Thursday, January 12, 2012

    Is College Really for Everyone?

    We've all seen the ads, the ones full of promises for potential students:
    Earn a bachelor's degree in as little as three years!
    Get a professional, high-paying job right after you graduate!
    Take classes that work around your busy schedule!
    Earn your degree on your terms!
    Small class sizes in all disciplines!
    Part-time, evening, and weekend classes available! 
    Financial aid officers are waiting to help you today!

    There's one important truth that these ads always seem to leave out, and that is this:

    College is not convenient.

    It takes a lot of work and persistence to earn a college degree, and even more work to truly become a college-educated individual. Signing those financial aid forms and purchasing shiny new textbooks is just the beginning. Showing up to class is a good start, but once there, students must also pay attention. And then they must study on their own. And complete the reading and the work assigned by their professors. And make up for any gaps in their understanding by seeking additional resources outside of class so they can keep up. And continue to attend class for the entire semester. And continue to study on their own throughout the term to gain the knowledge and master the material and skills they're supposed to be learning.

    I'm not one to sugarcoat things, so I share a few facts with my students on the first day of class:
    1. College is a full-time job. Typical college students should expect to study at least two to three hours outside of class, every week, for every one hour of class taken.

      This means that a student with a 15-hour class schedule should plan to study between 30 and 45 hours per week in addition to the time spent in class. That turns out to be five to seven hours of studying every night.

      Students often tell me that they have never studied in their entire academic career. They've never heard of a study group. They have never brought their books home from school. This may have worked for them pre-college, but trust me, it is not going to work anymore. (And most of the time, it didn't even work back then. If you're one of those students who has never studied, consider how much you actually learned in high school. I'm going to guess it wasn't much.)

      The best thing students can do for themselves is to form a study group, and meet with the group every day, in the same spot, at the same time. The study group will become a student's greatest asset in college. I had a study group in undergrad, and I don't think I could have done it without them.

    2. The more classes you take, the more likely it is that you'll succeed. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it's true. Students are far more likely to fail their classes if they take only one or two courses in a semester, and far more likely to pass if they take a full schedule.

      This is the fact that brings out the truth about college that the for-profit institutions don't want to share with you: College is not convenient. Yes, there are people who hold down full-time jobs while attending college part-time, raising four small children on their own, and caring for their elderly grandparents; and they still manage to graduate in four years summa cum laude. I'm sure it's happened, and it will happen again. But this is not the norm. This is not how it normally works.

      Sometimes, it's just not the right time to attend college. Maybe a student isn't ready to handle the responsibility on his own, or he has too many other responsibilities that he won't be able to get much out of school, or he just plain can't afford it. Or he doesn't really know what he wants to get out of a college degree, so he won't take it seriously enough to make good on his investment.

      Whatever the reason, the fact is that, despite what the advertisements say, there is nothing convenient about earning a college degree. It will take a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a lot of money. I don't know about you, but when I invest my time, energy, and money into something, I want to squeeze every last benefit I can out of it.

    3. The biggest mistake you can make is to believe that you are too good for a particular class. I see this happen quite often in my developmental reading and writing courses. Students take a placement exam and place into a lower level course than what they believe they should have placed into, and they let their ego get in the way of their learning. Sometimes they attend class but they don't do the work, sometimes they don't attend at all. And when it comes time to retake the placement exams at the end of the semester, they place right back into the same exact course, and find themselves re-enrolling and paying that tuition money all over again.

      Sure, sometimes students are placed into the wrong course. But know this: It doesn't happen often, and when it does, most professors spot it right away. If we're two weeks into the semester and I have not yet told you that I think you don't belong in the course, you can rest assured that you are exactly where you should be.

      While we're on the topic of developmental courses, I want to say one more thing: These courses are the best thing that could happen to the students who place into them. If your college offers developmental courses, what they are really offering you is a chance to level the playing field before you jump into college-level work. Colleges with developmental courses are saying We care about you and your ability to succeed, and we do not want to set you up for failure by throwing you into a course for which you do not yet possess the necessary skills.

      I know that students often see developmental courses as an irritating road block on their path, but they are just the opposite. They are opportunity. They are a gesture of support. They are a sign that you attend a college that is not going to let you get in over your head and become so frustrated that you give up entirely and walk away. These courses are life rafts designed to prepare students for the rigors of the college-level work that is to come. I believe it when I tell my students that my developmental reading course is the most important course they'll take in college. And you know what? Many of them have come back and said You were absolutely right. I use the skills we learned in that class every single day.

