Monday, July 13, 2009
We had a lovely vacation in a part of the world we'd never visited before. Our neighbors stay there with some frequency, and we met up with them for dinner one night. They have two daughters, one of whom sometimes babysits TB and TG, and the other of whom is entering her junior year of high school this Fall. Her mother is trying to get her to add some clubs and activities to her schedule, to improve her college applications. A snippet of the conversation:
Neighbor Mom: I'm encouraging her to join some clubs to round out her college application. If she waits until senior year, it'll be too late.
TW: Honey, what do colleges look for?
DD: I dunno. We take everybody.
At which point, I realized that the word 'college' has different meanings.
In some circles, 'college' is an undifferentiated term for a place that other people go to get the kinds of jobs that other people get. It's probably some kind of racket, though the exact workings are hard to detail.
In some circles, 'college' is a place to find a mate, go to football games, and/or party. It's a sort of way station between childhood and adulthood, with no particular connection to the outside world. It's an expected stage of life – it's just what you do after high school – regardless of whether you have any idea what you're doing there.
For some, 'college' is a place to get trained for a job. One college is pretty much the same as any other.
And for some, 'college' is a credential that carries a certain amount of prestige. The prestige, typically, is inversely related to the ease of getting in. (Groucho Marx' line “I would never join a club that would accept me as a member” is a nice summary of this view.) In these circles, phrases like “safety school” and “early decision” and “rounding out the application” carry real meaning.
As a student, I was very much in the last camp, and spent plenty of time and angst trying to get into a sufficiently snooty liberal arts college. (It worked.) But as a professional, I work at an open-admissions college at which the concerns of that last camp are mostly irrelevant. (Mostly, but not entirely; we do a booming business in transfer, including to some pretty prestigious places.)
Each of these points of view has something to be said for it, and each has its own flaws. What struck me, though, is that most people hold one view and consider it pretty much the last word. In some circles, it goes without saying that college is Other. In others, it goes without saying that college is about competitive prestige and getting into the most exclusive one you can. When confronted by an out-of-place viewpoint – like the community college guy shrugging his shoulders at the question of 'what colleges want' – there's just a silence. Although far too gracious to say “that's not what I meant,” the meaning was clear.
The variety of definitions may help explain why the public discourse about higher ed is so deeply confused. People use the same words to mean very different things. If your definition of higher ed is all about exclusivity, then political battle cries of “college for everyone!” are unintelligible at best. If your definition is about job training, then the very idea of an expensive liberal arts college is absurd. If it's about living in dorms and getting away from home, then a community college (or any commuter school) doesn't really count. If it's about upholding tradition, then the prominence of cultural radicals at prestigious places must really grind your gears. If it's about critical thinking, then the culture of college-as-job-training must be like fingernails on a chalkboard.
Wise and worldly readers, when you were 16, what was 'college' to you? And what is it now?
So with this romantic picture in my head I got sucked into the culture of the college obsessed, but I really hated all of the test prep and safety school jargon.
Community college didn't seem to offer that romance, and neither did state schools. The classic Small Liberal Arts College with the study abroad program and the "Great Books" honors curriculum and the brick and ivy campus got a lot closer, so I worked my but off to qualify for scholarships.
My undergrad SLAC was almost like that, actually, or at least I could pretend it was, but by the time I finished grad school at a more prestigious research university, I was pretty damn disillusioned.
In all those choices, college was a means to an end -- a degree and a job. I got both and it took three years after high school.
When I got my masters degree, I wanted an online school (state school with online program). I was a working mom and there's no way I could have gone to a local campus. Again, my goal was to get my degree asap. I finished my masters at CSU in 8 months by doubling and tripling up on courses (and no I never slept for those 8 months).
Our boys chose colleges based on specific needs. Older son chose a prestigious military college where his dad went. Younger son chose the best in-state university for an IT degree. He ended up not liking it and came back home for community college, the finished at a local university. Then a few years later, he went to a local career college to get yet another IT degree.
It all depends on what someone wants and there's definitely a school and/or program to fit the needs of all students.
I had a weird experience with colleges. I'm a third generation professor (really!), and almost all my friends' dads were professors, so once I got over my fireman stage in 4th grade or so, I knew I'd be a prof eventually, it was just a question of when. Oddly enough, though, my family hadn't bought into that whole "get into an elite college" business, so my folks were all about "fit"--whatever place felt right to me. In my case, the stereotypical SLAC college-y atmosphere sucked me in.
Since becoming a prof and seeing the business from the inside, I've come to agree about the importance of fit. How much students learn or what opportunities they have isn't a function of the school's name, it's what they do at college. When people ask me where their kids should go to school, though, they usually don't like it when I shrug and say it doesn't matter too much.
