As tuition costs soar and post-undergraduate jobs remain elusive, those left footing the bill are wisely asking -- is higher education worth the cost?

Here is an unfortunate truth: For far too many incoming freshmen, college -- any college -- is not worth it. Year after year, students fail to get the full value of their tuition.

Many critics land the blame for this cost/value problem in the laps of the universities, though each critic might point to a different culprit: administrative bloat, faculty obsessed with obscure and arcane research, the high costs of athletics, the lavish amenities offered to pamper students, or the popularity of majors that are allegedly ill-suited to the new job market, to name some of their favorites.

But these are symptoms and not the illness itself. In our experience, the source of the atrophied university experience begins with the student. Too often, students make bad choices or, frankly, just not enough great choices.

Too often we meet students who are so exhausted by the business of getting into college that they coast once they arrive -- one of the most common wastes of time and tuition we see every year. A poorly constructed transcript may not attract attention in the media, as well as the latest shenanigans at a frat party, but it can be equally destructive to a student's education.


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As can failure to select professors based on the quality of their teaching (as opposed to the convenience of when the course is offered). Failure to engage and build professional working relationships with professors in office hours that may lead to continued study, internships and more also hurts the student's experience.

Another mistake is failing to make use of the rich panoply of support networks on today's college campus. It's almost embarrassing how many fantastic offerings are rolled into each tuition dollar, but most students don't even know they exist.

Another common point of failure is overbooking the schedule with extracurriculars, as students once did in high school, rather than getting intensely involved in one or two at most. The same can be said of overburdened course loads.

Additionally, a failure that hits a bit closer to home but impacts campus life greatly: Some families wrap the cords even tighter and attempt to micromanage from a distance while others, conversely, prematurely sever ties at home, hoping to encourage independence.

The final great failure we frequently see is the approach students (and their parents) take to selecting a major and accurately perceiving its impact on a future career.

University systems are not vocational schools. While contemporary critics complain about the lure of the bogus major -- and some do exist -- more frequently we see too many students pursue a course of study that is not their strength, simply because it seems to have obvious connections to a potential job after graduation.

Rather than perform poorly in a "practical" major and be of little interest as a future job candidate, we assert it is better to major in a subject where a student would excel, stand out and master the liberal arts tools of communication and analysis.

Students who choose a unique major should complement that with some well-chosen skill courses, internships and other co-curricular activities that bolster the link to career opportunities after college.

So, is college worth it? It can be. Studies show that college graduates have many advantages -- material, social and emotional -- that can lead to greater success later in life.

Is a Top 10 school worth it? It can be. The wealth of options and opportunities available to undergrads at a well-funded institution make for a particularly well-placed launching point -- but only for the intentional student.

To get the full value out of college, students must be as diligent and creative about getting out of college as they were getting in. After all, the most beautiful, Olympic salt-water lap pool does you no good if you don't know how to swim.

Anne Crossman and Sue Wasiolek are authors, with Peter Feaver, of "Getting the Best Out of College." Crossman is an author specializing in study techniques, Wasiolek is Dean of Students at Duke University, and Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke.