The Biggest Regrets People Have About College (and How to Avoid Them)

Sad college student sitting on a bench in park

Half of Americans regret some aspect of their college experience. | iStock.com/Ljupco

More than half of Americans who’ve gone to college regret at least one decision they made regarding their education, a recent poll conducted by Gallup and the Strada Education Network found.

Though most people had positive things to say about the quality of the education they received, 51% of the roughly 90,000 people interviewed for the survey confessed to having second thoughts about the school they attended, the degree they earned, or their field of study. Other surveys have found graduates regret not getting more work experience while in school, not studying enough, or how they paid for their degree.

Is there any way to stem this massive tide of regret? Giving students more information before they enroll might help. “Education consumers’ regret about their previous decisions could be read as a signal to improve the resources available to inform future education decisions,” noted the authors of report on the Gallup survey results.

Understanding the specific areas most likely to give people pause later on could also help reduce the chances of future regret. College students, here are some of the biggest regrets people say they have about school and how you can avoid making the same mistakes.

1. They studied the wrong subject

More than one-third of people Gallup surveyed said they regretted their college major. The more money a person earned or the older they were when they graduated, the less likely they were to regret their major. Those with a degree in a STEM subject were also less likely to have second thoughts about their major, compared to those who studied business or the liberal arts or who had a degree in a public service field.

Next: How to avoid regretting your major

How to avoid college major regret

Stressed college student for exam

A college student takes a test. | iStock.com/Tomwang112

The Gallup poll didn’t ask specifically why people wished they’d chosen a different major. But a mismatch between career expectations and field of study could have something to do with it.

Some students might choose a major without bothering to consider their potential earnings later on, which could lead to regret. “Challenges … in using their education to obtain their ideal job” could also cause some people to question their major choice, the report’s authors speculated, as could a weaker demand for people with their specific skills.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula for choosing a major. But considering both career prospects and what’s a good fit for you personally is important. Choosing a field solely because you think it’s what you should do can lead to regret and frustration, especially if you have no interest in or aptitude for the subject, noted The New York Times. But unless you’re independently wealthy, selecting a major without being realistic about what kind of job you’ll eventually be able to get can lead to a different type of regret.

Next: Many people wished they’d spent their college years elsewhere.

2. They should have gone to a different school

high school students at college fair

High school students attend a college fair. | Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Twenty-eight percent of people who responded to the Gallup poll wished they had attended a different college. Among those earning less than $40,000 a year, one-third would have chosen a different school.

Big student loan balances also tended to translate into big regret: 38% of students with $75,000 or more in student loan debt wished they’d enrolled at a different institution, compared to roughly 23% who owed less than $25,000.

Next: How to know if you’re making the right college choice

How to choose the right college

Smiling student holding a book in library

A happy college student | iStock.com

As with choosing a major, a lack of information could be behind student school choice regret. A 2013 McKinsey survey found roughly half of students didn’t bother to check out graduation rates when picking a college, and 40% didn’t look at job placement or salary data. The Department of Education’s College Scorecard lets you compare information on graduation rates and average graduate salary at different schools, as well as average student loan debt.

Outcomes after college aren’t the only thing to think about when picking a school. The college experts at Peterson’s advise paying attention to cost, location, and type of school (e.g., large public university versus small religious school) because different students thrive in different environments.

Next: Some people had second thoughts about the degree they earned.

3. They earned the wrong degree

college grauation

Some people regretted the type of degree they earned. | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A smaller share of people who Gallup interviewed — 12% — said they earned the wrong degree. While fewer than 10% of people with a bachelor’s or post-graduate degree said they wished they had other credentials, 19% of those with a certificate from a vocational or trade program and 23% of people with an associate degree regretted their choice.

Next: Why some people regret their degree and how to make sure it doesn’t happen to you

How to avoid degree regret

graduates holding diplomas

Students hold their diplomas. | iStock.com/michaeljung

It’s not clear why students with associate degrees had significantly more regret than those with bachelor’s degrees. But it could have something to do with the hidden cost of these degrees. While earning a two-year degree leads to higher average earnings than just having a high school diploma, there’s a pretty huge earnings gap between associate degree and bachelor’s degree holders.

The difference is so big, in fact, that from a purely financial perspective it often makes more sense to take on debt and earn a B.A. or B.S. Your lifetime earnings will be so much higher, MarketWatch reported.

