08/27/2013 12:57 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

A Little Advice for the Class of 2017

The end of Summer is an exciting time for colleges and universities, because there is such promise of the new with the start of a the academic year. We welcome back students, roll out new programs, generally tidy ourselves up a bit and come back to life. As with most academic transitions, there are the ceremonies, replete with pomp and circumstance. At college's across the nation, first year students (what used to be called freshman) gather and attend Orientations and Convocations -- which are meant to situate them, both physically and intellectually, in college. What too often gets lost in these transitions is the educational focus of college. The start of college for first-time students is emotional and transitional, but fundamentally it is educational.

Colleges have changed a great deal in the last generation, as a visit to most any campus shows. College tours sometimes feel like real estate tours as many colleges are so proud of their amenities, such as food courts, performing arts centers, athletic facilities and gyms that you get the impression that college can feel like a cross between a mall and a health club, with classes squeezed in. And colleges have fed this trend, borrowing $205 billion for construction according to Moody's. With student loan debt now facing one trillion dollars, it is time to remember what college is really all about.

Colleges enroll over 21 million students, about 7 million at the community college level. This is a decline for of 1.7 percent for 2012/13 school year (it is too early for Fall 2013 data) according to the National Student Clearing House Research Center. According to the College Board, average tuition at the nation's four-year private colleges is hovering under $30,000 and under $9,000 for publics (excluding room and board), that's a five-year increase of 13 and 24 percent respectively. And many colleges are above that level. Clearly, college is an expensive investment and parents and students expect much for their return on investment. Only 66 percent of high school graduates go directly to any type of higher education. Yet for those 66 percent of college-aged students, college can and should be a transformative, life altering and economically beneficial time. What transforms lives isn't the food court, but the education itself. It is if you look beyond the shiny new things into the deep soul of higher education. It is there that you will find the value.

First, students need to stop being so passive. American high schools have done us all a disservice by catering to this trend. It is understandable why, with our culture of remote engagement and helicopter parenting. But, incoming college students need to own their own educational experiences. Education is something you do, not something that happens to you. At its core it is an engaged activity. There are lots of resources to aid and help students on today's campuses, but you can't rely on advisors and resource centers to give your live and educational experience meaning. Only you can do that.

So, what should your plan be? Actually, it is quite easy. I would suggest you follow the Association of American Colleges & University's LEAP (Liberal Education and America's Promise) "essential learning outcomes" goals. After a great deal of research, AAC&U identified a set of skills for the 21st Century. These include a combination of intellectual and practical skills, personal and civic responsibility and applied and integrated learning. Now, higher education is filled with vague phrases and jargon that seem meaningless to the larger public, such as "high impact practices." But, truth be told, these practices actually work. They transform lives. They are also not new, as many colleges have had them in place for years, often hidden. So, listen up incoming students. Here's a plan. You need to get out of your comfort zone. Education should shake your foundational values. It should make you uncomfortable and intellectually push you. So, take courses that do this. Don't play it safe. Only you know what makes you uncomfortable, so seek it out.

Next, join a club or a team and make sure you integrate into the full college experience, as college isn't just about classes alone. It is about relationships and social interaction too. Third, plan out and prepare for a series of internships. And start the planning now, even if you aren't eligible for one of these for a while. Better you learn what opportunities are out there and what you want out of them, so you can pursue them, than to see "what's available" when the time comes.

Fourth, study aboard. Yes, this might entail additional cost, but all evidence shows that they add such value it is well worth it. Fifth, seek out civic engagement and service learning experiences and classes. These experiences offer a way to apply and deepen learning and knowledge -- to take your education to the streets of the world. And lastly, do research. Seek out summer research experiences and by all means do an honors thesis, if it is an option, and present your findings publicly if you can. Students who engage in creating new knowledge, develop the intellectual talents that set them apart from their peers. Collectively, what these six items do is deepen knowledge and mature students, readying them for the world.

The reason to take ownership over your education has less to do with your resume or transcript. With grade inflation, it seems every college graduate is a superstar. Frankly, what impresses employers now is more what you know than how you know it. Pointing to a transcript only displays one frame of reference. You need to show many. You need to tell your story. Experiences with meaning, that push you, also change you. Seek them out and you will be in charge of your education. You will not be sorry.