Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Talk Them Out Of...

Every so often you hear something in a meeting that makes you stop short, because it so neatly encapsulates a difficult truth.  That happened yesterday.  Someone who works here mentioned that her job is to “talk students out of Nursing.”  

She was exaggerating, of course, but substantially correct.  Sometimes talking students out of something is one of the most valuable things we can do.

In the case of Nursing, the issue isn’t the academic ability of the students.  That tends to sort itself out without much external nudging.  The issue is mostly the students’ ignorance of alternatives.  For many students, especially those in the first generation to attend college, the only health-related jobs they can picture are doctors and nurses.  Nursing seems like the more accessible of the two, so they set that as a goal.

Which is great, as far as it goes.  But there are only so many clinical spots for nursing students, and only so many jobs for nurses.  And plenty of other well-paying jobs in the health field are far less crowded.  The trick is in getting that information to students early enough that the cost of switching goals is minimal.  We’ve institutionalized that over the past few years through an advising-intensive program, through which students are introduced to other jobs in the allied health fields..  We turn away fewer students from nursing than we once did, because more of them have found other routes.  (Nutrition and Human Services have proven popular alternatives.)  And our pass rate on the NCLEX has improved, because the right students are finding their way into the right roles.  In this case, simply presenting other options was enough.

I faced a more challenging version of this dilemma recently when a colleague reported that she was considering going for her Ph.D. in political science.  I have a general policy of warning people away from doctorates in liberal arts fields, given the mostly dismal prospects if you aren’t coming from one of the top ten or so programs in a given discipline.  (As a Rutgers political theory Ph.D., and former freeway flier, I know of which I speak.) I did my standard “what the hell are you thinking?” spiel, but she actually had pretty compelling reasons and a clear sense of where it fit in her career path.  I even agreed to write a letter of recommendation for her, which is the first time I’ve ever done that for a poli sci doctorate program. Whether that will extend my time in purgatory remains to be seen.

Talking students (or colleagues) out of a path is a tricky business.  If the issue is raw ability, the right path is clear.  It became painfully obvious early in life that I would never be the third baseman for the Orioles; nobody had to bother to tell me in so many words.  And sometimes the issues are clear cut in other ways, whether involving criminal records, citizenship status, or other legal matters.  Those have the virtue of being relatively objective.  

The harder question involves warning capable students away from crowded or declining fields.  Educators as a group prefer to encourage, rather than discourage -- it’s what we do.  And some students will beat the odds, even in difficult fields.  Even well-intended warnings are founded on a sort of epistemological arrogance.  We don’t know who’s going to beat the odds.  But if we have a better sense of the odds than the students do, I’m thinking we’re on solid ethical ground in sharing what we know with them, and in helping them find other appealing options.  

And if they still insist on the longshot, well, they’re adults.  Sometimes they know things we don’t.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a more elegant way to handle warning students about longshots?