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Off to college? Work diligently and explore widely

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 12:01 am

This week marks the beginning of class at many American universities. Like most professors I am eager to join in the renewal of the fall semester. There are precious few experiences as full of promise and pregnant with opportunity than the start of school at an American university.

I have written often about the importance of higher education and the superb investment opportunity it offers the wise and diligent student. I have also written of significant changes universities must soon make. I will return to those matters in later columns. This week I intend to be a bit more self-indulgent and offer some heartfelt and frank advice to students.

First, about half of all young people try college, but only half of that group finish a degree. The difference between these groups is almost wholly due to old-fashioned hard work and perseverance. Natural talent helps, as does having a supporting and financially secure family, but nothing replaces pure dogged effort and drive. No one said it better than Thomas Edison, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” So, take it from this professor; work hard and don’t let up.

Second, there are tens of millions of people around the world who would gladly change places with an American college student, and do just as well, but they don’t live in this land of opportunity. So approach this experience with some humility. In truth, if you come to college humble and with a willingness to stick with it, you’ll do well. Still, there is much you can do to enhance the experience.

College is not simply vocational education leading you to a good job. You’ll take roughly 40 courses in college, and you have no idea which one will be most important in 30 years. Neither does anyone else. Education towards a career is important, of course, but so are the arts, humanities and social- sciences courses. Today’s single-minded focus on career education couldn’t be more misguided. Never before in the history of the world has exposure to a wide breadth of learning been so important. Do well, and a good job will come.

Take the hard classes. Skip the easy electives and seek out the really challenging ones where most students don’t get A’s. Here is where you really learn to write, read, create and think. Live simply unless you relish student debt, and don’t be afraid to talk to professors.

Make a point to go into every building on campus. See what those folks are doing, be it blowing glass, writing algorithms or sequencing DNA. Remember, every important idea over the past 800 years has leapt from a college classroom or lab.

College lets you reinvent yourself like few other places can. Cast away your shyness and meet people who look and act differently than you. Fearlessly share with them your ideas, perspectives and values. Be nothing less than audacious with this opportunity and remember what an old professor told me: “You may be whatever you resolve to be.”

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.