11/13/2012 03:08 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

A Terrible Thing to Waste


"A mind is a terrible thing to waste." So claimed that inspiring TV commercial I saw about 500 times growing up in the 1970s.

This was during a recession, and the message to teenagers was clear: It matters for you, and for America, that you develop yourself intellectually.

In 2012, as the global economy becomes more knowledge-based, more technology-driven, and more competitive, today's roughly 16 million high school students need even more to hear and heed this message.

Instead, they hear a discouraging cacophony: "College costs too much. Students borrow too much. Too many students aren't college-ready. College learning is valuable only if practical, career-oriented and measureable."

These are real concerns, admittedly, but I worry that we aren't making a forceful enough case to promising students about the value of creating a rigorous intellectual experience in college.

And that's why, as the 2012-13 application season begins, we need to emphasize four key messages to those young people who have the talent and mindset to flourish in college:

First, dream big. Your mind, drive and optimism are enormous assets. With a strong intellectual foundation, you can develop your own distinct form of greatness. You can live freely and make great impacts in the world.

Second, bet on your brain. During your late teens and early '20s, you need to develop your capacity to think, learn, analyze, write, express, compute, question, critique, connect and create. There's no better way to do this than four years in which faculty-scholars -- themselves discoverers -- help you obtain foundational knowledge in core fields, in-depth knowledge in your major, and crosscutting interdisciplinary skills from both.

Although studies show this style of education will increase your earning power, it will also be a lifelong resource in much more profound ways. It will be the springboard for the higher-order thinking you will need for success in graduate or professional school. It will empower you to adapt to future changes in your profession and in society that no one can even imagine today. It will help you become an independent thinker and problem solver who creates ideas that influence others. It will likely be the crucible in which you forge your personal commitments and philosophy of life. Don't settle for less.

Third, treat the college search process as the unofficial start of your college education.

And to illustrate this point, I'll explain that I teach and work at Franklin & Marshall College, a 2,400-student liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. When students like you visit our campus, they see firsthand our small classes, close-knit community, faculty-student mentoring relationships, and countless opportunities to be involved in research, athletics, internships, the arts and community service.

I love the look of possibility in prospective students' eyes when, suddenly, they picture themselves learning and growing here, feeling welcome and wanted. But it's also rewarding to talk with students coming to realize that they'd like to attend school elsewhere in a big city, or somewhere they can be anonymous for awhile, or cheer and yell at Division 1 basketball games.

While in high school, you truly do grow when using the process of looking closely at the schools you might attend to reflect on your own desires and ambitions.

To the students daunted by the cost, I say this: Don't opt out of applying to strong colleges because of sticker prices above $50,000; among other things, these colleges typically have the best financial aid programs and the best graduation rates. Research shows that aid-eligible students consistently underestimate which colleges will accept them and how much aid they'll receive. So don't be discouraged. Fill out the FAFSA form and find out what college will cost you--it may be much less than you think.

Sadly, because a lot of stress and mania come with applying to highly selective colleges, many students feel powerless at this time of year.

So finally, fourth, this message may be the most important one of all: In college, you have the power to create the education that you seek.

By working hard and actively learning, you can develop sophisticated analytical abilities. You can prepare your mind for graduate school and beyond. You can grow as a person, make a mark, and create lifetime faculty mentors and friends. We all have that power if we bring a creative, optimistic, hardworking approach to everything we do.

Bottom line: A mind is still a terrible thing to waste. So don't.