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An Educated Choice

Thom Ruhe

Mentor High School Commencement 2013Back in November, my son and I took a trip to Ann Arbor, MI to tour the campus of the University of Michigan. The school was among a handful that my son was considering with his graduation just a few months away. For me, the visit conjured up thoughts on the investment of college, and whether or not it’s really worth it, which you can read here.

Now, with graduation parties and caps and gowns abundant, my eldest, along with my wife and I, were ready to sit down, lay out the options, and make a decision as to where he would begin the next phase of his educational and life journey. I have to say that my wife and I have been blessed with three bright, entrepreneurial children, including my son. Like the proud parent I am, I’ll brag just a little and share that he graduated 5th in a class of 700. So he had some options. After narrowing down his choices, my son brought three great schools to the table for consideration.

Before I lay out the field of choices, I feel obligated to offer a bit of a disclaimer. One factor weighed heavily on both his decision of where to apply, and ultimately his decision about where to go. In all honesty, my son doesn’t see college graduation as a given. Instead, he seems to have picked up the entrepreneurial bug that’s running rampant in our home and anticipates launching a startup that will call for his full-time attention around his sophomore or junior year. So to him, the most important things on his college must-have list are things like a solid selection of potential co-founders, a culture that embraces risk taking, tools to him launch and grow a business, and an alumni and community network that support new ventures. When he hit on that last one about community, I realized he might be listening to his old man after all, for I’m convinced—and he’s heard all about it—that community is the new currency.

So what three schools were we looking at? Well, there was the University of Michigan and its School of Engineering, Case Western Reserve University, a private school in Cleveland, OH, and the University of Akron, a public school also in Ohio. As with any parent weighing in on the decision, tuition was a big factor. The initial sticker price for the private school was predictably the highest, but when factoring in the scholarships my son received, it was the University of Michigan that took the prize for most expensive at $200,000 for four years—all because we were crossing the state border to get there. Rounding out his top three was the University of Akron’s $8,000 per year price tag, after his applicable scholarships.

As we grappled with the options, we all acknowledged some truths in the decision making process, which I’ve listed out as some commencement speech-like thoughts applicable to any high school graduate:

1) Your future is what you make of it. Yes, it’s a little cliché. But that doesn’t make it any less true. A high school graduate can go to the best school in the country—however they deem it the best. But if they don’t embrace the opportunities surrounding them, there is no guarantee of success. And of equal relevance, people of limited educational advantage have been more successful than anyone would have imagined. It’s up to you.

2) College is no longer the sole repository of knowledge. Today’s online tools and offerings and third-party educational organizations like TED-Ed are abundant and with them, a motivated student can propel themselves educationally beyond anything my generation could have imagined.

3) Select a college for its inventory of resources, not its name. This is especially true when you’ve got an entrepreneurially-inclined child like mine. We looked at each school with a very critical eye and took serious inventory of each school in terms of its assets and programs that would encourage his entrepreneurial proclivities. We looked for things like startup and business plan competitions, industry partnerships, and a faculty with actual entrepreneurial experience (not a CV built to ensure a tenure track) dedicated to mentoring.

Considering these things and reconciling cost vs. benefit, the choice was clear and simple: the University of Akron.

Now not everyone will think we made the “right” choice. Those who think that are most likely buying into the notion that bright ideas, great opportunities, and a hopeful prospect for one’s future are the exclusive entitlements of a privileged few. It’s an idea that higher education has been forced to perpetuate—and I can understand why. But it’s false. Academia is going through a transformation, not unlike the music and print industry. And it’s a much-needed change if you ask me.

Regardless of what’s happening in higher education, I saw my responsibility as the parent of a future potential entrepreneur is to help my son optimize the choices life presents him. My child can graduate from college (should he choose to do so) debt free, with an entrepreneurial mindset. I am certain that pairing will serve him far better than leaving a campus with a debt burden that will hamper his earnings for years to come.

These are the decisions entrepreneurs face on a daily basis—should I buy into the hype or make the right decision for me. Making the most of what life gives you is what being an entrepreneur is all about.

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