The best source of advice about college may be those who have actually experienced it -- students and alumni. Gallup's comprehensive research on higher education over the years has focused on the outcomes for those who attended institutions of higher education -- their experiences with college and their success in work and life afterward. What follows is the best advice from our research -- some of it counterintuitive -- for making the most of college.

  1. Get a postsecondary credential or degree. But don't feel like you need to do this until you have a clear -- or somewhat clear -- idea of your goals. People who graduated from college at a later age were less likely to regret their education paths. In fact, think about career and life goals first. Then think about where you want to go and the majors and fields of study that align with those. Then decide how much you are willing to spend -- or take out in loans -- on your education. Many Americans do all of this backward today.

  2. Don't pursue a bachelor's degree by default. There are many paths to a great career and fulfilling life, including earning technical and career certificates, associate degrees, etc. And you can always stack credentials and degrees over time. Associate degree holders, for example, are more likely than bachelor's degree holders to strongly agree that they have the ideal job for them and that they are deeply interested in their work.

  3. Don't take on more than $25,000 in total student loan debt. Graduates with student loan debt over $25,000 have lower overall well-being and are more likely to regret their education decisions.

  4. Question the value of attending prestigious, highly selective and high-priced colleges and universities. They actually provide little (at best) to no (at worst) advantage in being engaged in your job and in your life outcomes (thriving in your well-being). Nor do they reduce the chances of feeling education regret. College is much more about what you make of it -- how you take advantage of your education -- than the type of institution you attend.

  5. When you actually attend college, make sure you do the things listed below. Grads who hit the marks on these double their odds of being engaged at work and having thriving well-being later in life:

  • As best you can, pick professors, not courses. Seek professors who have reputations for being amazing teachers and mentors.

  • Invest in a mentor. This goes both ways -- someone who agrees to or offers to mentor you, as well as someone you feel is worth the investment of your time.

  • Find a job or internship where you can apply what you're learning, or work to connect what you're learning to your current job.

  • Take at least a couple of courses that involve long-term projects requiring a semester or more of work to complete.

  • Don't try to "pad your resume" with a long list of extracurricular activities; get deeply, lastingly engaged in at least one.

Postsecondary education is a powerful pathway to a great job and a great life -- but only if you make the most of it. Spread this advice to everyone you know. After all, it comes from the wisdom of hundreds of thousands of students and alumni.

Gallup