I recently attended a conference hosted by the #EAB, an impressive firm dedicated to addressing higher education's biggest challenges.
You know how these industry gatherings are – you never know if they are going to be worth your time and energy or not. There’s a ton of work piling up back at the office, so your evening–after the de rigueur cocktail party and perhaps even a dinner out when you would rather get room service – will be overstuffed with e- and v-mails and a few phone calls before you can touch base with your family.
You set your alarm clock for 6 a.m. in hopes of getting in a jog before it starts all over again, but then you hit the snooze button one too many times and realize you need to pack your bag, check out, and return to the over-air-conditioned hotel facility to smile, shake hands, say a few witty and compelling things, exchange business cards, argue with yourself over whether you should eat that croissant or save your carbs for something else, absorb countless new ideas, imagine how to implement them in the coming year given your resources, and rush to the airport or train station to reach home at a decent hour so that you can say hello to your loved ones and pet the dog for a minute before collapsing.
It’s often not worth it, in my experience. But when it is, it is SO worth it! This was one of those times. This 1.5-day experience not only brought home why I work in higher education, but also thrust into stark relief the enormous challenges facing us at this moment in our nation’s history. No, I’m not talking about our current administration (though I was in D.C. where you can’t forget for one nano-second who the president is). I’m talking about the failure of colleges and universities to graduate our students and ensure they land up engaged where their degrees was worth all they had to do to get it.
Here are some #EAB statistics, which I have been sharing at every opportunity in the past week.
“For every 100 students who start a bachelor’s degree…
22 drop out of college
12 are still enrolled after six years
3 earn an associate’s degree
28 graduate but are underemployed
35 graduate and are working in a job requiring a BA by the age of 27.”
Combine those numbers with the average debt carried by students who leave college, whether they have a degree or not, which currently stands at an average of $40K, our institutions are truly failing our students.
This is an abomination.
What can we do about it?
Recently, a colleague, a highly experienced therapist, mentioned the level of “emotional chaos” exhibited by many of the students he counsels. That got me to thinking whether or not we could help students gauge their level of emotional stability or chaos so that we could help them do something about this particularly thorny and determinative factor in successfully completing a degree.
What if we got students to think about some of the ways in which emotional chaos affects our daily lives?
Attention: If a student is experiencing a great deal of emotional distress, it will be hard for them to pay attention in class, to their out-of-classroom work, to their extra-curriculars, not to mention their relationships and obligations to their families and communities. If your energy and focus are continuously distracted by what’s going on in your emotional life, you simply can’t learn. What if we asked students what percentage of the time they are able to focus on the task at hand, whether it is listening, writing, reading, or talking? And then introduce them to ways to increase their ability to pay attention? There are so many! And most are not expensive and can be done in the privacy of one’s own home.
Attitude: College is that stereotypically heady time of boundless energy, experimentation, and exploration. All of the acts involved in exploring indicate optimism about the future. An energetic college student is nothing if not optimistic about what the future will bring. That is, after all, why they are trying all these things out – to find out what they are good at, where they belong in the world, and what they should pursue in the coming decades of life. Pessimistic students are not going to be so inspired to invest in their futures. Why would they? Their futures don’t seem so bright. Attitude toward the future can make or break a college experience. What if we asked students to gauge their level of optimism about their lives and about their ability to create a life worth living? And if they express a more pessimistic stance toward life, let’s try to help them.
Energy: We all know what an enthusiastic student looks like. They pay attention in class, create and participate in study groups, empathize with their fellow students, and just live life with gusto. The unenthusiastic, apathetic student is a stereotype, too. They sit at the back of the room. Maybe they’re wearing a hat pulled down over their eyes. They shuffle around and get together with other apathetic students. They suck the energy right out of a classroom. They are not only wasting their time; they are taking up valuable seats and squandering the energy of a teacher who is invested in their success. How about if we talked to students about their level of energy for the whole enterprise? Are they dying to get a degree? And if not, why not? What can we do to help?
