Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Overheard in the Locker Room

One of the consolations of middle age is that it brings the power of invisibility.  That brings with it a certain amount of unintentional eavesdropping.

Earlier this week, as I was getting changed in the locker room before work, I overheard a retiree -- I’d put him around 70 -- talking to a student who I’d put around 19.  The exchange:

Retiree: Enjoy yourself now, young man.  Once you start working and join the real world, the party’s over, yes, sir.

Student: Actually, I work about 45 hours a week now.  I have afternoon shifts at (local employer).

Retiree: You do?  When do you do your homework?

Student: (laughs) It’s hard.

The exchange, as short as it was, gave me pause.  From the tone of it, I don’t think either man was kidding or pranking; it sounded pretty straightforward.  But the assumption gap between the two was glaring.

The older man seemed to assume that college was a relatively carefree time in which a young man could spent most of his time, well, being young.  That’s a popular image of college, and there’s ample historical precedent for it.  

But the younger man is living in a very different world.  For him, college is one set of time commitments among others, and his days are all about time management.  Just the fact that he was in the gym at dark o’clock in the morning suggested a certain density to his day; at that age, I was dead to the world at that hour.  (I assume he has some “being young” time in there somewhere; some things don’t change.)  

The perception gap between them matters, I think, because the older man’s cohort has far more political power than the younger man’s.  Among the people who actually make the decisions that impact everyone, the idea of college as a sort of sybaritic retreat is still the default assumption.  And they make decisions based on that.  Cut the Pell lifetime limit by a third?  Sure, why not?  They’re just goofing off anyway...

But they’re not.  They’re working harder than most of us did at that age, at greater cost and greater risk.  

For some reason, that message still comes as a surprise to many, even to those of us in positions to know better.  It’s easy to fall into “kids today...” laments if you don’t look very hard, or if you look backwards with rose-colored glasses.  (I went to college before the era of handheld internet devices.  Kids did crosswords in class.  Distraction is not new.)  That’s harmless enough when it’s confined to cranky observations about, say, pajama pants in class.  But when we base public policy on it, it’s destructive.

Is there a better narrative out there to describe the world as current students actually experience it?  Preferably one that doesn’t involve eavesdropping in locker rooms?

The flip side to this, of course, are the students who really WANT to be working but can't find a job, and so are forced to take on even more debt.
I worked part-time through community college and I only knew a few people that didn't work. I've been full-time since then and now I'm going back to school full-time, still working 40+ and trying to be a good dad.

I can't really afford my school loans on my current salary so if I don't get a higher paying job in short order I'm going to double-down and go to grad school I've hard of the carefree college years, but I've never seen them.
I'd add that there is a class issue along with an age issue at play here. The people who have political power now didn't need to work 45 hours a week and take courses, not only because it was less of a norm then, but also because the wealthier you are, the more power you have. The cynic in me doubts that in 50 years, when this man is 70, the political movers and shakers of his cohort will have memories of working full time and begin a student full time. They will more likely have had the luxury to have been young in college.
I'm not so sure about that last comment, since half of the current major-party Presidential candidates have a clear memory of working a few years between college and graduate school and having to deal with substantial student loans.

Your point about the number of students working is well taken, and it is important to distinguish between the 10-hour work-study jobs (which were not uncommon when I was a student decades ago) and kids working 20 hours to afford school even when on a scholarship.

The only way to have a better narrative is to have actual time-series data rather than anecdotes. However, my observation of politics in the last decade (as well as one fund-raising campaign by my CC) suggests that anecdotes are more powerful than data, and that they are strongest when voiced by the persons themselves than told by another.

What I wonder about is the success rate for different groups, which also has public policy implications. My impression is that the person working many hours (perhaps even full time with a family) and paying for a part-time schedule out of pocket does better than the person taking a full load to qualify for financial aid while also working part time.
What you're overhearing and describing leaves out the wide continuum in between. A few examples: parents who could afford to support their kids in CC (or 4-year) but opt not to; kids who want to move out of parents' home so must work full-time; young people who actually like work better than school, so make a conscious decision to put more hours into work than school for their own mental health; people whose employers will pay for school as long as they continue to work full time or close to it; and so on. The older gent was forgetting that these patterns have always existed. Good for the younger one for pointing out reality to him.
The truth is, college is like pregnancy. It can be the best, most profound, meaningful and exciting experience of your life, or the most stressful, alienating and soul-destructive time. Or, confusingly, both extremes for the same person at different time points. Too much depends on someone's particular circumstances and viewpoint to generalize.

Well, maybe that was grad school more than college. But really (and it may have just been my age/developmental stage), the ups and downs of undergrad were the most extreme.

Bully for all three of you being at the gym at dark o clock, but especially bully for the young guy.
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It's worth mentioning that having to work during college can restrict your choice of majors. The hard science courses have long labs and it can be hard to schedule those and classes around work. I wanted to major in physics, but I needed to be available to work either in the mornings or in the afternoons. In order to take physics and chemistry, I would have had to take labs that ran as late as 4pm along with science/math lectures in the mornings.

And, in general, the more someone has to work the less flexible they will be in their school schedule which could lead them to major in whatever is available when they don't have to work.
The narrative is...that there are a million narratives. Yes, there are some students for whom the college experience is one long party. Just like the retired gentleman suggested. For others, the vast majority being others, college is an exercise in compromise, time management, exhaustion, financial management and perseverance.

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