Is a college education a smart investment?  Given the rapidly escalating tuition costs, the reported craziness on many campuses (both in and out of the classroom), and the substantial opportunity costs, it’s a fair question.

Over the past 25 years, average tuition hikes have outpaced by more than three times the growth in medium family incomes. The cost of a four-year, in-state ride today can easily top $70,000, and private college price tags often exceed $130,000. And, of course, many end the ride with no job or career focus, just a sick feeling that they are four years behind those who never got on the train.  In a recent survey, 57 percent of Americans opined that college doesn’t provide a good value for the money.

This threshold “is it worth it?” question was answered for me nearly 45 years ago by a nameless man who I knew for about twenty minutes.   Whenever my mind wanders aimlessly to endure the boredom of a graduation commencement, as it did twice this past week, I end up privately thanking this fellow.  He changed my life.

It happened one evening in August 1966.  I was sitting on the ninth tee of a tiny golf course in Okemos, Michigan, a small town that bumps up against Michigan State University.  I was watching four huge women waddle down the fairway.  It would be a long wait.

A frail, older gentleman approached me from the eighth green and asked if he could join me for the last hole.  As soon as I agreed, he introduced himself as a retired Michigan State professor and started peppering me with questions.   Within minutes, he knew that I would be leaving for college in a few days, sports had been my passion in high school, I was a mediocre student, and I had no clue about college.  He started to expound, and continued as he hacked his way down the fairway.

He explained that there are four kinds of college students.  Most of the following labels and words are mine, but the concepts all came from this dear man as we played that ninth hole together.

The first are the “party-goers,” those who use college as an excuse to leave home, have fun, and duck responsibility and real work.

The second are the “badge seekers,” those who are motivated only by badges of success – the ultimate diploma, awards, and potential recognitions along the way.  Absent a badge, they have no motivation to learn.  They often game the system, avoid tough courses, and do only the minimum to lock up the desired badge.

The old man told me that, if I was going to be a party-goer or a badge seeker, I should forget college and get a real job.  College would make me lazy, fuel and ingrain bad habits, and waste precious time.

The third group is the “assignment-doers,” a big step up from the badge seekers.  This group takes pride in doing assignments well.  The scope of their learning efforts is defined by others. But once it is defined, they kick into action.   He said that, if I had it in me to become a good assignment-doer, college was a smart move.

I had now reached my tee shot.  The professor was doing a little jig in preparation to hit what had to be at least his sixth shot.  He abruptly halted his jig, turned to me, and exclaimed “You should be a passionate learner.”

For the rest of the hole, he explained that passionate learners are those who continually expand their interests, explore without limits, and develop a passion for learning that lasts a lifetime.  He elaborated until we putted out, repeatedly emphasizing that, for a passionate learner, college was the ultimate experience of self discovery and preparation for life.

As we walked off the green, he asked if I knew what it took to become a passionate learner.  Before I could formulate a response, he just blurted out, “Make it your full time job.”   He explained that most students never figure out that college deserves the same commitment as a full time job:  forty hours of concentrated effort each week.   He challenged me to dedicate 10 four-hour blocks of time each week exclusively to learning, with absolutely no exceptions.  His final words to me were something to the effect, “Stick with it and just see what happens.”

Within a few days of that encounter, I was immersed in the excitement and chaos of being a new college freshman.   Two weeks later I knew that I needed to get a grip on the confusion, and the old professor’s challenge kept surfacing.  So I staked out a tiny desk in a massive library and committed to 10 four-hour blocks each week, as instructed.

It worked.  I was soon far ahead in all my classes, everything was getting easier, and I was seeking for more and more to fill my four-hour time slots.  Special class projects were welcomed and were a piece of cake. Within a month, my new friends were calling me a study geek, a nerd, and a book nut.  I loved it.  My perception of myself was beginning to change.  I was more confident.

In a very short time, I went from being a high school linebacker who had never studied hard to being a bona fide, serious student who was tackling some pretty exciting stuff.  I became increasingly aware of the huge amounts of time that the freedom of college allows most students to waste.  I had discovered that college is a place where many can fake it with lots of show and little or no substance.

Soon the 40-hour commitment ceased to be relevant because my expanded interests and learning activities had taken me far past that mark.   I had figured out that the hourly commitment was needed just to get me through a barrier that I likely would have never even found absent the commitment.   All the badges of success came naturally.

I shared the old man’s forty-hour gambit with some friends.  Most never tried it or labeled it “crazy” after a few days.  Two gents who stuck with it experienced the same pluses that I was determined to maximize.

College planning is a big challenge for most families.  The goal is to insure that the huge investment of money and precious time produces positive results that last a life time.  I’ve often feared that, absent this chance encounter, I probably would have wasted serious money and valuable time as a just-do-the-minimum badge seeker.   For anyone who is college bound and wants a great return on the investment, give some serious thought to the charge that my ninth hole, twenty-minute mentor laid on me over four decades ago:  Commit to make it your full time job.

June 9, 2012