Why I Bring It Up
I went to college. I also taught at college, first and second year students, but I’m not talking about any of my former students. I’m referring to my general experience of my peers and the research I did to prepare and grow as a university instructor. I’ve seen students take a really long time to get their undergrad, go into extreme debt, and, in some cases, come out the other side with a degree in something they didn’t really care about. I have a problem with the whole system, even if I believe in lifelong education. Let me break down the issues.
Not Old Enough to Drink, Or Vote in Some Cases, Old Enough to Make Lifelong Decisions
I once saw a quote on Tumblr that made me laugh, but also made me want to cry a little. It said something like “College, where you’re asked to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life, but only a few months ago you had to ask for a pass to go to the bathroom.” In high school, students are treated like ten year olds. To some extent this understandable, but students need to be given mounting responsibility in high school to be able to handle the dramatically higher responsibility of college. Otherwise, most students will revolt against the amount of work required of college. Instead, high school students have their hands held all four years, unless they are in honors or AP courses, where they are taught that the quantity of the work they are given is more important than the quality of the work they are given. I’m not just talking about the workload though. Freshman traditionally take on two huge decisions right away: loans and major.
Let’s face it. Even though there are a lot of colleges out there with a lot of scholarships, there are more college students than there are scholarships and aid. This means that students need to supplement paying for college either by working or by getting loans, and for those with a higher tuition and/or less financial stability, both. I’ve heard a lot of students express a lot of pride over the fact that they paid their own way through college by working, not taking a dime in loans, but this is very unempathetic. First, if any job a student can get is not enough to pay for tuition, fees, and books let alone food, shelter, and gas, than that job is only going to make the situation all the more stressful. Then there are those students who are non-traditional, who have an okay paying job but also have house payments and utilities as well as the other things students need to pay for. There are others that can’t supplement their income any further with work because they have time obligations to family: they have family members they have to take care of. But there could even be those traditional students who don’t have other financial obligations or time obligations but have a learning disability and have to focus an extra amount of time to their education to keep their grades up. So in these situations, the students take out loans. So let’s not act like everyone has a choice in this matter. It becomes a choice between a loan or failure in your education. Then let’s remember that the traditional student is 17-18 years old when they make this decision when previously they were treated like a leper to responsibility by those in charge of their education.
Then there is the major. A lot of kids go to college with a dream, some go with their parents looking over their shoulder, and some go with no clue what they want. This isn’t the best time to decide what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. Students are young and haven’t experienced much, as such, chances are if they have an idea what they want to do with their life, that’s going to change in a year or two. Parents who pay for their children’s college think they have a right to say what their child’s major is going to be. After all, it’s their money. Okay, I get that. But does that mean the child owes their career to their parents as well? Probably not. Students should not sacrifice their whole life (a career can make or break a person’s lifelong happiness) just because their parents are willing to pay for their college. Those that go to college with no clue what they want to do with their lives are going because everyone in their lives have told them that they need to go to college for security, but they get there and meander from major to major because they are still trying to figure out what they want. Or they pick a major based on how hireable they think the major will be. Picking the wrong major is an expensive mistake both financially and emotionally. If two years in, a student decides that pre-law isn’t for them, switching to business means a lot of money. Or sticking through with pre-law when it doesn’t excite interest anymore for four years means paying for something that is worthless to the student at the end because even if they do go to law school and become a lawyer, the career is ultimately unfulfilling. So picking the major in the first years of school, forcing students to forego the required exploration through electives which end up being too costly, can end up ruining a student’s career options and finances. That’s a lot of responsibility.
Open Enrollment vs. the Low Standards of High School
It’s not a secret right now that public elementary and secondary schools’ standards have dropped steadily. This means students leaving before they have gained the basic skills expected of them when they reach college age, including reading, writing, and math. Most of these students if they go to college end up at open enrollment universities, where they sink fast. It’s an awful thing to see a student with a loan or a student with an athletic scholarship failing their classes, even when the university does everything they can to help. With instructors, coaches, and tutors all pitching in, a student who doesn’t know how to spell basic words or doesn’t know that every sentence requires a verb is not going to pass, because no matter how much help the student is given, they still have to do the work themselves. Students can put forth all their effort and still fail. This is possibly the saddest thing to see, but a college instructor can’t in good conscience pass them based only on their go get ’em attitude because in gen eds especially, these skills are needed for the student’s future. Most likely these students should be in remedial courses first, but these cases are hard to catch before a student has failed a few courses.
But students with below standard skills and knowledge are not the only issue with incoming freshmen. The other problem is prep for the amount of work involved in college courses. I’ve known first semester courses that have required eight short papers, with a rough draft and peer edit for each along with weekly reading, and that’s one course. To those not in the know, that’s a freshman composition course. Other first year courses involve a lot of work for points spread out so that no one assignment is make or break, at most equaling a letter grade. As students enter more major based courses, there are less assignments but each with more percentage values, meaning students have less baskets to put their eggs in. If a student likes their major this isn’t an issue, but they first have to get through those heavy gen eds. Students who have never taken an AP or honors course don’t really know how heavy college workloads start out. They bridle against all the work. Having been both student and instructor, at the same too as I was a grad student when I was an instructor, I know what an important balance between student effort and instructor empathy is. Teachers need to understand not that students haven’t experienced this before but that their course isn’t the only one their students are taking. Students need to understand that the work is important and that college (while TV and movies have presented the contrary) is not party time but hard work.This means turning assignments in on time, following instructions, showing up to class both physically and mentally, and most of all, communicating to the teacher when a problem occurs. These are the most basic steps to being successful in those gen eds, but oddly, a lot of students have a problem doing these things and get upset when their grade suffers because they didn’t do these things. They can look at their instructor who is penalizing them for failing at these steps as the enemy. Instead, these students need to understand that they are held responsible for doing the work, and the instructor is not their friend but their evaluator as well as their teacher. After the handholding of high school, this is a hard transition to make.
