Confessions of a College President: What I Wish I Had Done More of As A Student

I run a 120 year old private, not-for-profit college. Established by Roger Babson as one of the first schools of business for women in the United States and the first college chartered under Florida's then new educational and charitable laws, each fall and each spring brings an onslaught of new students, eagerly preparing themselves for successful careers and productive lives.

I think like all older people who are somehow involved in shepherding younger people through their formative years, I hope they don't make the same mistakes I made.

Don't get me wrong, my college education has served me well. I've just wrapped up my 29th year of working full time, every bit of it in management, although admittedly the first few years were largely "paying my dues", after graduating from college. The early years were a bit lean (I'm not sure they'd meet today's definition of "gainful employment") but even at that, if my first couple of employers could have bought me for what I was worth and sold me for what I thought I was worth, they would have made a killing. But with a last minute save from the trash can of an occasional burger I got by. And, I paid my dues, proved my worth, and moved up. And, while I had to return to for more education along the way, I found myself well prepared. The good thing about not getting all wrapped up in the fad de jour is that you can instead prepare students for jobs which don't even exist yet, by actually preparing students rather than pandering to whatever is hot in any given semester. So, I haven't any beef with any school I attended about how they prepared me.

But, looking back, there three mistakes I made, especially as an undergraduate.

First, I should have lived on campus. I went to a residential college which allowed students to live off campus, under certain circumstances. I elected to live off campus. I'm not saying I didn't have a pretty sweet gig... I lived with my parents so the price was right; even though my mother cooked it I complained about the food (just like every other college student irrespective of what or where they are eating), but again, the price was right; and my clothes magically got from the hamper to the hanger with neither expense to nor intervention by me (and while I can iron a pleat and starch a dress shirt as well as the corner drycleaner does, doing one's own laundry isn't as glamorous as they make it out to be!). While fire codes, life safety codes, and building codes make for very safe college dorms (less than 6% of college fire fatalities occur in residence halls) I cannot build a dorm room - a single dorm room - for less than $30,000. While it's where I'd want to be in case of hurricane, that kind of construction cost quickly adds up to a lot of debt service. And, counterintuitive though it might sound, folks don't protect, monitor, and clean up after college students for fun... one has to actually pay them. All that makes it tough for any college to be cost competitive with those who cram a half dozen students into a two bedroom two bath singlewide trailer, collecting rent only in cash while still claiming homestead exemption (true story). Unless something goes wrong - like a roommate who doesn't pay or a partygoer suing you because they got injured at your drunken brawl (another true story) - one can usually live off campus more cheaply than he or she can live on campus. But, oh, what you miss. And, while I didn't like paying back my student loans (but I did, because the first two words on the promissory note were "I promise") I didn't do anything spectacular with the few extra bucks I had each month because I lived off campus. Lots of impromptu stuff happens on a college campus. 95% of the fun isn't on the calendar. Living on a residential campus allows one to truly live the college experience, as opposed to commuting back and forth to classes. I wish I had taken advantage of it.

Second, I wish I had traveled. I didn't have a lot of money to spare in college. But, I don't have a lot of money to spare now, or at any other point in my life. Not only is it never cheaper to travel than when in college (they cannot all pull it off, but we have some students do a semester abroad for the incremental price of plane fare), but it is almost always a more intimate way to experience a country. I've been places in China where tourists never go, and had experiences tourists never have, while staying in $8 / night (but that included 3 meals) campus housing. My friends still rave about that semester they spent in the castle thirty years ago! And I have friends that talk about that dinner they had on the ground in India under the stars at that friend of the professor's house a quarter of a century ago. Not all learning happens in the classroom. Or from books. And, much as I hated paying back my student loans, I would have long forgotten the sting of the $25 or $50 extra a month amortized over the life of my student loans before the memories of any of these experiences had begun to fade. And, of course, busy and stressful though college may be (I'm happy to mail anyone who thinks college is a piece of cake one of our Managerial Accounting exams!) one rarely has less constraints on one's time or finances. I should have gone somewhere. Maybe a couple of places.

Third, I wish I had taken more math. I wasn't really a slacker... my undergraduate degree is magna cum laude with dual majors in management and economics with a minor in philosophy. I took enough courses to have a minor in English, but they only allowed two majors and one minor. My doctoral dissertation is actually good, though like all doctoral dissertations, I'm probably the only one who ever read it in its entirety. I've enough master's and doctoral level coursework to teach statistics. And, I've passed the pretty rigorous and insidiously difficult tests required to call myself both a Certified Management Accountant and Certified in Financial Management. But the good stuff -- the actual math math through which the secrets of the universe may be learned -- that I didn't take. I've read Hawkins and Einstein and know that, just beyond the impenetrable veil of the equations, lies great knowledge. I should have buckled down and taken more math.

Live on campus (scrimp somewhere if you must). Travel abroad (get a summer job or put in some overtime if you must). Take math (actual math math) even if you don't really like math. Having spent more time in school than many of my students have spent on planet earth, that's what I wish I had done differently. Thus ends this public service announcement.