by:  Felicia Joy

I know it’s cliché but I’m telling you the truth: Time flies.  It seems like just yesterday that I was in college; yet that was 10 long years ago.  I wish someone had given me a proper perspective and sound strategies on personal finances and entrepreneurial success when I was a student.  I tinkered around with business then, but I didn’t really get it.

If my friends were reading this, they would laugh at my perspective. They call me an “overachiever,” and they’ve been waiting for years on the announcement that I’ve been appointed CEO of a Fortune 500 company or have put together a planning committee for my presidential campaign.

Ha, though I am glad to have such favor, the the truth is I have bumped my head and learned from mistakes quite a bit as I’ve pushed forward to achieve what I have so far.  By grace, perseverance, resilience, focus and personal development, I’m going strong.

While bumping your head may simply be a part of the growing process as an entrepreneur, doing it early on and learning from your mistakes is one of the smartest moves today’s college students can make. I’m not saying that you need to make a career of entrepreneurship per sé when you head back to school, but I believe you certainly need to experience it—and you can do that on your campus while the risks are extremely low and the rewards can be high. (See 25 savvy startups you can start for $200 or less here.)

Here’s what I wish someone had shared with me plainly and clearly about money and business when I was in college:

  1. Pay all or most of your expenses now: A motivated and focused student can receive a good education almost anywhere and the financial case weighs heavily in favor of attending a public college, university or technical school.  So I advise that you consider a state college or university. By going to a public institution your annual fees will be much lower and you can pay as you go each year.Don’t take student loans just because they are available. Only take them if you need them—and save all the excess money you get. Don’t think of student loan “refund checks” as a pay day. They’re not.  That’s a debt that is going to follow you around until you pay it off and for lots of Americans that can be 10 to 20 years after they’ve graduated, effectively sentencing them to two mortgages if they decide to buy a house as well. Set yourself up for success by avoiding debt—even low interest debt

2. You could get a job, but instead build a business:
Starting a business while you’re in college can be incredibly enriching in so many ways. First, if you build it successfully, you can make more money than you ever would at a minimum or student wage job.  Second, you will create an impressive career highlight that you can add to your résumé before you graduate; this will make you a lot more competitive in a tough job market. Third, you might come up with an idea or business that literally makes you rich.  Fourth, if you grow the business to the point that you need help, you can recruit co-founders from your campus peers or hire smart students for minimal wages.

Fifth, even if you don’t come up with a million dollar idea you can make enough money to cover your expenses while in college and gain incredible knowledge and wisdom. By managing your company you will develop certain insights that will help you understand both sides of business: Often, employees complain about how little money they make without very much understanding of their manager’s or the business owner’s position.  If you launch a business in college and start managing a budget, you will experience firsthand how much a line item for labor can be and how quickly other items can add up.  Sure, managers and owners might like to dole out raises, but they have to keep the whole business afloat or there would be no money, period. By operating a business you will learn many lessons that will accelerate your success whether you decide to pursue a corporate career or continue business ownership after graduating.

Sixth, you will develop presentation and sales skills, marketing know-how and leadership all at the ripe old age of 20-something. Plus, knowing that you started a concept from scratch and made it successful will give you confidence, or shall I say “swag,” and that’s a recognizable attribute right away. Starting a business will put you far ahead of the pack.

3. Being a college CEO is an advantage in itself: Have you ever been approached by a cute kid offering to sell you a box of candy for $5 that costs a tenth of that in the store you’re headed into—and you bought it?  Well, even if you haven’t done that many people have (me included).  There’s something universally appealing and admirable about an ambitious young person.  Starting your business while on campus will enable you to work youth to your advantage.

For one, you will have the stamina to work on your business and still study to get good grades (you’ll have to develop discipline, too).  For the business specifically, you can get local press, get help from professors and other campus professionals, compete in college business plan competitions and become eligible for certain kinds of scholarships, all because people will be impressed that you’re young and both going to school and running a business.

An additional bonus of starting your business while in school is that instead of your parents insisting that you do the whack routine from your high school performing arts days, they’ll demand that you tell the whole family about your business.  I know it’s still embarrassing but, hey, you might get some sales or financial contributors!

4. You’ll be more employable and you’ll be less worried about unemployment: Let’s be real: Unemployment has been stuck above nine percent for years now and colleges are dumping thousands of new job seekers onto the market every year. That is something to consider as you plan your major and think about life after college. A positive irony of having started your own business in college is that you may be more employable than your peers who did not start a business because you will have a level of experience, which means you may not need to worry as much about long term unemployment. But in the event you experience lengthy unemployment, you can continue the business you started, or use your skills to start a new one. Plus, if you stay out of debt and manage your expenses, you won’t need as much money to live a decent lifestyle, which means you’ll have much less stress.

Then, when it does come time to interview for jobs, you will have better real-world examples to share that demonstrate your capabilities, you’ll feel more confident about what you can do, you’ll have a better sense of what you’re actually good at and you’ll probably be much better at communicating this to potential employers.

5. If you decide to pursue entrepreneurship full-time after graduating you will be in a perfect position: Malcolm Gladwell says in his book,Outliers, that based on research it takes 10,000 hours to become really good in a particular pursuit. That’s 20 hours per week for 10 years, or 40 hours per week for five years.  Your business will be part-time in college because you’ll need to focus on your classes first and foremost. But 20 hours per week for four years and the experience of starting from scratch will give you a great foundation for picking up speed as an entrepreneur if you decide to keep going with your business (or start a new one) once you graduate. You’ll also be accustomed to living frugally, so keep living like a college student until you’ve saved a lot of money and made your business an absolutely solid success. With this game plan, you have the potential become a millionaire by 30 or 35. Think big!

When I went to college I remember people saying, “Have fun and study hard. Those will be the best years of your life.” I didn’t like that comment: The idea that the best years of my life would be contained in the four years of my undergraduate education. After graduating and experiencing life on my own I began to understand why people said that. Most people have fallen into the middle-class trap. They’re stuck on a job that may not be fulfilling, or that is boring or just not what they want to do, but they feel trapped because they have debt. They have to pay off student loans, a mortgage, car notes and more. For people in this situation, it feels like their best years were in college because that’s when they felt relatively unburdened and carefree.

My hope for you is that you will really enjoy yourself on campus, experience new things, stay safe in every way, meet new people, go new places, learn a lot, start a business and lay a solid foundation for the rest of your life. If you make smart decisions—like starting a business, even if just for the experience—and stay out of debt, then the best years of your life should be right now and ahead because you’ll be free to experience life as you please.

Now, go for it!  Here’s to your success!

Felicia Joy is a nationally recognized entrepreneur who created $50 million in value for the various organizations in corporate America before launching her business enterprise.  She is the author of Hybrid Entrepreneurship: How the Middle Class Can Beat the Slow Economy, Earn Extra Income and Reclaim the American Dream and operates Ms. CEO Inc., a media, merchandise and events company that inspires women entrepreneurs to be savvy, profitable and bold in business. Follow Felicia on Twitter @feliciajoyor visit her web site