An Education, Not a Business Transaction
Some students think that because money is involved that they are paying for passing grades in their gen eds. Some of this comes from colleges treating students as customers first. It makes the students think the teachers are there to satisfy them instead of to educate them. This is why the adjunctification of universities, especially open enrollment ones, is so detrimental in the long run. When students who don’t like the amount of work involved in gen eds and who think that they are the customer fill out those course evals, they tend to be very harsh on their instructors. If those instructors are adjuncts, they tend to not have their contracts renewed. Unless, that is, those adjuncts lower their standards to please the “customers”. I haven’t had personal experience of this, but I have heard other former adjuncts testify to this occurrence. These lowered standards result in a worse education. I understand why an adjunct would do this; they need to keep their jobs so they can pay their bills and put food on the table. It’s not really their fault. The idea of student as customer and customer satisfaction as a pivotal part of keeping or letting instructors go is terrible for real education. This is why tenured professors can either be the best or worst instructors at a college. Either they are not afraid of customer satisfaction’s effects on their job, so they hold their students to high standards, or they know that firing them is nearly impossible, so they focus less on teaching and more on research. High standard adjuncts don’t always last long and typically end up floating from college to college. I respect them for holding education over customer satisfaction in the hierarchy of importance. But students need to understand that they are not customers. They are paying for a fair and usable education. They are not paying for an A grade. This is not to say, however, that there are no bad teachers. There are. I knew of one instructor who didn’t give students As on their papers if they didn’t argue what the instructor believed. I refused to take any of those classes, mostly because I can’t do something like that and would have failed. I probably would have argued too much with the instructor for her liking. Versus one instructor I had, several times, who encouraged back and forth. Good instruction means challenging students to think, and especially, to think for themselves. It doesn’t change the fact that students have to put forth effort.
Tuition Costs, Why So High?
In 2008 the housing market crashed big time, and that hurt everybody. Government funding was cut for pretty much everybody too. Most of the funding cuts happened from the state governments because most of them were suffering bad and didn’t have the money to spend on their normal programs. A lot of people were mad about this, but you can’t get blood from a stone. So a lot of universities took a big hit in funding. Then FAFSA made the decision to cut off aid to students after a lesser number of semesters. Retroactively. This meant, quite suddenly, some students lost all their aid. This hurt non-traditional students the most because they take less courses per semester, maybe they only take twelve hours when most traditional students take fifteen to eighteen. This means what takes a traditional student ten semesters takes fifteen or more for non-traditional students. The maximum FAFSA didn’t go up in this time. The reason for this change was so that they didn’t have to lower the maximum aid a student could get. It was a major sacrifice, and it hurt a lot of people. Especially considering that because of the funding cuts colleges took, tuition went up. The problem is we have to ask what the tuition is going to? Almost all colleges are constantly under construction. They spruce up old buildings, build new ones, and buy surrounding land. This is not inherently a bad thing, but quality instructors should come first. If the university is knocking down the president’s house to rebuild it but have an adjunct ratio of 3:4, then they don’t have their priorities straight. If their top administrators are making six to seven figures when their instructors don’t have enough offices or classrooms, then they really don’t have their priorities straight. When choosing a college, one has to look at how the money is spent. If the campus tour doesn’t show many classrooms, instructor areas, or dorm rooms, but they show the ritzy community areas instead, one needs to be a little suspect of how high a value they put on the actual education the school provides. This is not to say that a college can’t have nice community areas and provide a good education, but a little more digging than the sales pitch needs to happen before committing to paying that hefty bill.
Not When, But If
Not everyone needs to go to college. Not everyone wants to go to college. Not everyone will succeed at college. This is not a problem. This country is very pro-college, just as it is very pro-house buying (seriously stop telling millennials to take that risk just because the market needs it). Most people think that to make in this world, you need a college degree. Which is strange considering all those people with college degrees who are unemployed. We can brush this off as people who got degrees in the liberal arts as those guys never get jobs, right? Wrong. Some employers aren’t hiring people who have career focused degrees because they have learned that those people don’t have the critical thinking skills that are so important to self-starting and high responsibility jobs. There are a lot of unemployed people with law degrees. There are a lot of unemployed people with business degrees. These “safe” careers aren’t safe at all. Right now, there is no such thing as a safe career. In fact, there probably never is. So college is not the answer. The answer is hard work, networking, and luck.
Don’t assume that college is for you. Assume lifelong learning is for you. We can all stand to learn more at every stage of life. College is no guarantee of happiness and security. If a person goes to college, he or she should use that time to figure out what they want. There should be no time limit on that, even if FAFSA will run out. If a person figures out he or she wants to major in something seemingly useless and unlucrative, then he or she should go for it anyway. We have one chance at happiness. A false sense of security at the cost of this one chance of happiness is a risk not worth taking. People have gone the safe routes and still lost everything mostly because of luck, but also because they didn’t care. It’s much better to make the choices that are right for you as an individual. My life is not perfect, but I am happy because I know that I’m striving for what I want. College was right for me. The colleges I chose were right for me. My majors were right for me. Make sure that the choices you make are the right ones for you.