What is College For? Part 2.

The Huffington Post ran an article called “For-Profit Colleges Respond to Increased Scrutiny.”  I think it’s about time that for-profit (and not-for-profit for that matter) institutions of higher education be held accountable for the part that they play in the students’ successes and failures (during and after college).

This makes me think about the meaning and purpose of college today – yes, again (see What Is College For?)  There’s a danger, I think, in pushing everyone to go to college without asking what college is for and what it can do for an individual student.  The students need better guidance before they enter college (from their parents and guidance counselors if they’re high school students), once they are in college (advising is so important), and after they graduate college.  There’s a danger is advertising “college” as the magic ticket to a higher paying job and a better living.  What the student does during college (in and out of the classroom) and what the student does after college both affect the outcome or the result of a college degree.  For instance, the stronger alumni support that Phoenix is doing is absolutely essential to helping the graduates do something with those degrees for which they paid a lot of money and hopefully worked hard to earn. 

When students enter college and are asked (for example, in my first year writing classes), why they are in college, many say “to make more money.”  But often these same students don’t know what their interests are (and don’t seem that excited about finding out either).  They don’t know what they’re good at (and bad at).  They really are not sure exactly how a college degree with help them “make more money.”  This is why they can’t really see the value in what they are learning in their classes.  I support the idea of encouraging Americans go to college – but only if we also give them the right information about what it’s all about.  A college is not a factory through which we push young (and older) people so we can stamp them as graduates. 

How do we improve the impact of a college experience and degree on our students?  I’m sure there are many, many ways.  But I can think of three basic things – and they involve three important parties: parents, colleges, and students.

First, parents really need to do more than getting their children INTO college by emphasizing grades and test scores, paying the bills, and expecting good grades (which of course are all hard work!).  Even before a student goes to college, his/her parents should talk with them about cultivating their interests and talents into something they could pursue in college and beyond. 

Second, colleges need to provide really good advisors.  Not just someone who stamps approval on their registration but someone who can listen to the student and guide them.  These days the idea of “coaching” students seems to be really picking up.  At our college, we have a program called StepUp which helps students who choose to participate in the program pair up with a coach – a staff or faculty member on campus – whose job is to listen to the student by meeting with them once a week.  The coaches don’t have agendas and they are not exactly advisors – they’re like cheerleaders and advocates for the students.  The success rate for these students are higher than those students who don’t participate in the program. 

Third (but maybe really this should be first), for any of this to work, students need to take responsibility for their own education – and this is what really seems to be lacking in many students today.  And I don’t think this is a result of bad parenting (although I’m sure in some cases there may be some of that).  I think much of this lies in the way our culture views education, especially higher education.  It’s come to mean something to “get through.”  The focus is on the piece of paper, not always on the content of the education.  It saddens me when I see students who take their educational experience totally for granted.  And I know, too, that it’s partially my job to help them see the value in what they are learning in my class. 

This is why I think there is now a shift in emphasis from “retention” to “completion” with many states working on their Completion Agenda.  We have to get them into college, get them through college, and get them out of college into something great.

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