Now I'm a middle-aged career-change adjunct and I'm not certain what it means to me. It DID mean fulfilling my longtime dream of teaching college. Now that I'm staring at adjunct paychecks until I'm 60 I'm not so sure anymore. I like my students and enjoy the classes, but damn, I used to make more in 2 weeks after taxes than I make now for an entire semester before taxes...
When my son was 16 it still meant critical thinking but also launching him into the world of dorms and "college life" (something I never experienced). It definitely meant/means giving him an "in-between" time to finish growing up.
Now that I'm working in a mid-sized commuter state college I find myself trying to plant the idea that critical thinking has a place when you're definition is job-training.
It turned out where I went wasn't a better education than my excellent college-prep high school, so college turned out to be a way station between high school and adulthood where I learned a lot, made a lot of mistakes, and made a bunch of friends.
For my sons, they go to community college to get their gen ed out of the way. The oldest is going to the best in-state school for his field. The youngest plans to go to my alma mater, which is also one of the best in-state schools for his field.
As for what it is now, it's about seeking a diploma and job skills at an economically appropriate place. I'm not spending close to a quarter mil in today's dollars for my kids (if I have them) to major in theater at a SLAC. (These days, I laugh at parents who think their child is doomed if they don't go to an ivy or MIT.)
I was also pretty clear it was just a step on the way to more school; I never really had a conception of a world in which I wouldn't have to go on to ANOTHER set of school after college. (Which I did, for two advanced degrees; as have all of my siblings, so far.)
For virtually all of my peers (99% of my graduating class went on to a 4-year; 1 went to community college, and 1 joined the Navy after his father died unexpectedly graduation week leaving his mother with three minor children to support), college was the expected next step. The difference was that you were either in the "prestige" group, or in the "four-year-bar-tab" group, and I really had endless disdain for the four-year-bar-tab people. I still do, it seems like such a waste. I have a lot more admiration for the job-training students, who at least have a purpose.
Now college is about the experience. I am not doing what I originally majored in, hardly anyone I went to school with is. So college is about learning about what you're interested in and trying to imagine what you want to do next. It's not the end of the world if you don't "do" your major, so at least spend the time studying something you want to.
When I was about 15, "college," to my parents (who were the first in their own families to go to college, and who'd gone to their nearest hometown universities), meant that their kids would remain in the middle class. The flagship state university was where they hoped my brother and I would get in, though they'd have been happy if we went elsewhere.
To me, it meant growing up intellectually, meeting like-minded people, and getting the hell away from my stultifying suburb. I applied almost exclusively to fancy schools, mostly out east (since I believed everyone out east to be much more cultured and worldly than they were out west)--and once I'd started setting my sights on them, at around age 16, my folks got interested in such schools in a research-y, Consumer's Report kind of way: not for their inherent prestige, but because of what they perceived their academic and social environments to be, and what they thought I'd enjoy and benefit from.
In the end, I went to the school I refer to on my blog as Instant Name Recognition U, but my folks would have been perfectly happy if I'd gone elsewhere--and so would I.
My parents' interest in & support for my college search, combined with a total absence of pressure or interest in prestige for prestige's sake, is something I hope to reproduce if I ever have kids myself.
I was really turned off by the state flagship school, which I visited on football game day, but there were a couple of smaller and liberal-artsier choices within the state system. I applied to both of them, as well as one Ivy (rejected) and two private SLACs (one rejection, one acceptance), and ended up at the more academically rigorous of the two public schools, which was a tradition-minded place with plenty of old bricks and ivy. I'm not sure it was quite as self-expressive as I wanted when I was a teenager, and the peer group I found there was certainly more conservative than I'd imagined, but being around people who were Not Like Me was definitely good for me, and I haven't regretted that choice. (College was also the first time I'd found myself surrounded by people who were smarter than I was, and I needed a bit of the cockiness knocked out of me.)
Through all of this, my parents and I took it for granted that I would choose a major that I found enjoyable and intellectually exciting, without worrying too much about the employment prospects. I knew that this attitude was comparatively rare among my peers, but I was a few years older before I recognized it as a mark of class privilege.
I'm still a bit of an idealist, I guess -- I think college ought to be a place where students can discover and follow their passions, whether personal or intellectual, rather than a place for job training. I also feel like it ought to be a place slightly set apart from the pressures of everyday life, where there's time for reading and reflection and self-discovery. I know that's not the reality for many of my students (I teach at a small, medium-selective state university with a high population of commuter students; our most popular majors are education, nursing, and business). But in the back of my mind, it's always been the ideal.
I was involved in a lot of extracurricular stuff, had excellent grades and test scores, and worked in a lab in my free time. I also came from a part of the country where not many people apply out of state, so I got into all nine colleges I applied to.
During the process of interviewing for scholarships and visiting campuses, I realized that at most of these colleges, having a special scholarship meant that I would be one of the only students there whose family really couldn't pay for it. It's not that I hated the people I met, but I couldn't imagine going somewhere where no one else went to a regular public school and had to have a part-time job to make ends meet.
