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A college education's return on investment

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By Paul Hennigan
Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

As a university president, I've noticed a lot of headlines lately about the return on investment from a college education. It's an important discussion to me because my college education was so deeply important to me.

I grew up in a single-parent home. My father had died when I was just in kindergarten and my mother had to work long hours to make ends meet. Like many kids, I had no college direction.

Where today's freshmen show up on campus with a house worth of furniture and electronics, I arrived with basically a suitcase. And because my mother had to work that day, a family friend had to drive me to school and drop me off.

I was one of those kids who could easily have been talked out of going to college, so when I hear people reducing the value of a college education to a number, it hits home.

Thirty-five years ago, when I started as a freshman at Edinboro State College, I was a shy, unsure kid, not knowing a single soul. For the first week, I left my dorm room only to go to class. Avoiding the cafeteria completely out of fear that I'd have to sit by myself, I holed up behind my closed door, subsisting on a diet of Pop Tarts and cheese crackers.

But then something magical happened. I started meeting some of the other guys in my dorm and ventured out into the world. As I was exposed to new ideas, new ways of thinking, I began to learn how to learn.

All the subjects I'd been exposed to in high school took on new and deeper meaning in this new venue. I developed into a young adult with goals, aspirations, principles and dreams. I learned to think and to think for myself.

I give a talk at convocation each year where I try to prepare students for what's in store. I tell students that some major changes are coming, but maybe none more important than learning how to think and be able to form opinions that are based on something more than knee-jerk reactions, and to construct arguments in defense of their opinions.

As a parent, you know from the moment your child is born that you've got only so much time with him. There's a timer ticking away, set to go off in about 18 years.

This year, our eldest son leaves for college. He's going off in a way that is so different from the way I did. My wife and I will drop him off. Thanks to social networking, he will have already gotten to know a number of kids at school before he sets one foot on campus.

I've watched for years as parents drop off their children for the first time, and I can see in their eyes that they're just as scared and nervous in their own way as their children are. Now that parent will be me.

An investment in college can take an immature child and turn him into an adult ready to face the world. It can take a shy boy hiding in his room with no plan except for one to ration his cheese cracker supply for an entire semester, and it can give him a passion for lifelong learning, a sense of direction and a purpose in life.

Take it from someone who knows.

Paul Hennigan is president of Point Park University.

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