Thursday, June 30, 2016

Listening at the Table

On Thursday I got to attend a reception for new high school grads who received college scholarships from the foundation associated with a local bank.  It was one of those circular-table receptions at which each table includes a few parents with students, a benefactor, and someone who works at the college.  My job was to greet the students and parents, and to help them feel welcome.

Yes, I did my job, but I also listened a lot.  That’s usually my favorite part.  The students didn’t resemble the students in much of the national policy debate.  

Three students were at my table, each from a different high school.  One was interested in Nursing, one in Homeland Security, and one in Automotive Tech.  (Alert readers will notice neither Art History nor Subaltern Studies.)  Each brought a Mom, and one brought a girlfriend, too.  

The students were well-dressed and charming, as one would hope scholarship winners would be.  But in talking to them, and to their Moms, a few common themes emerged.

First, the importance of balancing paid work with college.  Each one planned to work at least 30 hours a week for pay.  One student summed up his plans thusly: “Work, gym, school.  That’s it.”  He brightened when I mentioned that the college has a gym.  Then he mentioned his plan to schedule all of his classes on two days, so he could work for the rest of the week.  The other students weren’t quite as specific, but they made it clear that college was to be only part of what they’d do with their time.  And that’s in a context of traditional-aged students who plan to attend full-time.  Students who meet those parameters are the exception, but even among those, paid work looms large.

Second, the importance of location.  Brookdale has a main campus in Lincroft, but also has a branch campus in Freehold and sites in Long Branch, Wall, Neptune, and Hazlet.  Nearly the entire county is within a half hour of the main campus, but the places that aren’t are within a shorter drive of another site.  Even with that level of convenience, though, the students were acutely aware of which location had what.  

These students were not about to go on a college scorecard site and compare statistics from various places around the state.  They wanted to be within fifteen minutes of home.  Going thirty minutes registered as a considerable sacrifice.  In that sense, they struck me as pretty representative of the student body.

For students who have significant work obligations, geography matters.  These students are “commuters” in every sense of the word; a longer commute is unpaid time out of the day, as well as an expense in itself.

In policy terms, these are students for whom the idea of colleges competing with each other across a state -- or between states -- would be nonsense.  They need the nearby one to be good.  If another one two hours away is “better” in some sense, that’s irrelevant.  These are students for whom the local option needs to be solid (and funded accordingly).

Third, the indifference to online or MOOC-style options.  As focused as they were on paid jobs, they wanted classes in person.  Some of that may have reflected program choice; Auto Tech is hands-on because there’s really no other way to do it.  Yes, you can put repair manuals online, and you can (and should) teach students how to access them, but at some point you want students actually tearing engines apart and learning how to navigate the equipment in a garage.  Nursing, too, requires some physical presence.  Still, they seemed much more willing to come to campus an extra day each week than to take an online class.  Whether they’ll still feel that way after a semester or two, I don’t know, but I was struck at the clarity with which they all asserted that.

These weren’t the geographically liberated utility-maximizing comparison shoppers who seem to turn up regularly in various policy proposals.  Nor were they genius autodidacts looking to game the system, or entitled millennials who didn’t want to work.  They were earnest young people who were willing to work hard to get local jobs that pay living wages.  

As reality checks go, it was pretty great.  I was there to make them feel welcomed, but as usual, they did the same for me.