By the time I finished the process, I chose the one school where my scholarship wasn't special; a lot of students got the same financial aid package I did. My classmates were mostly public-school kids from working-class families, with all different attitudes and expectations for college. I was very glad I went where I did.
For the past six years, I've been teaching in a public college system that serves a vast array of students, from some who really struggle with basic academic tasks to intensely striving grad-school-bound types. There are "returning" students of all ages, immigrants from all over the world, lazy stoners, intense nerds, and even a few preppy kids. I love them.
I know that in our profession, it's considered so much more prestigious to teach at those elite, hypercompetitive schools where the students have far more homogeneous origins and academic goals. But I really love the challenge of bringing together a class where no one is in the "majority." A "competitive" college tends to be one in which everyone looks pretty much the same, at least on paper. In a less "competitive" environment, you get all these weird people with amazing stories. It's a lot of the fun of being in the classroom, for me.
If you wait until your third year to take classes in your major, you're going to need at least 7 years to graduate with that chain. Even without prerequisite chains, the typical student cannot succeed with a full load of math, science, and engineering classes. It's quite helpful to have easier general education classes mixed in with higher level classes in your major in later years.
How do community colleges advise students who want to go into math + science fields? While I know you can take your first year science classes at a community college, my local community colleges do not have anything equivalent to my university's first year engineering or second year science classes, making it pointless to spend more than a year in community college for science majors (and almost completely pointless for engineering majors.)
I did choose based somewhat on prestige, but also on a) not being in the same state as my family, b) best English department, c) school committed to life of the mind, great ideas, etc. Ended up at University of Chicago, absolutely perfect place for me. Incredibly happy and satisfying experience. Note that at least a quarter of my classmates were miserable there, though.
Have since taught at community colleges, two small private colleges (one catering to rich kids, one very much not, most students first in family to go to college), one low-residence MFA program, two R1 universities. All interesting and worthwhile work, in their own ways, serving different student populations with different needs. Sad when students clearly not at the school with the appropriate 'fit' for them.
Now an English professor, and my partner is a math professor. For our children, we hope that in college they a) discover their passions, b) are challenged to the best of their abilities, c) have fun, d) learn to think critically, e) transition to adulthood. Not necessarily in that order.
In retrospect, going to a competitive SLAC might not have been the best thing for me; instead I ended up at a relatively small university, UVM (Vt), which turned out to the perfect place for me. I flourished, went on to grad school, worked in industry (geology), taught for 15 years, and have been Deaning around for the last 10.
It was a sobering experience to help my son (now a college Senior) conduct a more 'refined' college search, and realizing that he was too much like me at the same age (albeit with somewhat better grades).
Now if only I hadn't gotten that nasty chronic illness second semester . . . it coulda been pretty cool, really. First semester was awesome, I'll tell you that.
At 16, "college" to me was the campus. I had visited several major universities over the years, the one near home many times, and my impression was of the Place. Open space, a huge library, lots of young adults of about the same age, social and (in particular) political activity bordering on anarchy. (Think about what else was going on when we landed on the moon.) Coffee houses before that meant Starbucks. Lots of interesting people with something for everyone.
And that is pretty much the way I look at them today, only they seem a bit duller.
That also meant that, to me, college was about going out on your own, surrounded by other like-minded people who might be just as smart as I am. That was the other key impression I had when I was 16: that college was going to be more of a challenge than HS was. I got that from my father, and it was a big help. I never viewed it as "grade 13" even though going to college was the expected next step.
When I went to a local CC during high school, the most disappointing thing about it was that it didn't really have a "campus". I think my high school had a bigger campus! The one thing that I really like about the CC where I teach is that we have a real campus. Small, yes, but it has many open areas where students gather, some sculptures, and even a coffee shop -- although it does not blend seamlessly into a neighboring eclectic business area like one finds at many universities.
BTW, one thing is definitely the same: clothing. It simply boggles my mind that some segment of the student body could have been at university with me.
If I could change anything though, I would've chosen another major. In the end it led me to grad school (cause there's only one thing you can do with a BS in physics that's physics - go to grad school). I'm definitely a problem solver personality, but it turned out I'm not really a researcher. Hell of a thing to figure out 4 years into a PhD program.
I went to a college-prep independent school, with a 100% acceptance rate to "college". People who went to Ohio State or Miami of Ohio were viewed as slackers and failures. Of 107 students in my class, about 15 went to the Ivies. I think of college as a place to go learn critical thinking skills, to write well, to get at least a nodding acquaintance with Shakespeare and Calculus and The Bible and Rome and art, to be a well-rounded, articulate, functional member of society.
I went to Bates for undergrad.
