Sunday, December 23, 2012

Failure, debt, and post-admissions laissez-faire

The New York Times has another depressing piece about higher education in America today, and this one caught my eye more than most of them do.  I have seen more students like the ones described since I began teaching than I could count.  Mostly at Dear Old University and Ghosttown U., as one would expect from big state schools, but I had a few of them this past semester at Cute-as-a-Button University, too.  And they generally did not do well. 

In one particular case, although I will go light on details out of sensitivity, I saw early on that a student – who appeared to be from poor circumstances and, more to the point, very much unsocialized to the norms of either white middle-class collegiate society or even modest academic achievement in college – was tanking.  Stu was already skipping classes just a few weeks in, and tended to sleep through the rest.  (In this case, I knew that a particular extracurricular athletic obligation was probably responsible for Stu's persistent exhaustion.)  Stu didn't even respond to me when I emailed saying that the two of us needed to sit down and figure out what was going wrong, and how to fix it.  Grades were abysmal.  I was alarmed, and let Stu's academic advisor know what was going on.  The advisor said to me, "Yeah, Stu is just lost, I think." 

What I wanted to respond was, "WELL, FUCKING FIND STU, THEN."

Maybe I missed some serious conversations behind closed doors, but from my perspective, the entire university simply allowed a student who needed a lot of socialization and active guidance to drift along.  It felt like the old Herb Block cartoon of Eisenhower as an idle fire chief.  Given the performance I saw, I'd be surprised if Stu were around CBU a year from now.  I expect that Stu will turn into another one of these statistics: a poor student given little or no guidance, unable to figure out how to hack into this racially inflected but ultimately class-structured zone of privilege, and left to leave CBU ignominiously amid a multitude of failing marks and mired in student loan debt as a result of not maintaining the academic credentials to validate the aid package that Stu probably receives. 

Let's be generous to CBU for a moment and acknowledge that the entire institution is struggling to live within its means nowadays, and that every component of student advising and guidance at CBU is chronically shorthanded.  Historically, CBU never worried much about advising, because virtually the entire student body was drawn from the ranks of the unambitious middle classes of Cornstate who went there because Mom and Dad went there.  You don't need to advise students who aspire only to mediocrity.  Now that CBU is trying to pump up its academic profile and compete on the national level, there's a lot of areas that need to be all but rebuilt from scratch.  Advising is clearly one of them.

From what I've seen at CBU, there's yet another problem that the NYT article doesn't address.  CBU has a distressing tendency to admit students who are not properly qualified to go to CBU.  That's not to say that these students are not smart, or that they couldn't be made ready for CBU.  But such students are thrown into the academic milieu unprepared, with neither the necessary catch-up work nor the necessary emotional/practical guidance, and the school seems utterly astonished every time such a student goes down in flames.  I know that those college ranking systems track the percentage of admitted students who return for a second year, as well as those who graduate within four years, six years, etc.  If CBU is so pumped up to act like a nationally ranked SLAC, then why the hell do they stop caring about these students the moment the admissions office sends them the fat envelope?  Even at the most cynical, heartless level of calculation, such a practice damages the school itself, not just the hapless students who fail out of it. 

I'm getting some ideas about how this could be remedied within the institution's practical ability to do so, but I'll hold off on that until I've been here a little longer, and have seen a bit more of the sausage factory.  Meanwhile, I'm frustrated that the university is haphazardly and callously manipulating these students' lives, and leaving them to their fate a year or two after admission, with five figures of debt they can't repay, and no credentials – or even learning – to show for it.

1 comment:

  1. I read some of the article and felt a lot of sympathy with the students described therein. I'm from a family in which academia is viewed with suspicion, and neither of my parents went to college. Their parents didn't either. I had one great aunt who went to college and then into academia, and she was the black sheep. With no support, financial or otherwise, I went to college not even knowing there was such a thing as graduate school.

    I keep an eye out for students who remind me of my past circumstances and try to be there for them however I can. One thing about the article that made me crazy, though, was the quote below:

    "'It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder,' said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. 'What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream.'"

    You'd think a sociologist from Stanford would not have this ridiculous amount of wide-eyed wonder about the American Dream. Then again, if you're teaching at Stanford and can afford to live in paradise (aka the Bay Area), maybe the American Dream is real to you. For the rest of the 99%, the dream is 99% snake oil. Hasn't this d-bag read any Arthur Miller?

    Even though I have achieved what young academics might consider the American Dream -- simply getting a job -- I am bitter about the prospects. Mountains of debt, stress, and politics. My situation is probably unique in that most people don't do the ridiculous amount of team teaching that I do. However, I never imagined that achieving the American Dream would include having my hands tied and my agency scoured away. Maybe I'd be better off working at a factory -- if such jobs existed anymore. At least then I'd have time for fun reading.