Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Dropoff

Although community colleges have a more age-diverse student population than most of the rest of higher ed, the average age of cc students has been dropping for a while. Our fastest growth sectors are traditional-aged students and dual-enrollment students still in high school. Since we're getting more of the classic fresh-out-of-high-school crowd, we're seeing more first-time parental dropoffs than in the past.

Dropoffs at cc's aren't the same as dropoffs at many four-year schools, since most cc's don't have dorms. (This is apparently starting to change in New York.) More commonly, it isn't a dropoff at all, but the student living at home and driving himself to and from school. But psychologically, it's still very much a milestone.

In a way, I envy the dorm-bearing schools their clarity. When Taylor is dropped off at the dorm, and the car has one less person in it heading home, it's hard not to notice the change. At commuter colleges, the change is easier to ignore. Last year she spent her days at high school, this year at college, what's the difference?

It's a big one. And it's easy to forget after all these years.

In the K-12 system, as a student, your course is mostly charted for you. Yes, there are a few elective slots in high school, but the basic trajectory is pretty much given. This is especially true if you live in one of those districts where college is the default assumption for high school grads. With a relatively clear path, there's an institutional emphasis on keeping you on the path. And you don't have to think too much about the path, since it's fairly obvious.

In college, for most people, that clarity is gone. (Some very clearly-defined tracks exist in selected majors, but they're exceptions.) And the abrupt shift from clarity to confusion is even tougher when combined with suddenly living away from parents, if that happens. (Every January we get a non-trivial number of 18 year olds who 'went away' to college in September, only to fall victim to the uncertainties and temptations of dorm life. They come to us for a fresh start under their parents' watchful eyes.) Suddenly, not thinking about the path isn't really an option; there's no 'default' setting. You have to make choices.

At cc's, it's possible to postpone some of that. At my campus, the single largest major is the generic 'transfer major,' which consists of the staples of “general education” for most majors at most four-year colleges. Between living at home and taking the transfer major, it's possible to buy time and still make meaningful progress. I suspect that more students could benefit from this, if they knew it existed.

Still, even if you live at home and take the transfer major, there's a basic assumption by the college that you're responsible for your own fate. You make your own choices, for better or worse, and nobody will save you from yourself. Help is available if you ask for it, but you have to ask.

Some parents seem to take a while to grasp the rule change. I get calls from parents asking why they weren't told that Johnny was failing a class. The short answer is FERPA, but the long answer is that it's Johnny's problem and not theirs. That's true even if they're paying the tuition. It seems cold and self-serving, but I'm increasingly convinced that it serves a real educational purpose.

Colleges teach in many ways; the classroom is only one of them. Looking back, part of what I learned in college was how to function when overwhelmed, how to produce when outgunned, and how to stay sane in absurd situations. I learned – imperfectly, of course – to cope. Nobody coped for me. Some of that involved falling on my face and making mistakes that, looking back, were genuinely stupid. But that's part of the experience. As a parent, it's painful to watch your kid stumble. I get that. But stumbling is part of the learning process.

(In my own case, part of what I learned was that I needed to get over myself. In high school I was The Guy in certain subjects, and could coast on what I had. Having learned bad habits, I spent the first semester of college getting my ass handed to me over and over again, and I have the GPA to prove it. It was painful and awkward and frustrating, but frankly, I needed that.)

Even if the college is local and the student is at home, it's a change. The kind of coasting that high school makes possible becomes impossible, and parents need to respect that. It's part of the value of college. Let the kid stumble. Let her get angst-y and confused and frustrated. Let her learn to deal with all of that. (Yes, there are limits, and there are times when it's appropriate to ask for help, but don't be too quick with that.) If she doesn't get the chance to learn those things, you're shortchanging her.

Good luck, parents. I feel your pain. And I'll feel my own sooner than I care to admit.