Community in Higher Education

Primary and secondary education make it a point to try to involve parents in the education process. Just today someone was telling a story about how her child receives checklists from school so that parents know what homework the student should be completing over the week. Schools regularly host parent-teacher conferences. Debates around the merits of a “neighborhood school” versus busing or other means of integration still rage.

Not so much in higher education. It’s as though higher education expects 17-18 year olds to be full formed adults even though part of what we do is shape young people into citizens; at least by the old education is a “public good” standards. We are supposed to know that they aren’t fully formed adults. Yet, why do we cut off their parents abruptly?

With regard to first generation and low-income students cutting off family can be especially traumatic. Research shows that community can be especially important for minoritized students, and first generation and low-income students are similar. When you have had to come together as a community to find ways to defeat racism, or survive fiscally then it can become unfathomable to break from the community when one goes to school. And why should someone do so? The way higher education speaks about access often seems like implicitly marginalized students should reject their home communities and join this “better” way of doing things. The conversation implies that socialization into the academy requires putting away  all that came before.

If we are going to meet the access and completion agendas we have to find better ways to incorporate communities into higher education. It is perfectly fine to expose students to new ideas. It is not okay to for educators to bury their heads in the sand and not try to find ways to incorporate students’ culture and home communities into the college going culture and process. There are many skills that marginalized students bring with them that do not fit neatly into existing frameworks, but those skills may be what leads to new ways of thinking, not only in the classroom, but in the workplace.

Building college going cultures requires incorporating whole families so that they understand what their young person is heading off to do, and thus, the family can support it. Building family into the culture also may save dollars because college going programming may not have to be repeated with younger siblings if parents/guardians also learn the process.

At its heart education is a community process and for it to be effective beyond one person then the community has to be involved from start to finish.

MOOCs and Being First Gen

In our office we recently had our first dust up with MOOCs, or massively open online courseware. A student was attempting to transfer in an edX class and we had to figure out how to explain that this type of credit was not sufficient for our institution.  I have nothing against MOOCs for personal enrichment. edX seems to offer a wonderful array of courses for anyone who wishes to be a lifelong learner. The danger is when students do not know the difference.

Many MOOC sites do explain that their courses may or may not count for academic credit at a traditional college or university, but sometimes this information is hard to find. If you find yourself unsure about your classes and whether they transfer look for a few key things:

  • Are there any admissions requirements? A regionally accredited university requires some sort of documentation that you attended and completed high school or a GED equivalent. This is true of for-profit, online education and traditional non-profit schools. If a site allows you to take classes without any such documentation then it is likely that the site is meant for “fun” and not mean to be transferable.
  •  Are the classes free? With the budget cuts all American colleges are experiencing you can trust and believe that no credit-bearing class is going to be free.
  • Is the site separate from the main university site? Many of these courses are taught by faculty from prestigious institutions such as MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley, but unless you have gone through the admissions process at the main university site then you are not enrolling in an actual course from these institutions.

MOOCs are a wonderful way to enrich your life and help you really hone a knowledge base. I liken them to the Khan Academy, which helps refresh a student’s memory on concepts long forgotten, or even reinforces what one learned in traditional classes. However, if your desire is degree attainment then please reach out to the admissions counselor at your local community college, or four-year public or private university.

Square Peg – Round Hole

As a practitioner in higher education I see students at all stages of growth simultaneously. It is not unusual for my day to begin with an undeclared freshman and end with seniors ready to tear into the world. One thing I’m noticing across the spectrum is a disconnect between desired occupation and the requisite skills needed to join the occupation.

Most recently I’ve seen students interested in prestigious companies, agencies, or titles, but with little desire to learn the skills necessary to reach those positions. For example, one may want to work for the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund, and yet, not want to travel abroad, not want to experience a culture that does not speak English, and yet wants to train workers who may go abroad. Another example, is a student who wishes to go to law school but hates writing. In fact these students typically emphatically dislike any course that includes writing. In discussing options with these students it can be challenging to steer them toward their interests and aptitudes while not appearing to crush the dream they’ve had since they were seven. However, we must challenge these ideas if we are to be of service to our students.

The disconnect between skill and desire is coming from multiple aspects of a student’s life. Some students are pressured by parents to get a “good job.” Other students are listening to the reports that say if they do not major in science, engineering or mathematics (STEM) then they are doomed. Other students are looking at their student loan balance reports and are trying to head for the sure bet come hell or lack of interest in a field. Inevitably these students fail miserably in their courses or eventually in their ability to get a job because they cannot articulate a true purpose for why they are interested in their subject of study. These students are outperformed by those who actually want they thing, whatever it is, that they are going for.

It is debatable whether the United States really needs more STEM graduates. It is certainly debatable that humanities and social science degrees do not pay off. The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Handbook shows art students doing fairly well: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/home.htm. These students are not wealthy, but they aren’t impoverished either. What I see in my work is that regardless of the degree, if the holder is not enthused about the work then the job hunt is merciless as they are beat out by passionate and skilled individuals. Toning down the rhetoric that one must be in one field to do well would go a long way to ensuring that students choose majors and careers that are a good fit.

