What I Wish My Students Knew
There was a really wonderful and moving article in the New York Times the other day about how for poor students, getting to college is only the beginning of the battle. They often fail to thrive at college, and end up leaving early with giant debts. One ex-student discussed in the article dropped out and is a clerk in a furniture store with $60,000 in student loan debts.
The article has much food for thought about how class can affect their university success or failure. One aspect, however, particularly jumped out at me. Take the anecdotes below:
Despite all the campus visits, choices were made without the intense supervision that many affluent students enjoy. Bianca, anchored to the island by family and an older boyfriend, chose community college. Melissa picked Texas State in San Marcos because “the application was easiest”…
Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the affluent also enjoy an advocacy edge: parents are quicker to intervene when their children need help, while low-income families often feel intimidated and defer to school officials, a problem that would trail Melissa and Angelica in their journey through college…
But Angelica had failed to complete all the financial aid forms.
Slow to consider Emory, she got a late start on the complex process and was delayed by questions about her father, whom she did not even know how to reach. Though Emory sent weekly e-mails — 17 of them, along with an invitation to a program for minority students — they went to a school account she had not learned to check. From the start, the wires were crossed….
The answer is buried in the aid archives: Emory repeatedly inflated her family’s income without telling her.
Angelica reported that her mother made $35,000 a year and paid about half of that in rent. With her housing costs so high, Emory assumed the family had extra money and assigned Mrs. Lady an income of $51,000. But Mrs. Lady was not hiding money. She was paying inflated post-hurricane rent with the help of Federal disaster aid, a detail Angelica had inadvertently omitted…
She discovered what had happened only recently, after allowing a reporter to review her file with Emory officials. “There was no other income coming in,” she said. “I can’t believe that they would do that and not say anything to us. That seems completely unfair.”
Emory officials said they had to rely on the information Angelica provided and that they will not make retroactive adjustments.
“The method that was used in her case was very standard methodology,” said J. Lynn Zimmerman, the senior vice provost who oversees financial aid. “I think that what’s unusual is that she really didn’t advocate for herself or ask for any kind of review. If she or her mother would have provided any additional information it would have triggered a conversation”…
Meetings with faculty advisers were optional and Angelica did not consult hers. When it came time to declare a major, she had a B-plus average in the humanities and D’s in psychology. She chose psychology….
Another missed deadline cost her several thousand dollars in aid in her senior year, and Emory mistakenly concluded that Mrs. Lady had made a $70,000 down payment on a house. (In describing the complicated transaction with a nonprofit group, Angelica failed to note that most of the money came from a program for first-time home buyers.)
I have taught at an enormous flagship state university for the past eight years. There’s an enormous range of students. The top 10% or so would thrive at an Ivy League. The bottom 10% are, frankly, functionally illiterate. And there’s a vast, lost middle. It’s a racially, ethnically, socio-economically very diverse group.
While this article focused on how students from a certain economic class functions at college, I can’t know for sure what class my students come. But I see in the kinds of mistakes a very similar pattern that I see in a large number of my students. Much has been written about the fact that students enter college unable to write. And, hells yeah, I could tell you stories. That is undeniably true. There is a larger problem, however, and one that can be seen in the students above. Many of them, quite simply, do not know how to be students.
They are rudderless. Many seem to have no idea why they are in college. I often ask this of students at the beginning of the semester. They really seem to have no clue. It’s not that they are there for the goal of a liberal arts education in itself and are not yet career-focused. That is a perfectly legitimate goal. They literally have no fishing clue why they are there. Because that’s what you do. You go to college. Some will say in the vaguest of terms that they hope that it gets them a better job.
The problem with this approach to college is that there are no standards. A goal keeps you on track. It helps you with course selection and grade goals. Rudderless students drift around, accumulating random courses. They have no idea what constitutes a good grade. I have had students plead with me that they need to do well in this class – they need a C (or they will get kicked out). They think Cs are acceptable grades. They are (or their parents are) paying for this. Most likely going into debt. To what end? They don’t hand in assignments, they don’t show up, they do facebook in class. And in weird way, this makes sense. If you don’t know why you are there, why would you do your work?
They do not know what graduate schools want. So I do have some students who say they have goals. Most frequently, law school (I teach philosophy). Some think that a 2.8 GPA is pretty good. Or a B in an upper level class in their major. So they aim for a B thinking that will be sufficient. I have had students ask me for a letter of recommendation, and I tell them that it cannot be a strong one and they should find someone else. Or I don’t know them well. “Oh, that’s all right. I really liked your class. I’d still like you to write it.”
They do not have basic organizational and time-management skills. This is always a struggle for me, so I am sympathetic. But the degree to which students are unfamiliar with the very basics of time management and organization is a huge detriment to their ability to function. This is not just a matter of rushing a paper the night before it is due. It doesn’t surprise me at all to know that students would miss deadlines that would cost thousands.
Each assignment comes with a volley of email enquiries about when it is due, despite the fact that it is on the syllabus. So does the final exam, despite there being one final exam schedule for the university. I have a weekly quiz that is done online from home. One student complained recently, as many have, that it was impossible to remember to do it. I suggested she set up a calendar with weekly email reminders. She apparently didn’t know you could even do that. In another class, I allowed students to arrange a change in due date if they had a lot of work due right around that time. One student asked me how he would know that he had a lot of work right then. I explained that he would take all his syllabi and enter the due dates into a calendar and take a look. He didn’t know what I was talking about so I actually opened Google calendar and showed him. He listened with some interest, but was also looking at me like my organizational mania might indicate some form of high-functioning Asperger’s.
I post all their grades online during the semester. It displays a running weighted total. Yet many students never check this all semester long and are shocked! at the grade they get at the end.
They can lack basic social skills. At least, with their professors. Their emails can be informal, demanding, grossly ungrammatical. They do not show up for office hours if they need help, and clearly feel very uncomfortable when they do. They don’t know how to address an adult politely yet firmly. This includes if I have made a mistake – some types of students will not tell me this out of nervousness. And of course, they need to be able to do this.
They do not act as if I might be in a position to assess them for graduate school or work. After announcing the date of the final exam in class twice (which is, by the way, posted on a general university exam schedule), I sent an email saying that if anyone else asked me the date of the final, I would tear my hair out and run screaming down the street. Two days later, of course, someone sent an email (I paraphrase), “Hey prof, I think u said u didn’t want to tell us again, but lol I forgot when is the final?!?!”
They are irrational about grades. They will have a meltdown about a missed quiz worth what works out to be 1% of their grade, and do a half-assed job on a paper worth 25% of their grade.
Someone should be teaching them all this, no? Only go to college if you know why you’re there. Once you’re there, here’s what you do. I guess their parents are not. Many parents, I’m sure, didn’t go to college and can’t teach this. I guess their high schools and guidance counselors are not. Maybe it is the job of the university to give some sort of boot camp. Our university does this actually, to the lowest ranked admitted students. Maybe it should be for everyone. I don’t know if it helps. I don’t think it’s fair to say that this is stuff they should just know. Maybe following the syllabus, yes. Although the importance of that ought to be reinforced. But, say, social skills and knowing what constitutes a good grade doesn’t just come by osmosis.