As the costs of a college education continue to rise faster than the average family’s income and many new graduates struggle to find a good job, you might ask: “Is College Worth It?”

Thanks to a new study by Purdue University and Gallup, we have a new way to answer. It all comes down to what you do in college… and how much you spend has a surprising role, as well.

The real question is whether college makes your life better.

Of course, this isn’t the first time people have tried to answer this question. This study is important because it cuts right to the chase to find out if going to college will make your life better.

Economists like to answer this question with “return-on-investment” calculations--adding up all the estimated benefits of a college education (like higher salaries), and then subtracting the total costs (like tuition).

Federal and State Governments use scorecards that measure on-time graduation and employment rates.

Is college worth it? There’s a better way to find the truth.

The problem? Both of those approaches measure indicators -- the underlying assumption being that if you make more money, or if you graduate on time, that your life will be better. While those outcomes probably are related to happiness, this study tries to measure the substantive outcomes directly.

With funding from the Lumina Foundation, they surveyed over 60,000 college graduates, using measures Gallup developed over many years to assess how engaged individuals are at work and how satisfied they are with 5 different aspects of their life (purpose, social, financial, community and physical well-being).

They then analyzed which elements of going to college were most strongly related to having a great life and career.

These 6 college experiences determine if you’ll have a great life and career.

What they found was surprising – the results were consistent across racial and ethnic groups and neither type of college or university (e.g. public vs. private, size of institution) nor the ranking of the institution in U.S. News & World Report was significant.

What mattered was less where students went, then how they approached the college experience.

In particular they found six key experiences (three supportive environment and 3 activities) that mattered the most for life after college:

  1. Learned from Professors who care about you as a person
  2. Professors who get you excited about learning
  3. Mentor who encourages you to pursue your dreams and goals
  4. Meaningful internship or job that allows you to apply what you learned in the classroom
  5. Work on a project that took a semester or more to complete
  6. Active in extracurricular activities and organizations

Over 80% of graduates who had all 6 of these experiences (and 69% of those who had 5 of 6) said “college prepared me well for life outside college.”

Only 6% of people without these 6 experiences said the same thing.

You can get these experiences in most honors programs.

If you want to get these experiences, you should look for honors programs. Many honors programs (American Honors, included) places heavy emphasis on these core components.

Read: What Does It Mean to Be In An Honors Program?

There’s one other key finding about whether college is worth it: how much debt you leave with.

If you think “the less debt, the better” you’d be right, but the effect isn’t as strong as you’d think.

About half of students with little to no debt thought college was definitely worth it. The satisfaction rate stayed relatively steady all the way up to $25,000 in debt, where 43% still strongly agreed college was worth it.

That’s part of the reason why you shouldn’t worry about graduating 100% debt free -- what’s much more important is what you do with your time while at college.

Read: Stop Worrying About Graduating Debt Free

Authored by David Finegold

Dr. David Finegold is a leading expert on skill development systems and their application to economic performance in the global marketplace. He writes about how honors programs can help close the achievement gap.