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HICKS: As classes begin, students have fresh opportunity

August 24, 2009

Classes start this week at Ball State University, and other colleges and universities across the country. For many, it is a bittersweet moment, as parents say goodbye to their now young adults, handing them over to professors and scarily youthful resident hall assistants for safekeeping. If the angst my wife and I feel over our youngest starting kindergarten is any indication, that is a difficult moment indeed.

In all honesty, I absolutely love the start of school. I think my colleagues at the university feel exactly the same way. To be sure, there’s plenty of grumbling about the start of classes, but there’s something about new classes and new students that quickens the step and brightens the day.

After all the years I have spent in school, and all the years teaching college, I can’t shake the sense that it is an unusual privilege to help form the minds of young men and women. No matter how curmudgeonly they might act, no one spends a lifetime in this job who really feels otherwise. There are a few things worth dwelling upon this school year.

First, in many ways, the college or university experience is different now than it was a generation ago. Tuition is higher, but so, too, are phone bills and car payments. Loans for schooling have been a lot easier to obtain in recent years, but that may well reverse itself with this recession.

The plain truth is that, while education itself has significant value, more clever students will be thinking more about the prospects of their academic majors in the years to come. More practical majors, such as accounting, health care and engineering, might see strong growth. Entrepreneurship will be a big deal.

Second, school has changed a bit over the past generation. To begin with, there is more effort in crafting a deeper experience for students than what I saw even a decade ago as a young professor. A big part of this is the focus on immersive learning.

Third, in the world today, deep learning matters a great deal. It is important to learn the specifics of a trade or profession, but having a firm grasp on the fundamentals—mathematics, science and language—is the best guarantee of long-term opportunity. The world will become more, not less, competitive. Twenty-five years removed from my undergraduate days, I remember only the hard classes. New students would be well-advised to create those types of college memories.

Finally, American universities, like nowhere else on earth, are a place of self-discovery and intellectual growth. When a student gets to campus, all the past is forgotten. Young men and women here are measured by what they do, not what they have done. That, of course, is scary. It is also a great and abiding opportunity.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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