On “Constructive” Criticism

Part of my role as an advisor is to work with students interested in applying to graduate school. Graduate school is a very expensive, and time consuming proposition, and in meetings with students I am very honest about with them about the experience.

Recently, a student was not happy with my advice as evidenced by the nastygram, disguised as a thank you note, sent to my office. This student objected to me noting that her grades and grade point average were not up to the standards of the schools in which she is interested.

Sometimes the truth hurts and there is no way around the facts. For competitive doctoral programs, that often only admit 6-8 students, obtaining admission directly out of an undergraduate program with a gpa under a 3.5 and low GRE scores would take a bit of luck. There is no way to artfully explain that, nor do I think it would have been a service to the student to not be straight with her. The graduate school application process alone can cost a minimum of $500 once one considers GRE fees, application fees, and transcript request fees. Furthermore, more and more people are heading to graduate school to hide from the recession. The competition is fierce for anyone.

I’m not sure what the student expected regarding her appointment. Her complaint was that telling her the numbers for graduate school admission was not “constructive.” However, what I do know that providing sound advice, even if it isn’t what the student wants to hear is my job.I do hope that she is accepted at her schools of choice.

 

No Such Thing as “Backup” Education

I met with a nervous and scared student recently. This student thrives in artistic arenas. However, instead of following her gut and just majoring in theater she was double majoring in a subject in which she had no interest. You could tell that the student had zero interest in the subject through both her body language and her grades! While in my office she was crunched into a ball while talking about the second major, and her grades in the classes were quite different from her stellar marks in theater.

So why was the student torturing herself? She believed the hype. She believed that there are no jobs out there for people in the arts, and she added the second major to boost her chances of getting a job. However, what she didn’t know has tanked her grade point average. First, the second major she undertook requires a graduate degree to even begin to make more money than she could as an artist. Second, the job market for that sector isn’t strong either. Third, there are plenty of theater venues in Washington, D.C. and her time would have been better spent gaining experience than taking on coursework for which she had no zeal.

Fortunately, this student has one-year remaining of her formal undergraduate education, and she came to check-in with her advisor instead of waiting until the last minute to do a graduation review. The lessons I hope students learn from this young lady is that there really is no such thing as backup education. If you aren’t invested in what you’re learning then you simply won’t do well, and low GPAs can make life more challenging than being in the “wrong” major.

Follow your talents.

Fish in the Wrong Water


This morning I spoke with a very concerned mother regarding her son’s ability to cope with the social environment of the University.  This family is affluent enough to afford private school tuition, but doesn’t take trips to Aspen every weekend to ski, nor do they vacation in Europe on a regular basis.  The family is making sacrifices to give this student the opportunity to attend this very expensive institution.

What is the problem you say? Well, many, though not all, students here are able to afford lavish lifestyles, and it makes other students feel as though they cannot keep up or fit in.  What the mom and student do not know is that MOST of our students are receiving some sort of financial aid.  That MOST of our students aren’t traveling the world.  This student feels out of place when he really is the norm.  Nonetheless, these facts don’t negate this student’s feelings of inadequacy.

Here are a few tips to combat the affluence blues:

1) Before you apply ask students about the social climate of the school.  Usually, the admissions office will pair prospective students with current students. Ask them to honestly tell you what the campus environment is like.  What is even better is a visit before you sign on the dotted line committing to attend.

2) Find activities where you can be an All-Star Rookie Freshman. One of the biggest problems for students is not finding a venue where they excel. They are bored with their high school activities, or are unable to continue them at the college level, and don’t know what to do next. College is the time to try things you’ll never have time to do when you have a full-time job so try what interests you.  Join a greek organization, intern somewhere, play ultimate frisbee and touch football, and attend student government meetings.  Feeling like you excel at something is one of the easiest ways to be happy.

3) Choose a major that matches your abilities.  Number three should probably be number one.  Many students want a proscribed career track that guarantees a lifetime of comfortable earnings.  However, many of these same students actually hate the classes that go with that proscribed major. They are prospective pre-med students who hate biology and chemistry.  They are engineering students who hate math.  These students end up failing these courses not because they aren’t capable, but because they are following a path that is a bad fit for them.  One of the best things you can do for yourself is be honest about your desires and abilities and act on them.  The path may not be straight and narrow, but it’ll be one where you can succeed above your expectations.

Get Advised Early and Often

graduation day
Graduation Day

At some universities your academic advisor may contact you.  He or she may send you an email to your school email account reminding you of upcoming deadlines.  However, at many universities academic advisors expect you to take responsibility for your education.  They expect that if you have a question then you will come in and ask!

There is nothing more heartbreaking than telling a student that he or she cannot graduate on time because they are missing requirements.  Usually when this happens I have tried to contact a student several times.  Emails were sent.  Nonetheless, all of my efforts are naught as I have to send the final email which begins: “I regret to inform you but. . .”

The students who do not run into major problems are the ones who come to see me early and often.  They ask questions about policies they do not understand.  The ask whom they can speak with regarding special circumstances.  They send emails asking me to look over their degree plan and potential course schedule.  In other words, the best students aren’t the ones who know everything, but they do know where to go to find answers.