What I Learned When I Went Back To College

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It was Accepted Students Day at the University of Miami. My daughter Juliana and I had been on the campus for all of fifteen minutes, but the decision was a no-brainer: yes, I would enroll for the upcoming fall semester.

Earth to John… (Crackle)… Earth to John…

Oh, right. Julie had been invited to become a Miami Hurricane, not me. Forgive my flight of fancy. But do you blame me? The Miami campus is an oasis, especially for sun-deprived Rhode Islanders on the heels of a long winter. Fountains splash, palm trees sway, skateboarders glide by. There’s an Olympic-size pool near the main green – an outdoor pool with a towering diving platform.

And that’s just the beginning of the seduction. Zip cars are available to U Miami students for quick jaunts off campus. The fitness center is like a Gold’s Gym on steroids. The football team plays at Sun Life Stadium, which is also home to the Miami Dolphins; students get free tickets and are shuttled to and from games in coach buses. Dining services in no way resemble the Ratty of my college days. Multiple food options beckon: Asian? Vegan? An omelette cooked to order, perhaps? Count me in, director of enrollment. I’m hungry for more than knowledge.

The student guide for our campus tour was a neuroscience major. Pleasant and peppy, she covered all the bases – departmental buildings, dorm security, internship opportunities, Greek life, how kids do their laundry. And then she sprinkled in this gem: during finals week, the president of the college strings hammocks from the palm trees on campus for supine cramming. Beats the library!

Speaking of the president, she is none other than Donna Shalala, former Secretary of Health and Human Services for the Clinton administration. In her welcome remarks at the BankUnited Center, President Shalala called attention to a student wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt in a slide show photo. “He’s dressed for winter,” she noted. Ah, playing the weather card. That’s smart. Not going to see that when we visit Syracuse.

President Shalala had a couple more cards to play: a slide of her former boss Bill, sitting in on a class, and photos of candidates Barack and Mitt during campus visits last year. Throughout the arena, parents of political science majors wrote their deposit checks, breathlessly.

You don’t need an MBA to know that higher education is a high-stakes business; just look at a tuition bill. Schools cast fancy brochures into our mailboxes, luring us with rankings from Peterson’s and The Princeton Review; amenities that rival a luxury resort; sparkling testimonials from current students; lists of notable alumni. And we get hooked. Our teens submit numerous applications and wear acceptances like badges. We travel to campuses in search of the “right” school.

But choosing is more art than science – there is no single right answer. While a college may mold our kids, it won’t make them. That is in their own hands, no matter where they go.

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