“Make Good on the Educational Investment”

Among lifestyle investments, a college education ranks among the most important—and the most expensive—in the life of a young person. Getting “it”—the choice of a college—right is critical to realizing a strong return on the investment.

Chosen well, a college education sets the table for years of opportunities that will determine comfort and success for graduates, their families and their careers. Chosen well, every penny of the investment is repaid many times over. Choose poorly, however, and the debt is compounded by lost earning opportunity, reduced productivity and diminished return on investment.

Every year, nearly two million U.S. students and their parents invest in education for the first time, in many cases gambling their life savings in the process. Some do it well. They prepare and compete effectively, putting themselves in a position to acquire the type of educational experiences that will serve them well in life.

Regrettably, though, many—including students of all means and backgrounds—fall short of achieving their goals. Either they fail to complete the education they’ve started (barely half of entering college freshmen will graduate from any college at any time in their lives) or they muddle through their college years only to cross the “finish line” without any real sense of accomplishment or direction.

Frankly, this is unacceptable. We shouldn’t be content with a “system” that only works half the time. It’s not healthy for the young people who fail to make good on the promise of their own ability and it’s not good for a society that, ultimately, must pick up the slack for them.

Not surprisingly, the question of outcomes and accountability has come to occupy a place of prominence in political discussions at all levels of governance in this country. And, quite understandably, families are weighing their investments in educational opportunities with a critical eye on the likely returns.

Frankly, this is as it should be—wherever you are in the college selection process. Whether you are just getting started with your college search or you are about to make the final choice of a college, it is important that you proceed with a sense of purpose and intentionality. At a time when many consumers (and pundits) are focusing on the return on the educational “investment” with regard to career tracks and colleges, you need to understand that acquiring the paper credential will be the easy part. Rather, finding future opportunity—and success—will require a committed effort. You need to make the experience work for you. The choice of a major, a career track or even a college, for that matter will be meaningless if you do not fully engage in the opportunities presented to apply what you are learning.

As you proceed with your deliberations about college options, then, I would urge you to:

  1. Challenge assumptions. The college-going process isn’t what it used to be nor is it what many colleges would have you believe it is. A healthy cynicism is required for distilling the reality from the rhetoric.
  2. Keep your mind open to a range of solutions. In doing so, you acknowledge that success in college—and in life—is less a function of the space one occupies and more a function of how one takes advantage of the opportunities present in that space.
  3. Make good choices—choices that are truly student-centered. Every day presents opportunities for decision-making that will have a bearing on, not only how students compete for admission but how they live the next day and beyond.
  4. Know yourself. Why do you want to go to college? In what kind of learning environments do you function most comfortably? Where does education fit in your future? What are you prepared to do in order derive the greatest value from your educational investment? How do you expect your educational experience to affect your life beyond college?
  5. Focus on “fit.” The best college is the one that “fits” the student best. And it will always be the one that values her for what she has to offer.

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