Regardless of your stage of life, going to college for the first time or going back to school to expand your education will pay off. According to an August 2018 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for college graduates was just 2.1%, compared to 3.9% for high school graduates and 5.7% for those without a high school diploma. Even in August 2008, during the Great Recession, college grads had a mere 2.8% unemployment rate, compared to 5.8% of high school graduates and 9.7% of those without a high school diploma. Despite the question of whether or not a college degree is worth the time and money, statistics like these clearly support the investment.

College might still be the best way to land a job. But when it comes to landing a high-paying job, merely graduating from college is less than ever the key to success. You need to enter college with at least the beginnings of a plan. That's the best way to ensure that you get the most from your degree later on.

Key Takeaways

  • Finishing college greatly increases your chances of landing and keeping a job after you graduate.
  • Still, simply having a degree is not always enough to land the job that you want.
  • Choose an in-demand major from a good school, get to networking early on, and keep your passion as a hobby if it won't be a lucrative career.

1. Pick Your Major (and College) Strategically

It used to be OK to head to college now and figure out your degree path later. Now, it's best to know where you want to go. One way to save on education: Plan the most efficient path to graduation by taking the courses you need for your major and to fulfill requirements with the fewest possible additional steps. Graduate in four years or less, if you can manage it.

Then, there's finding the best college major for your talents and goals. With the average student-loan payment now up to $351 per month, getting out with the right kind of degree can make a huge difference in your life after graduation. Your ability to live comfortably, get a car loan or apartment – and, eventually, buy a home or marry and have a family – can be affected. The question is, What qualifies as “the right degree”?

You will likely spend more hours working than playing, so choose a major that will enable you to do something you enjoy and find meaningful. The issue is finding work you value that also promises a decent salary and good career path after graduation. That could leave you choosing a field that may not be your first choice. Fortunately, most people have more than one career path that they would be happy traveling.

How do you find which of your paths have high future demand and pay well? Here's the short answer: If you have a knack for science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) and pursue a career in one of those areas, you will likely do just fine.

You could look for which jobs are in highest demand. A great place to look for those is the fastest-growing occupations list produced by the BLS .

For more details on each job, click on the link above.

Then, think about which college majors are likely to lead to the best-paying jobs. Below are the college majors associated with the highest median base salaries, according to the career website Glassdoor.com. Note that all are STEM-related.

  • Computer Science – $70,000
  • Electrical Engineering – $68,438
  • Mechanical Engineering – $68,000
  • Chemical Engineering – $65,000
  • Industrial Engineering – $64,381
  • Information Technology – $64,008
  • Civil Engineering – $61,500
  • Statistics – $60,000
  • Nursing – $58,928
  • Management Information Systems – $58,000

Before you get too excited reading these numbers: Be aware that the median salary means that half of all workers earn below this amount and half above it. Someone entering the field for the first time will make less than the median salary. Nevertheless, jobs with higher median salaries will also have higher starting salaries. For example, the starting salary for somebody entering the computer science field is $46,700.

Does this mean you have to give up your dream of being an actor, early childhood educator or historian? Definitely not. Your major could be one that leads to the higher-paying, high-availability job; a dual major, minor or hobby could be your other love. It will likely require more schooling, but having marketable skills in more than one discipline is a great use of your time and money. You can try to do both (for example, audition for parts in plays and work at a paid job) for a while and see what pans out for you.

If you are determined to work in a low-paying field, don't attend a high-priced private college that leaves you with massive student loans. Choose a good public college that will let you pursue your dream to teach kindergarten without being crippled by debt.

2. Don’t Follow Your Passion

Still having trouble figuring out what you want to do with your life? Mark Cuban, entrepreneur and star of the hit television series “Shark Tank,” advises people not to follow their passion. According to Cuban, we have a lot of passions in our life, but most won’t translate into successful careers. Instead, he advises you to follow your effort. Look at how you spend your time. Whatever you spend the most time doing may be your perfect career. Spending time with something leads to developing a lot of skill, which creates expertise in that field; being an expert translates to career success.

What if your passion is one of those low-paying, low-availability jobs, such as education, a college major that Glassdoor.com associates with a median salary of $43,000? Maybe you’re well-spoken, make friends easily and people like to be around you. You could be a sales representative for a company that caters to schools and businesses that educate small children. Look for ways to pivot into a job related to your favorite field, but with the potential to make more money. This should provide more room for advancement and let you pay off your college debt faster.

3. Pick a Career That Requires Specialized Skills

Some career paths are overpopulated with candidates, while others have employers begging for qualified candidates. Why? Often because the specialized skills required for one field make the talent pool smaller.

Major in something that makes you into a specialist and finding a job won’t be hard. Even better, you’ll get paid well from the beginning. Look for jobs where a bachelor's degree in a highly specialized field is all you need to get started, such as computer and information systems.

Fields such as medicine, education, law and accounting can pay extremely well, of course, but they require that you have an advanced degree to gain the certification needed to apply for those jobs. These might not be the best choice, at least at first, if you want to get a good-paying job straight out of college.

Other careers, such as many jobs in business, require a college degree, but not a specialized one. The more people eligible to apply for a job, the more people you will need to compete against to get it.

4. Network Early and Often

Put aside images of that sleazy, cheesy, bad-salesman person who shows up at every event to talk about him- or herself. Networking is forming relationships and taking a genuine interest in people around you. How often have you heard people talking about landing a job because of an old college buddy?

Yes, you should attend events related to your field of study. But if you’re not exactly the social type, look for people on LinkedIn and people at other colleges and universities. Practical networking tips include:

  • Meet people through people you already know.
  • Look for community groups related to your field.
  • Always have your business cards with you (make a personal card if you're not yet employed).
  • Be well-read in your field so that you can talk about it easily.
  • Ask people questions rather than talking about yourself.
  • Ask your new contact for suggestions of other people to meet.
  • Practice networking conversations with a trusted friend if they don't come naturally to you.
  • Be aware of body language – smile and uncross your arms.
  • Don’t try to be somebody you’re not.
  • Don’t have an agenda; be open to meeting all kinds of people. You never know where a conversation will lead.

5. Take an Internship

The fastest track to a job of your dreams is through an internship. Any company exec knows that hiring a person is expensive, often well into five figures when training is factored in. If they’re going to spend five figures, they would much rather hire a sure thing than somebody they don’t know. That’s why companies love internships. It’s the perfect way to find their next top-notch employees with barely any risk.

Starting with the summer after your first year, use your college's career-planning office to apply for internships, or contact companies that interest you directly. Some colleges even offer fellowships to enable students to accept poorly paid (or unpaid) internships by offering grants. Or consider combining a part-time poorly paid internship in the field you want with non-career work that pays better. Fortunately, some high-paid fields also pay their interns well, especially those who are close to graduating.

A few tips for a successful internship:

  • Be prepared (and cheerful) when asked to do grunt work.
  • Don’t be late.
  • Dress the part.
  • Meet as many people at the company as possible.
  • Don’t be idle; when a task is done ask for another or find one on your own.
  • Read the same publications that others at the business are reading.
  • Find a mentor.
  • Ask a lot of questions, but at the appropriate time.
  • Avoid gossip and negative talk.
  • Be thankful.

The Bottom Line

Making the most of your college education is essential to having the best chance of finding the job (and life) you've dreamed of having. And the sooner you get out of college, the sooner you will earn money instead of building up more debt.