You don't need to go to college. In fact, I'm willing to wager that most people don't. The average annual cost of a public university is just shy of $10,000, and at private universities, tuition and fees cost nearly $35,000. But that hefty price tag can be worth it, so long as you understand how to make those four years worth your while.

Most college students enter their freshman year with roughly the same economic value. Absent ample work experience in high school, the overwhelming majority of college freshmen are worth around minimum wage. If you're about to spend six figures of tuition or take that out in debt, you must think of college as a means of maximizing your economic value. And much of that maximization occurs outside of the classroom.

College degrees on their own serve two primary purposes: signaling a baseline of discipline and achievement to employers and providing students with the opportunity to network. The first purpose renders the selection of a major vitally important. For example, if you get an economics degree, you probably won't use the majority of your coursework after graduation. But the degree itself proves to employers that you were willing to take on a major that included heavy analytical quantitative skills.

But the degree on its own isn't enough. College students often don't like to admit this, but you still have to work outside of class — really work.

The truth is that unless you wish to go the professional degree route, your grades are far from the most important thing about college. Being a B+ student in vacuum doesn't sound great, but a B+ student with a B.S. in business, three solid summer internships, and a few semesters of actual work experience is worth far more than a straight-A student with a communications B.A. with little work experience and no desire to go to graduate school.

Working during the school year is vastly underrated. Students often complain that they don't have enough time. But if you max out the number of courses you take during your freshman year of college, then as you become older and thus more marketable, you can take advantage of a slightly lighter course load to work during the year.

Work experience can also take a degree that may seem uneconomical and make it highly marketable. For example, people love to hate on English majors, but an English major with three summers of experience in publishing houses and a killer thesis may find himself in a much better position at graduation than a mediocre STEM major with a nonexistent resume.

And this path is perfect for students who still haven't decided what they want to do after graduation. In my four years of college, I worked everywhere from the marketing department of the Special Olympics World Games to running a technical services website. On top of a full course load of math classes, there were semesters when I worked 30 hours a week. Some of my jobs bored me to tears, but they pushed me into understanding that journalism, something I once considered a hobby, was my passion. I wouldn't have traded any of them.

If none of these options seem palatable to you, seriously consider whether up to a quarter million dollars of debt is worth it. If you can afford it, that's your prerogative. But if you sign a contract with American taxpayers that you'll see a return on your investment in your education, you owe it to them to maximize your economic value and pay them back.