Equanimity: I love this word. It means a calm composure, even in the face of difficulty. Unfortunately, college brings with it a whole heck of a lot of emotional drama. About love, sex, growing up, self-definition, and love, love, love. Students who come to college with a measure of equanimity are already leaps and bounds beyond those who don’t. How about if we asked students to work on developing their ability to be calm and composed, especially when facing a situation that might otherwise have thrown them off?
Resourcefulness: This is a measure of how independent and autonomous a person is. College throws you into dozens of unusual or new situations on a daily basis. If a student is resourceful, they will figure out a way to handle it, address it, and move through it with their dignity intact. Lacking this quality throws students off on a regular basis, which compromises their sense of self-worth, their confidence, and their ability to succeed. What if we were able to determine how self-reliant a student feels they are and then worked with them on becoming more resourceful?
We all know that students who are able to pay attention, bring optimism and enthusiasm to the college experience, and can handle new situations with equanimity and resourcefulness stand a better chance of getting a degree. We also know that young people who struggle with these can be helped in many, different ways. I’m going to start talking to students about these five dimensions. I’ll let you know how it goes.
I have had the dubious honor of working with plagiarist students for almost two decades now. In spite of Herculean efforts on the parts of hundreds of colleges, the numbers of students who hand in work as their own despite not having actually created it themselves grows every year. What exactly is going on?
Some assume these students are mendacious, soulless creatures trying to get away with something in a premeditated, calculating way. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.
What’s really going on in the overwhelming majority of cases can be summed up in two words:
By ignorance, I mean that many if not most college students have no idea how to use citations and those annoying quotations marks that they may only know in their colloquial use of snarky air quotes. And few have learned how to paraphrase another’s work or even what that means. These are skills that ought to be taught in every high school and first-year college curriculum ― carefully and thoroughly. Academic integrity is, after all, the coin of the realm of university life. At the most fundamental level, all we really have is our thoughts and ideas.
Passing another’s work off as one’s own is the academic equivalent of stealing. In fact, the word plagiarism derives from the Latin word plagiarius, which means kidnapper. I love that image, a person kidnapping another’s words or designs or ideas and taking them hostage into their own work. It’s kind of a delightful metaphor depicted nicely by the image above. (Source cited below.)
Of course, if you asked any of these students if they steal things on a regular basis, they would look at you as if you were nuts. After all, they’ve been brought up not to take another’s belongings without asking. It’s a basic tenet of a civilized society. So, why are they stealing another’s academic stuff in school?
Panic is the second most common thing going on here. The deadline is looming, and their time management skills have failed them or they simply don’t know how to meet the requirements of an assignment or their confidence is in the toilet. The pit in their stomachs grows, the adrenalin starts flowing, and desperation completely messes up their ability to think logically. Suddenly, cutting and pasting the paragraph or pages from someone who really knows what they are talking about sounds like a great idea. Or lifting the photographs or fashion designs of a skilled artist seems like a stroke of genius.
And then the deed is done, and the student collapses in exhaustion only to realize in the bright of day what they have done. Then the pit in the stomach returns and anxiety skyrockets. Until they know whether they have gotten away with it or not.
The solution to the panic issue is to help students develop mechanisms for handling distress and getting out of jams. It really is that easy. But it’s actually hard because enabling each individual student to think of the go-to people and actions for that potential future moment of feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place takes time and real care. Every college advisor and faculty member should take time in their advising conversations to cover this with their advisees. Students must be encouraged to both learn the rules of citation and paraphrasing and develop their own individual ways of coping with those panicky moments.
(Image Source: https://www.planetminecraft.com/blog/plagiarism-3955675/)
That’s the line that encapsulates the “college scourge” Frank Bruni wrote about recently in The New York Times. I have to agree, of course. (I mean, who would disagree with @FrankBruni!?)
Moving to college means you get plopped down into a new life with no connections and no idea what you are doing for the better part of a year, if you are lucky. Combined with the constant refrain that college ought to be the best time of your life and surrounded by carefully curated digital images of friends’ lives, the going can definitely be rough. For many if not most students, it is the most difficult thing they have done to date in their young lives.
