Tuesday, April 02, 2019

The Most Common Comment at Open House This Year

Brookdale had its Spring Open House on Sunday.  Despite the rain, attendance was high, with high school juniors and seniors bringing parents and siblings in tow.  Faculty and staff showed up in force, either to show off their programs or to answer questions. We even had several of our transfer partners there, eager to let people in on the secret that two years of community college tuition, followed by two years of discounted four-year college tuition while living at home, is a pretty good deal.  

Before walking the hallways to offer moral support, see what was working and what wasn’t, and escort some lost souls to the programs they wanted, I worked an information table in the student center.  For about a half hour, an enormous wave of humanity streamed through, and I answered whatever was thrown at me.

Some of the questions were of the predictable “where is the bathroom?” sort, which was fine.  I got a few on AP and SAT scores; I’m always happy to encourage students who’ve racked up some AP credits to come to Brookdale.  (We don’t currently give credit for IB tests, but I’m hoping to change that. If they’re rigorous enough for Stanford and Princeton, they should be rigorous enough for us.)  A few had to do with navigating buildings. But most were about students who didn’t know what they wanted. If someone is starting out at college because it’s “next,” but has no idea of what to study, what should she do?

(Author’s note: I know that mores have shifted, and that it’s acceptable now to use “they” as a gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun.  I’m working on it, but old habits die hard.)

Four-year colleges have a distinct advantage here.  In many cases, students there don’t have to declare majors until the second half of the sophomore year, or even the first half of the senior year.  For reasons I don’t entirely understand, they can count as “matriculated,” even if they haven’t declared a program. That matters for financial aid, since only “degree-seeking students” are eligible for aid, and only for courses within the major.  How colleges make that determination before students declare majors is beyond me, but apparently they do.

Community colleges don’t have that option.  If the normative (as opposed to ‘normal’ or ‘average’) time that a student spends here is two years, then waiting until the second half of the sophomore year to ask a student to declare a major wouldn’t make much sense, even independent of financial aid.  Here, students declare a major upon matriculation. That way, we know from the outset which courses are aid-eligible and which aren’t.

The problem is that much of the time, students on the front end don’t really know what they want.  That’s not their fault; if you’re sixteen or seventeen, how many options do you know in enough depth to say?  Some students just know, but many don’t, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

This Fall we’re appending an “undecided” option to the liberal arts transfer major; students who select it will be steered into a college success course that applies study skills to career interest identification and career research.  Rather than teaching “note-taking” in a vacuum, or sending students on scavenger hunts, we have them apply note-taking to resources on desired careers. The goal is to help them figure out what they want early, so they can get on track.  I think of it as a first step towards “meta-majors,” as the guided pathways colleges use.

I just didn’t expect to get confirmation of the concept quite so quickly.  Judging by the great wave of humanity that came through the student center at that point, “undecided” is a pretty common thing to be.  When I mentioned that we built a class for that, I saw students and their parents exhale with relief. We were speaking their language.

I was heartened to see that there was a market for self-awareness.  In our larger culture, self-awareness has become scarce, and sometimes even scorned.  But in the student center on a rainy Sunday, it could still draw a crowd.