Most of the press coverage surrounding student loans is bleak and negative, often featuring stories about graduates saddled with hefty debt loads and unable to find their dream career.
But that only portrays one angle of a multi-dimensional story.
Student loans are an investment in your future—and we mean “investment” in the most literal sense of the word.
This is money you’ve spent to develop your skill set and knowledge base and to set yourself up for certain opportunities. Like any investment, your return depends partly on luck, yes, but also partly on effort.
If you invested $50,000 in a startup food truck business, for example, you’d do everything in your power to get the highest possible return on that investment. You wouldn’t just let the truck sit on a corner and hope the customers came to you; you’d work hard to create a great product, market your business, and extend your reach.
You have the same power to maximize the return on investment (ROI) on your student loans and college education. Here are seven ways you can make sure your degree—and the money you spent for it—will pay you back several-fold.
1. Be Active with Your Alumni Network
Don’t forget your college the instant you throw your graduation cap into the air. Your alma mater is a great place to start building your professional network.
Your alumni community doesn’t just consist of the people you went to school with; it’s chock-full of industry leaders, high-level executives and other good-to-know VIPs, some of whom may work for the very companies you aspire to join.
Participate in alumni activities like dinners and picnics; keep in touch with your favorite professors via email or social media; see if your alumni association offers any mentorship programs. You never know what sort of doors this can open for you.
One alum from the University of Southern California, for example, says that her alumni network helped her land a job straight out of school. “The Partner that made the final decision to hire me went to SC and asked one of my professors . . . about me, which ultimately got me hired,” she explained on Reddit.
Bridget Beehler had a similar experience. She tapped the alumni network at her alma mater of Indiana University when she started seeking positions in L.A., turning to her school’s alumni association for contacts.
After three months of searching, she snagged her lucky break. One IU alum connected her with a friend in L.A. who worked for a digital marketing agency, which happened to be hiring at the moment. Bridget scored an interview and landed the position.
2. Engage with Your Local Business Community
Yes, you can present yourself online all you want—but there’s no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. Company representatives like meeting candidates in person. Start heading to local, in-person networking events.
- Check out sites like Meetup.com, Network After Work, and NetParty for networking events in your area.
- Google your city’s name plus “networking events” to find additional networking organizations that are unique to your neighborhood.
- Attend local lectures and volunteer for causes that speak to you, and make a point of introducing yourself to the people you meet at those events.
- Ask a networking contact at your dream company if you can take them out for lunch.
By getting out and networking, you’ll have the chance to mingle with the movers and shakers in your industry and your area, which can lead to job leads, further introductions and much more.
3. Create a Professional Website or Blog
A whopping 93% of hiring managers go online to check out potential candidates, according to a recent Jobvite survey. So make sure that what they find when they search for your name is flattering and professional.
By creating a website that features your resume, a professional headshot, a portfolio of recent projects and blog posts that demonstrate your industry know-how, you show potential employers that you take your career seriously.
4. Use Social Media for Good
Social media isn’t just for sharing cat videos and pictures of your latest dinner out. You can use everything from Twitter to Pinterest to add to your positive, professional online presence that will wow future employers and networking contacts.
The trick is to keep it professional. Save your political and religious thoughts for friends-only Facebook posts and keep those pics of your latest crazy vacation on your phone to show your friends over drinks. If you wouldn’t want your potential boss to see it, don’t post it openly online.
Complete your LinkedIn profile and make an effort to connect with as many relevant contacts as you can. When people Google your name, they should see a persona that’s rated PG, is Safe-for-Work, and that bolsters your image as an intelligent, ambitious and plugged-in professional.
That’s not to say you can’t have fun with your posts; just make sure anything that isn’t professionally flattering is locked carefully behind privacy filters only your friends and family are allowed behind.
5. Look for Jobs That Are Both Satisfying and High-Paying (But Be OK with Choosing One or the Other as a Stepping Stone)
In an ideal world, the best ROI for your student loan dollars is to find a job you feel passionate about that also pays your bills handsomely. But in a competitive labor market, you can’t always get your ideal job—at least not right away. Be prepared to widen your job search net to include both jobs you adore (that don’t pay a ton off the bat) and jobs that pay well (even if they’re not your favorite position ever).
Putting yourself in either position gives you the opportunity to continue to increase your college degree’s ROI. If you have a job you love, the necessary limits to your budget won’t feel quite as tough, and you can lay the groundwork to climb to a higher ladder rung down the road.
If you have a job that pays well, you can use that extra income to pay down your student loans while you continue searching for something that speaks more to your passions. (You can even set some of that extra money aside to enable you to take risks later, like starting your own business one day.)
6. Give Your All to That Less-Than-Perfect Job
Never underestimate the path towards which an entry-level, temporary, or less-than-ideal job may lead. Even if you’re collating copies and making coffee most of the day, your performance speaks volumes about your character, work ethic and drive, and people will notice.
The clients who come into your office, the executive you meet in the break room, the supervisor who’s used to managing grumblers and office gossips—all of these could one day be a link to the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.
Conduct yourself with dignity and integrity and be the best whatever-you-are you can be. You never know who’s watching or when.
7. Never Stop Learning
Don’t let your education stop when you graduate. Industries are constantly changing and evolving, and there’s always more that you can do to boost your skill set and make yourself more marketable (and worth more money). Here are a few ideas:
- Subscribe to industry journals to keep on top of the latest news.
- Take a free or paid course on a site like Udemy or Coursera to brush up on your skills or acquire new ones.
- Attend conferences and local industry meet-ups.
Even the highest degree from the most prestigious university in the country doesn’t mean much if you let yourself get rusty and out-of-touch. Just like that food truck, you need to keep your educational investment up-to-date, and continuing education is a great way to do it.
Do you have any tricks you’ve used to improve your return on investment from college and your student loans? Let us know in the comments.
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