As an adult, Tim Wolfe parlayed a lucrative career as a software executive into a return to his alma mater as the University of Missouri's 23rd president. The teen Wolfe? A self-described "unfocused student" who cared more about football, girls and his part-time job at a Columbia gas station.
Those personal details don't often make into the speeches Wolfe typically gives to civic leaders, business owners, alumni donors or state lawmakers. But as he kicked off a statewide "Show Me Value" higher education tour Friday morning in the Moberly High School gym, the 54-year-old prodigal son played to his audience.
"No matter what path you follow, you should include college on that plan," he told more than 300 Moberly eighth- and ninth-graders. "Quite simply, education is a path toward lifelong success."
While few in Columbia — home to both the flagship campus and the four-campus system's headquarters — need a reminder about the university's prominence, the statewide tour is aimed at promoting higher education to Missourians who live outside the state's major cities. Wolfe next heads to St. Joseph on March 22, with additional stops planned in April and May as well once classes resume after summer beak.
Wolfe, who took office in February 2012, said he wants to combat what he sees as a growing national sentiment that devalues the benefits of a four-year college degree and suggests more students should enter the workforce sooner. He didn't gloss over those criticisms, making reference to both spiraling student debt and plunging job placement rates.
He encouraged the students not to be "scared away" by college costs, noting that generous financial aid means many students won't pay the full "sticker price" at the Missouri campuses and other schools. Wolfe also referenced recent research by Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce estimating that those who obtain a four-year degree will earn $1 million more over their lifetime than their counterparts who only graduate high school.
Count 15-year-old Gage Mast among those who took the message to heart.
"It kind of made me want to go to college more," he said. "You see not just your parents want you to go, but somebody else who was successful."
Wolfe isn't the first University of Missouri president to hit the hustings in hopes of propping up higher education's battered image. Elson Floyd, the university's president from 2003 to 2007, took pride in visiting each of the state's 114 counties on a more informal goodwill tour. But his audiences consisted of grown-ups, not kids.
"The more you can personalize it, and they see you as a human being, the (better) it can be," said Moberly High principal Aaron Vitt. "They're used to adults pontificating, being on a pedestal. When you can humanize it, it's more effective."
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Wolfe didn't try to sell the teens too hard on the Columbia campus, which he attended, or the system's other campuses in Rolla, St. Louis and Kansas City.
Not that Mizzou in particular needs much help attracting new students. Enrollment has increased steadily over the past decade, with about 34,000 now calling Columbia home.
Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, said it's rare for those of Wolfe's stature to work so directly on community outreach. He also suggested the personal touch could resonate in ways that reminders from teachers, parents and guidance counselors could not.
"For an awful lot of students who go to college, it's a 12th-grade decision," said Jones, whose nonprofit group works to boost college completion rates. "Some of its not as deliberate and thoughtful as it needs to be."
Jones, a former Indiana higher education commissioner, said Wolfe's visit could help demystify the college experience and get students thinking sooner about what classes to take to prepare for college, how to obtain financial aid or even prompt some early campus visits — an experience he said is pivotal to winning over noncommittal or disinterested prospects.
"A lot of the knowledge these students have of college is from watching basketball games," he said. "They've not been on campus. It makes it more tangible."