Others might regret their associate degree because it’s not the one they really wanted in the first place. Some students find themselves stuck when their community college credits don’t transfer in the way they thought they would, MarketWatch explained. Worse, just 1 out of 5 students who enroll in community college with the intent of getting a bachelor’s degree actually end up earning that four-year degree within six years.

The lesson? If your plan is to use community college as a steppingstone, make sure you know what it takes to achieve that goal, from the logistics of transferring credits to having a plan for how to pay for further schooling.

Next: Many people now wish they’d found a better way to pay for college.

4. They would have paid for school in another way

graduation cap with pile of coins

Some people had regrets about how they paid for their degree. | iStock.com

Gallup didn’t ask students whether they regretted how much their degree cost or how they paid for it, but other surveys have. And what they’ve found isn’t pretty. A 2015 survey by the American Institute of CPAs revealed 68% of Americans regret how they paid for school. Considering that the average recent graduate has more than $37,000 in student loan debt, according to Student Loan Hero, that’s not terribly surprising.

Next: Is it possible to avoid student loan regret?

How to avoid student loan regret

college graduate dragging debt behind him

Understand what you’re getting into before you decide to borrow money for school. | iStock.com

Attending a less expensive college is one way to avoid college cost regret. That’s something 54% of American Institute of CPAs survey respondents said they wished they’d done. Another 27% said they wished they’d delayed starting school, so they could save more money to pay for their education.

If you do take out student loans, make sure you understand the terms, including how much you’re borrowing, the interest rate, and your options for paying back the money.

“Deciding how much education you can reasonably afford and how to fund it is likely one of the most important decisions a person will make in their lifetime. Carefully considering all the available options increases the likelihood you can pay off your student loans, and that your higher education decision will pay off in the long run,” the American Institute of CPAs’ Ernie Almonte said.

Next: Many people looked back on their college years and wished they’d spent their time a bit differently.

5. They should have done more with their time in school

Young asian woman sitting at table doing assignments in college library.

A student takes notes. | iStock.com/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Many recent grads have regrets about how they managed their time in school, a 2014 Pew Research Center poll found. Sixty-five percent of millennials wished they’d gained more work experience while in college, 40% regretted not studying harder, and 43% said they should have started seriously looking for a job sooner than they did.

In a separate survey by Chegg, many students also regretted not taking the time to learn skills employers cared about, either on their own or through extra classes.

Next: How to make sure you’re getting the most out of your time in college

How to make your time in college worth it

A UC Berkeley student works on her laptop while sitting on the UC Berkeley campus

Students on the Berkeley campus | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

These days, a college degree isn’t a guaranteed ticket to a good job, and getting the most out of your time on campus is going to involve more than attending lectures and sitting for exams. To increase your chances of ending up where you want to be, take classes with the best professors, attend office hours, find an on-campus job related your interests, and join student groups, advised college counselors Jeffrey Durso-Finley and Holly Burks Becker in an article for The New York Times.

When it comes to exploring career options and finding internships, don’t underestimate the power of your school’s career center.Visit with a career counselor even as a freshman to learn about resume development, interviewing techniques, internship availability, and work/life balance issues,” the authors of Getting the Best Out of College told Freakonomics.

Next: One of the biggest regrets people had about college was not finishing.

6. They didn’t finish

Students moving in

Not everyone who starts school finishes. | mangostock/Getty Images

In the Gallup survey, overall regret was highest among people who had attended college but had not earned a degree. Nearly 60% of people in this group would change one or more of their education decisions, including 42% who would choose a different major and 35% who would choose a different school.

Other research has found this group of students who didn’t finish tends to have high debt and poor job prospects — a recipe for major regret.

Next: Reduce your chances of dropping out.

How not to drop out of college

Graduates of Bowie State University

Students attend their college graduation. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If you’ve left college without a degree, you’re not alone. Fewer than half of students at public four-year colleges graduate on time, and the situation isn’t much better at private nonprofit schools, according to research by Third Way.

Experts agree schools need to do a better job of retaining students, especially those who have families, are working and learning at the same time, or who don’t live on campus. But until schools develop better retention strategies, students are on their own. One thing to do before you enroll is make sure your understand all costs because many students drop out for financial reasons. And if you’re not sure why you’re going to school or what you want to achieve, it might be better to wait.

“If you can afford to go to college, then heading off without a plan is no big deal and it can be a valuable experience. But if you can’t afford it, I don’t think students should be rushed into going,” Brandon Busteed, executive director of Education and Workforce Development at Gallup told The Wall Street Journal. “I think we should encourage students to think about taking a year and working to identify some things they are interested in.”

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