Here are some things students can do about it:
There’s nothing like throwing hundreds or even thousands of new students together on a campus for the first time to create some moments of high drama. The swirl of anticipation and the heightened emotions make for the perfect breeding ground for unintended slights, crushing disappointments, and interpersonal conflicts. These can escalate so high and so fast during orientation that not a few college administrators will begin whispering under their breath: “I can’t wait until classes begin.” Academic work is a wonderful distraction from any drama that has reached a fevered pitch. But it takes a few weeks for students to settle in and realize how much work they actually have to do in college to stay afloat. Until mid-terms begin in earnest a few weeks down the road, freshmen often have a false sense of freedom and leisure. So, they pay more attention to the relationship, dorm room, orientation, club, or drug/drinking incidents than they deserve, at least from the perspective of an adult observer.
Having advised students for decades and spent my fair share of hours calming new students who were sure they couldn’t live another second with their roommate or who were crushed when they went too far in the alcohol/drug/sex arena and felt humiliated before every one of their new friends right at the beginning of their college career, I can say that some of the best advice you can give your children is that they stay calm and rise above. Here are some suggestions to help them do that:
Every year in late August/early September for the past 20 years or so, I have watched parents drop their children off at college. The range of emotions and reactions I observe is vast, as you can imagine. Whether a mom or dad is inconsolable or ecstatic or both at the same time, there’s one thing that unites them all – their sense that change is happening right before their eyes. And the thing about change that provokes such strong emotions is that we can’t predict the future. No matter how hard we try, we can’t control the coming days, weeks, and months. We have no idea what they will bring to our children or to us.
Many parents have focused so exclusively on the change for their children that they have dramatically neglected themselves. Planning next steps for yourself can ease the pain and help you create an environment of joyful anticipation for you and your children. You can model for them renewed discovery of yourself as they are exploring themselves!
Recently, a graduate student at my university asked me what advice I would give to new TAs. Wow, I thought, I have totally neglected this essential group of people on the higher ed landscape.
TAs are really, really important. They teach well over 50% of classes on most campuses. They are also attending their own classes, doing research, and writing a thesis or a dissertation. They are seriously busy people. And miserably underpaid.
Colleges and universities rely on them to teach the so-called service courses, such as first-year writing, elementary and intermediate languages, and popular core classes. They also facilitate discussion in the recitation or discussion sections that accompany many lectures, making up the third hour of a three-credit course, for example. Some very advanced graduate students may eventually get their own seminar in their field, but this is the exception, not the rule.
TAs are not adjuncts. TAs are still pursuing a degree and so are enrolled as full-time students. Adjuncts have their degree in hand and are either looking for full-time work or teaching for a bit of extra cash while doing something else entirely. Both are severely undercompensated, usually earning about $2,500-3,000 for a 12-15-week class that they have to prepare for, lead, and grade papers. It takes hours a week to do it well. Both of these groups make up the inexpensive labor force campuses rely on. Without them, the complexion of course offerings would have to change dramatically. I can’t even imagine what it would look like.
So, if you are about to start teaching for the first very time as a TA, like my new friend who posed the question to me this week, here’s some advice I would offer:
While students are usually laser-focused on the social aspects of college for the first few weeks, the academic work gears up quickly. That is, after all, why they are there – to earn a degree – to walk away with a transcript bearing the names of courses they have completed. It’s not unusual for a percentage of freshmen to be so distracted by the need to make friends and stave off the inevitable loneliness that comes from acclimating to a new environment that the academic work doesn’t get the needed attention until grades are irreparably damaged. In fact, when deans look over transcripts at the end of the year (through a usually tedious and grueling process) to decide who has earned dean’s list distinction, who should go on probation, and who ought to be suspended for failure to meet academic standards, they almost always give first years special consideration since everyone knows the high cost of adjusting to college life.
Here are six pieces of advice you can offer your children to help them focus on the academic work from the get-go. They aren’t riveting, but they are tried and true.
