Recent graduates feel mixed about the financial value of college, according to Fidelity Investments’ recent Cost-Conscious College Graduates Survey, which studied how class of 2009, 2010 and 2011 graduates are faring in terms of college debt levels and securing jobs.

While two-thirds (66 percent) of the class of 2011 who are graduating with debt said the value of college was worth the cost, one quarter (25 percent) said they would have made different choices if they had thought more about potential future debt.

Those graduates that have been in the job market longer (classes of 2009 and 2010) feel even more strongly, with 40 percent saying they would have made different choices to change their level of debt.

“Recent graduates are finding that tackling their college debt is one of the first critical lessons in managing their money,” said Joe Ciccariello, vice president of Fidelity Investments College Planning, in a statement. “While graduates value their college degrees, it is telling that their top financial advice to high school students about to enter college revolves around considering the costs and taking action to plan for them ahead of the college experience.”

Fidelity culled three lessons from the survey results:

1.     Reduce college debt by saving early and getting involved

While one-third of class of 2011 respondents have a dedicated college savings account, 44 percent reported having no college savings. According to the survey, graduates who saved in advance were able to cover 52 percent of their college costs.

From all the surveyed classes, those that had not saved had an average of $56,000 in debt and were less likely to believe their college attendance had prepared them well for getting a job.

“While these recent graduates may not have made the decisions regarding their own college savings, 56 percent of them said they would ‘definitely’ open a dedicated college savings account for their children,” said Ciccariello. “That number climbed to 70 percent for those graduates who had savings, indicating how much they valued their parents’ advanced planning.”

Financial advisors were used by the families of 40 percent of those graduates that saved for college. These families were three times as likely to have 529 College Savings Plans and carried 20 percent less debt than the average graduate.

2.     Take time to plan your career path

The survey also found that respondents with degrees in math, engineering or information technology were the most likely (59 percent) to be working full-time in their fields, followed by business majors at 42 percent.

“Having a full-time job is critical to a graduate’s ability to pay back college debt, especially with more than two-thirds of recent college graduates saying they plan on repaying all college debt themselves,” said Ciccariello.

Only 24 percent of 2011 graduates reported having a full-time job offer, with most in their fields of choice. More than one-third (36 percent) are actively seeking employment and 32 percent are not, primarily because they plan to attend graduate school.

3.     Consider the cost and plan ahead

The majority of the class of 2011 is departing college with both a degree and debt, according to the survey.

The entire pool of participating recent graduates offered advice about financial management:

  • Work hard in school
  • Do your due diligence
  • Pay as you go
  • Consider all options
  • Go for your associates degree first

The Cost Conscious College Graduates Survey was conducted online from a national sample of 549 college graduates by independent research firm ORC International from April 1-7, 2011.
It included 250 students who graduated in 2011 and 299 that graduated in 2009 and 2010.