It's that exquisitely anxious time of the year when high school students applying to colleges are getting their acceptance letters and trying to decide where to spend the next four years of their time and most of their parents' life savings. These life-changing moments are taking place in the context of daily news features questioning the value and purpose of a college education. President Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, put colleges "on notice" regarding rising tuition costs. And we've all heard about that guy who dropped out of Harvard and recently launched the Facebook IPO to become an instant billionaire.
Should you pick the college that gives you the best financial package? One that guarantees you a job right after graduation? Or should you take that college savings account and open up a lemonade stand or create a new smartphone app? What's the purpose of a general well-rounded liberal education?
I've figured it out... the big question that prospective college students and their families should ask:
*** Which college will give me the best chance at having the most fun for the rest of my life? ***
I'm not talking here about which place has the best downtown nightlife, the most frats and sororities, the rowdiest football games, or the most entertaining-sounding courses. And it's not just which college looks like it has the happiest students (although that's an important indicator).
Many students wonder why they are "forced" to take all those courses that they don't feel relates to their major or what they want to do as a career. I've even heard them called a "waste." Far from the truth! Those are what create opportunities for fun.
Sure, we hope that studying at a place like the Park School of Communications, where I'm the Dean, leads to great job opportunities upon graduation and career advancement through a lifetime. But if it's just the technical skills you're looking for, you can get those through a trade school or even free online. A well-rounded college education offers you much more. It's those other courses and experiences outside your major that have the most potential of yielding you more fun in your personal life after college.
Do you know people who are picky eaters, timid around strangers, narrow in their musical tastes or anxious travelers? They're kind of difficult to be around -- and they seem like they have few opportunities for enjoyment. I remember when my three-year-old nephew would only eat Kraft American cheese, white bread and Chicken McNuggets. The other kids were having a great time exploring new tastes and new places and he was, frankly, kind of a wet blanket.
If you give yourself opportunities to expand your musical and literary tastes, learn new languages, be comfortable in strange places with new people, try new cuisines and sports, you simply expand the possible ways you can have fun. When you get the opportunity to go skiing in the French Alps and eat escargot, you'll be right there, mixing with the locals. When an opera company comes to town, you'll jump on it with the same enthusiasm that you feel for your favorite jazz trio and heavy metal band. You will have a deep appreciation for art films, keep in great health, create a solid investment strategy, and can have a lively debate with people of almost any political persuasion. What fun!
The Dali Lama said in his book, The Art of Happiness, "I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness." College should help you create more opportunities for happiness. Sure, a great career is a good start. So are good life-long friends. But more than that, your four years in college should help you develop more things you appreciate and more situations where you feel confident and comfortable.
If you're thinking about college -- or already a part of a campus -- seek happiness for yourself and for those around you. We can't guarantee you a job. You've got to make those opportunities happen for yourself. But we can guarantee that knowing more will help you enjoy more, and that's the real value proposition of a college education.