1) Don’t listen to other students’ assessments of instructors. Give yourself the chance to make up your own mind. As you sign up for and start attending classes, try not to listen to the opinions of other students. Everyone likes different teaching styles and appreciates different personalities. Also, ignore the ratings sites; they are filled with comments from those who loved and those who hated an instructor. Trust your own judgment first and foremost and give each prof a chance.
2) Choose only one extra-curricular for the first semester. Though the course schedule may only show 14-20 hours of class a week, and you may be wondering what you will do with the other 152-148 hours in a week, resist the urge to sign up for lots of clubs and activities. Acclimating to college is like an extra course. And you will want to find some time for yourself and your new friends as well as for studying, reading, do problem sets, and writing papers. The coursework outside of class will take at least two to three hours per week for each credit. Schedule that into your weeks.
3) Plan to study abroad. Peruse the global offerings and start talking right away to your adviser and faculty about where to fit in a semester in another country, especially if it requires knowledge of a foreign language. Having academic experience abroad will not only give you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn and grow as a human, but will give you a leg up when you look for internships and jobs in the future.
4) Get to know faculty. They have weekly office hours and the truth is that many of them sit alone during that time slot every week. Students are missing out on a fantastic opportunity for mentorship, guidance, and getting to know another human. Look up the faculty member, know a little about their research and background, and think of a couple of questions you would like to ask them – about the course, about where they went to college and graduate school, about the field in which they specialize. Address them with a proper title, take your cap off, sit up, and shut your phone off. Research has proven that students who develop substantive connections with faculty have an exponentially enhanced academic experience. Plus they can really help you make good decisions in your life and career.
5) As you think about getting a job after college, read the NACE list. The National Association of Colleges and Employers has done research you need to know about on career readiness. As you choose your courses, faculty, advisers, extra-curriculars, internships, and volunteer work, think about which competencies you are developing that will make you most ready to join the world of work.
6) Go to class, do your homework, take your tests, and ask for help when you need it. This may seem ridiculous, but there is a prevailing culture at many colleges that you don’t have to go to class, can let your homework slide, should take as few tests as possible, and should never ever ever ask for help. These are all wrong. Keep in mind that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of maturity. As they say, “No human is an island.” We all need help at some point. Colleges have dozens if not hundreds of employees who stand ready to make your college years as enjoyable and rich as possible.
The battleground of Ivy League admissions is in the news again, with Students for Fair Admissions filing a lawsuit against Harvard for discriminating against Asian Americans like Austin Jia.
As someone who has sat in on admission committee discussions about applicants at three Ivy League schools, I can tell you that the conversations are not what you might expect. By the time I was invited, the non-starters had been filtered out. These meetings focused on the tough decisions. All of the applicants had high grades, great standardized test scores, multiple impressive extra-curriculars, fantastic recommendations, and compelling essays. Now came the hard work of winnowing down all of those super-well-qualified, deserving high school seniors. The fact is that each and every one of them had what it takes to succeed at the top-notch schools. That’s why they were still in the pile. Of the thousands of applications still sitting in the queue, the schools could have created several equally great classes.
So, where do they turn to make those final cuts? In the end, it is the responsibility of the admissions team to bring a well-rounded, interesting group of newcomers into the college to form a learning community that will inspire one another, benefit from each other’s talents and interests, and contribute to the university in both expected and unexpected ways. That is one of the things that makes admissions work so exciting. Welcoming a new cohort of energetic, wildly talented students and watching them grow up and graduate brings tears to every admissions officer’s eyes. It can be extremely gratifying work though the hours are long and the pay is usually terrible.
In the back of every admissions officer’s mind are the college’s priorities. Is there a presidential initiative to increase the arts, sciences, engineering, math, humanities? (It’s never the social sciences – economics and political science departments are stuffed to the gills.) Within each of those areas, there could be more specific needs as well. Perhaps they need to recruit more dancers, jazz or classical musicians, or aspiring dramatic actors. You get the idea. So, maybe Austin Jia’s application wasn’t as compelling as it could have been because he didn’t meet any of the university priorities at that time.