    4. College is not for everyone. Before you call me an elitist, hear me out: College is not for everyone because college is not always necessary to accomplish your goals. I know we live in a time and place where everyone seems to say that You need a college degree to get a good job.

      My question is What is a good job?
      Is a good job one that pays a lot of money? Well, a college degree certainly isn't going to guarantee that. I have multiple degrees and I don't think I earn what anyone would consider a lot of money.
      Is a good job one that makes you happy? One with a lot of autonomy? One that allows you to travel? One that puts you in charge of other people? Or large machinery? Or requires creativity? Or has you sitting at a desk for eight to ten hours a day?

      If you don't know what you want to do with your professional life, then I'm not sure college is the right option for you right now. Are you really willing to spend one year, two years, four years pursuing a degree that may or may not help you land a job that you may or may not consider to be a good job? I've read countless articles that quote twenty-somethings who regret attending college because they have no job to show for it. They took out college loans they cannot repay, and they realize now, after the fact, that their degrees did not help them get anywhere closer to where they really want to be. Don't let this happen to you.

      Now, let me get one thing straight: I do not believe that the purpose of earning a college degree is to get a good job. I was one of those crazy people who studied exactly what I wanted to study in undergrad simply because I loved the fields. (English and technical theatre, in case you're wondering.) But I did so with reasonable expectations. I knew that my degree may or may not lead to an actual career, and I was fine with that. I had that luxury, because I was willing to sacrifice my lifestyle post-undergrad for the pursuit of an education. I had wonderful parents who let me live in their home as a young adult while I figured it all out. And I took the time to do just that. And today I am happy for it. But that's me.

      You need to figure out what you want to get out of your college education before you attend. And if you do attend college for the sole purpose of getting a better job (which is a perfectly reasonable purpose) then for crying out loud do a bit of research and know what you hope to accomplish. What job would you like to get? Which degree or program will get you there? Do you even need a degree to land the job?

      If you are a traditional age student standing on the precipice between high school and college, and you have parents who are willing to provide a roof over your head while you pursue your education, take a moment to revel in this luxury and consider what it is you really want to do with your life. This is a luxury that is not available to everyone. You owe it yourself to really consider what you want to do, and to follow a path that will lead you there while time is on your side. The worst thing you can do with this privilege is to squander it and end up, years from now, none the better for having had it.

    5. College can change your life. I know that now I'm starting to sound as bad as those college advertisements, but this is true, college can change your life. But as with most life-changing experiences, you have to work for it. I see just as many students go through the motions of college and get absolutely nothing out of it as I see students who take advantage of all it has to offer and come out on the other end changed. The world is filled with wasted opportunities, but only you can decide whether your college experience is going to be one of them.

      And really, in the beginning, that's all it takes: A decision. You have to make it for yourself, but once you do, all of these other things I've been jabbering away about will seem small obstacles, and in time, they'll feel like nothing at all. Because the bottom line is that nothing gets in the way of someone on a mission. The time, the money, the effort, it all becomes a part of your grand plan to create a life for yourself that will be worth living. Any investment you make will seem like time, money, and effort all worth the spending. But before you dive in, make sure that you're jumping into the right body of water.
    If I were to revise those college advertisements, I'd want them to look something like this:

    Unemployed? College could be your next full-time job!
    Before you enroll, know that it is going to cost you a lot:
    You may not be completely prepared, but we'll get you there with extra classes!
    Just make sure this is the right choice for you!
    College: It can change your life, just make sure it's a change you really want or need.

    I could not be more grateful for the opportunity I had to earn a college degree as a traditional undergraduate student. It was a life-changing experience for me, and I cannot imagine where I would be today if I hadn't done it. The decision to attend college was easy for me, and while it took a lot of work, and many years to pay back my loans, those four years were transformative for me. But I knew--I knew before I attended, before I filled out my first application, before I got my first brochure in the mail; I knew what I wanted to get out of college, and I knew what it was going to take to make it happen.

    And now, so do you.

    Go make it happen, whatever it is. The only bad decision you can make here is the one you don't make for yourself. Good luck.


    Janiera said...

    I really, really, love this article especially since I just quiet college. At first I felt really bad about my decision like I was a failure or something. However, with a recent illness I've suffered and my goal being to be an author I don't feel bad about it.

    Lori Oster said...

    Thank you, Janiera. I'm sorry to here about your illnesses.

    I think what you did is the opposite of failure--you made a conscious choice based on your situation and your major goal, and you acted on it. Sounds like a wise decision to me. :) (AND, it's obviously working! Look at your awesome blog!)

    Post a Comment

    Get widget