At 16, I wanted out of the southern state we had moved to two years before that. I wanted to take classes with people who wanted to be there. I wanted there to be some challenge to learning. I wanted to be in place where it was okay to be smart and people enjoyed talking about ideas.
I got most of what I wanted out of pretigious SLAC education. I got to study what I wanted with little pressure from my parents about how that would relate to finding a job. My father is a sociologist and my mother didn't find her career until she was forty, so they really had no space to talk about a career oriented education.
I got smart classmates and excellent professors. I got friends who sometimes stayed up way too late talking about ideas and sometimes stayed up way to late talking about nothing of substance. These people are still some of my dearest friends.
I also got out of many responsibilities of being an adult. I lived on campus with a meal plan. Other than school work, I had no actual responsiblities other than a 10 hour a week campus job, where I did lots of studying.
After a few years in the real world, I got a professional masters degree at an R1 university. It was kind of culture shocks. My department didn't have undergrads, but I was kind of shocked by the attitude toward them. I wanted to point out that I could write a really good research proposal because I had to attempt several as an undergrad with many revisions.
I was also kind of shocked at how Mickey Mouse the undergrad work seemed. Other than class that involved problem sets (math, econ), basic foreign language grammar, I never took any tests in college that were not "write an eassy about X using examples from the course readings." Those kinds of things were apparently pretty common. Probably because classes were huge.
Getting to spend four years studying political science with electives like "Images of Women in Greco-Roman Antiquity," was lots of fun. I'm a kick ass trivial pursuit player. I was qualified to do nothing or a little bit of everything depending on how you looked at it.
Graduate school was also lots of fun, but such a different animal. To me college means my undergrad days and grad school is grad school.
I'm learning that those experiences were somewhat unique and I was very privledged to have them. Some people would hate it and find it absurdly useless.
Even with a graduate degree, I am pretty much qualified to write things, analyze things, and talk about how Congress and the bureaucracy work. Luckily, I live in DC where those are actually considered to be useful skills.
Mary, I loved "Tam Lin" too. I went to the school that was the model used for the college in the book, so lots of our fun was matching up our real world and the fictional world. Fiction was of course more exciting than reality.
When I was 16 and attending a math/science magnet school, college was what everybody was expected to aim for, which made me the odd (wo)man out. For me, college was a trap, a place which slotted you into the system.
As for the nature of the "college" beast, well, growing up in California and studiously avoiding all college recruiters and guidance counselors, I had a vague sense that there were 4 tiers: "University" Snooty elite private colleges like Harvard, Wellesley, Smith (no, I didn't know anything about these places other than that they were "name" schools), and then the three levels of the state system. The UC system still felt like "university," while the Cal State system was clearly college, but didn't carry the weight my friends assigned to university. Communitycollege was not college. It was great for continuing education, at whatever pace worked for your life.
In my mid-20s I took a few classes at community college to keep the cost of my massage training down. I discovered that I was finally ready to develop some study skills, and school became fun again. I came to take great joy in the fact that CSU students who enrolled in our CC science courses because they would be "easier" always ended up awed by the great education they were getting. I had immense school pride, and will always be a strong proponent of community colleges.
When I decided to go for my 4-year degree, I was still stuck in the California-system mindset. This means I was torn between going to a UC, where I would get the "immersive" experience (basically, limited commuter population) and going to a Cal State, where I would get to work directly with my professors, who I imagined would be at least as awesome as my CC profs had been. My mother suggested I look into a liberal arts college, where I might find both; at this point I realized I'd never really understood the differences among those "university" places I'd heard about in my youth.
But more importantly, college was a way for me to learn so much more than I was allowed to learn at Crazy Religious. I was so hungry to learn. I wanted to read all the books I wasn't allowed to read at school. I tried to read many of them on my own, but at 16 in that kind of environment, it's sometimes difficult to figure out what one should be reading. I wanted to take science classes taught by scientists, not music teachers. I wanted to be allowed to question.
I went to a SLAC with a church affiliation, because I knew I would have been lost on a huge campus (there were 11 people in my HS graduating class), and I hoped the church affiliation would keep me from ending up at a party school. It did. The church's role at the college was minimal, but it led to rules that I liked (no smoking or drinking on campus, no overnight guests in the dorms).
College was a wonderful experience for me. I finally got to be around people who wanted to learn and who viewed learning as a good thing, not a threatening thing. When I was 16, I wanted college to be the start of a new life, and it truly was.
Somehow I ended up a prof at an R1, yet my oldest was still like me at that age. Not thinking ahead.
My youngest is 16 now, has a different kind of brain, and wants to cure world poverty and then staff for Obama, ASAP. He's ivy bound, if at all possible, and certainly has the work ethic and smarts to do it. We just try to keep him well rested and calm, and otherwise stay out of his way as he racks up the AP and SAT scores. It's quite a sight and we take no credit, but won't mind if he introduces us to the president some day.