The next important question is: What can each given applicant contribute to the community? I was gobsmacked when that became the focus of so many admissions conversations. It seemed so wholesome and far-sighted, which is the last thing I expected to see here. I assumed, like many, that these were cold, calculating, and cut-throat decision-making battles. Instead, everyone was working collaboratively toward the same thing – to ensure a well-rounded community of diverse perspectives. So, maybe Austin Jia’s application didn’t make it clear that he would contribute in an important way to the community.
It’s also helpful to keep in mind that admissions readers are expert at assessing character. You can’t read thousands of applications without getting a sense of what a student’s personality and qualities are. When you have so many choices, why would you admit mean, anti-social, dishonest, selfish, arrogant, greedy or otherwise unpleasant people? So, maybe all of the committees espied something untoward in Austin Jia’s personality?
Finally, the leaders of the Ivies know one another and have a refined sense of the students each school will admit. Maybe everyone assumed someone else would admit Austin Jia, so they didn’t want to waste a seat on him.
I’m not saying it’s not about race, and it might end up being the case. But what I am saying is that the decision whether or not to admit a student is complex and is not always simply about SAT’s, grades, and extra-curriculars. It’s a far more nuanced process than that, especially at the best schools in the world where there is excruciating pressure to keep bringing in classes of students who will add to the community, succeed there, and be great alumni.
On liberal arts campus, advisors of all sorts exhort students to “follow their passions.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld might say. Except that there might be.
As I wrote recently, “companies and organizations are looking for a set of diverse competencies that no one academic major provides,” so it will be your child’s job to translate what they learn on and off campus during their college years to the resume. Any good college should have excellent (though usually woefully overworked and underpaid) career services professionals to assist with that. (Parental/guardian help will likely be essential as well.)
What we are talking about here is what colleges sometimes refer to as “Major Choice Initiatives” or simply “Majors to Careers.” Because so many students flock to majors they are familiar with from high school or the ones they believe will land them the best job opportunities, typically English, economics, political science, and psychology, college faculty and administrators are obsessed with designing campaigns that will encourage students to think broadly about their choices. To do this, they highlight examples of alumni who have majored in German, philosophy, or anthropology and gone on to great success in finance or have become wildly famous in a realm of life far from their studies.
The most impressive majors to careers infographic I have ever seen is on Wellesley’s web site. It is an interactive visualization of alumni majors and their eventual careers. What I love about this is that it systematizes the anecdotal. It represents data on real people. This illustrates most pointedly that just about any major can lead to just about any career. Armed with this idea that majors and careers are not aligned as neatly as we might assume, and the research by NACE I cited earlier, you should feel free to encourage your child to explore courses and fields widely. We fetishize the major in spite of it making little or no difference in our eventual career opportunities in the majority of cases. What students really need to focus on is how the knowledge they gain and the skills they hone translate into the world of work.
However, there are times when it does matter. Ask any scientist or mathematician, and they will likely suggest starting with the basics as early as possible. As a college advisor, I never worried much though about the true mathematicians and physicists among the undergraduates. They found their way another easily enough through admission processes and personal contact. Faculty usually take great pleasure in mentoring undergraduates who have a serious interest in their field. After all, they are so much more interesting than the students they typically encounter in the “service courses” (the ones students take merely to fulfill degree requirements). If your child wants to pursue a “hard science” or math, all you have to do is make sure she or he finds the department and sits down with a professor or two or three to talk about their interests. Chances are once they have made themselves known, faculty will talk about them and work to make sure they are well mentored.
The other obvious case for early planning is engineering. The challenge here is also the choice of major because students frequently choose their main area of study based on misconceptions about the field and the job market. There are several tools that help students refine their decision-making process. They can and should:
 The Future of Work and What it Means for Higher Education, Part One: The changing workplace and the dual threats of automation and a gig economy, page 7.
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.