans Go Toward Clothing and Vacations

The Wrong Focus

The emphasis on the ‘college experience’ could lead students to spend too much time socializing and not enough time on their school work. It might make them fail courses and then have to take out additional student loans to retake the classes. It likely will mean that some of their student loan money will go to having fun, partying, or going on Spring Break trips they can’t afford.

Despite the fact that college parties often served cheap beer and off brand chips, they're likely the most expensive parties that the students will ever go to since they’re taking out loans for the privilege of attending.

Choosing the Wrong Schools

Another problem with the emphasis on college experience is that it often leads students to choose to go to schools that are more expensive. It comes as no surprise that schools with more amenities charge more. Those rooftop infinity pools don't pay for themselves and that means that in order to go to a school where you will have a great college experience you're going to have to spend more money.

But more hours in an infinity pool won’t translate into a higher salary when you graduate. So, those who focus on having fun while they're in college might not just have higher loans but could also have a harder time paying them off. That’s one heck of a hangover!

Make Better Choices

The smarter strategy is for students to choose the school that offers them the best return on investment rather than the best experience. That could mean choosing a school that offers more money in financial aid or which has lower tuition fees. It might mean living at home while going to school or going to a community college for a few years and then transferring to a university.

It's also critical that students take advantage of their time at school to set themselves up to get a job after graduation. Rather than spending much of their time going to campus parties, students are better off getting involved in campus clubs where they can take a leadership role or learning skills that will benefit them in the working world. They should consider taking on co-op jobs or internships. While they can still have fun and go to some parties, it’s key to focus on experiences that will benefit you once you graduate.