Buying In

The concept of ownership has been a big discussion point for me over the past week in various settings and with various audiences. Partially it’s had to do with the responsibilities that accompany horse ownership, but many of the conversations have become conceptual in nature as they’ve gone on and I’ve found that all come to rest around a central point: the idea that ownership of anything (a horse, a home, a college education) is a bit of an “all or nothing” principle and that to get the most out of whatever it is, you really need to be all in if you wish to be successful.

Let me explain:

Having just purchased a weanling FEI dressage prospect last December (and yes, technically they’re all FEI prospects at that age), my responsibility to him as an owner is to make sure that he has the right nutrition to feed his growing body, teach him to stand quietly for the farrier and vet, to stand tied, to clip and bathe and trailer and all of the other basic components that will make up his everyday life. And while I don’t need to drill these things into him every day (it’s too cold in the Midwest for baths right now anyway), I must commit one hundred percent to his education if I want him to have the best chance of fulfilling his FEI potential.

Thus, not only do I own the horse, but I also own his future.

A college education is much the same. (No. Really. It is.) Even though much of the college conversation centers on where a student gets admitted and how much scholarship money he or she might be offered, that’s not really where ownership of one’s education (and future) kicks in. That’s the shopping part of the equation, the part where students and parents examine what’s available on the market and how it fits (or doesn’t fit) their needs and wants. That’s the part I went through before purchasing my yearling colt – the part where I said I wanted a three-year-old bay Dutch Warmblood gelding with a certain pedigree and a set of particular characteristics. (Ask me how that turned out.) But the thing about the shopping process (for colleges or horses) is that you can amend the search criteria at any time or you can suspend the search altogether and walk away.

You don’t own anything when you’re searching for it.

But after you commit – after money changes hands and you’ve purchased a horse or paid the first semester of tuition to your chosen college – you’re an owner. That ups your level of responsibility considerably – as in, from zero to Mach 5. You’re responsible for not only going to your classes, but learning from them. That means listening actively and taking notes – after all, Organic Chemistry isn’t typically learned through osmosis. (And if you don’t get the osmosis reference, you really need to listen closely in your science courses.)

You’re responsible for addressing inevitable challenges and problems when they appear. That means going to office hours hosted by your professor or study groups led by your TA so that you can ask questions and get help. That means talking with your RA or the residence hall director if you have roommate concerns or if the heat in your room malfunctions and needs repair.

You’re responsible for joining clubs and activities available to you outside of class – and then showing up when they meet and participating in events and assuming responsibility for helping them meet their goals.

In short, you’re the owner of your own educational experience – it will only ever be as great or horrible as you make it.

And that’s what I think a lot of people overlook when they enter the college search: The goal isn’t just to “get in;” the goal is to find a school where you can obtain the education you need to carry you into the next step of life. It doesn’t matter what college or university you get into if you don’t put any effort in to learning once you’re there – you can be at Harvard or Yale, but if you don’t go to class or do your homework, you won’t gain full benefit of the experience. It’s like paying an astronomical sum for the horse that carried last year’s Maclay winner to victory and then parking him in a field and watching him get fat and out of shape – sure you own him on paper, but you certainly haven’t exactly gone out of your way to gain the full benefit of what he might be able to teach you.

There was an editorial on Horse Collaborative last week that told parents under no uncertain terms not to buy their kids a really nice horse, the writer’s argument being that kids who are handed nice horses don’t develop the same dedication to the sport as those who have to fight and scramble for every ride, no matter how good (or bad) the horse. Put into the context of the college search, it makes me think about students who may perceive that, because they’ve gained admission to a notable college or university, their work is done and that the name and prestige of the college alone will be enough to make them successful, even if they don’t apply themselves to the work assigned.

In fact, it’s just the opposite.

So whether you’re buying your first (or next horse) or finding the right-fit college for your next four years students, remember that owning something that important carries with it tremendous responsibility on your end – and be ready to step up and commit to it wholeheartedly.

(And if you need help in the search process, contact me or pick up a copy of my book.)

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