Tuesday, March 14, 2006

"College material"

You know that saying: "He's just not college material." Or "In another year, she might be college material."

What is "college material"?

It isn't always about intelligence. My brother is one of the most brilliant people I know--and better read than the Ph.D.'s--but he hated sitting in classes and taking exams. He's the classic "autodidact" and now he's a teacher, working with kids and adults and using his gifts in ways that have made him a leading figure in his field. But school? Not for him.

There are lots of young folk in college these days who clearly are not college material. How do they get in? Why are they there? You know the ones. They come to the first week of classes, then drop in sporadically throughout the term. They don't do the work. They feign illness or the famous grandmother's funeral around exam times. (How is it that kids these days all have eight or nine grandmothers, always near death?)

A week or two before finals, these slackers reappear, usually by email, requesting the "meeting in your office" to talk about how they can catch up and get a passing grade. At this point, it's hopeless but they think that they can somehow charm their way back into your good graces and squeak out with a C.

I'm talking about the class-sleepers, the leave-early-for-fall-breakers, the "I'm having issues" kids who have no business wasting our time and theirs (not to mention their parents' money) pretending to be college students. They are the girls who major in greek life and the guys who'd rather be drinking and studying the point spread than studying for midterms.

And then I hear a story like the one about a young woman who's dating the son of a close friend. Starting in high school, she worked two jobs to pay her own tuition to a prep school, with the goal of getting into a good university. She worked 50 hours a week and maintained an "A" average, graduating with honors. Meanwhile, her parents told her that "college is wasted on girls" and threw all their support behind her brother instead. They didn't contribute to her education financially--not a penny.

Working her way through two years of community college--again, maintaining top grades--she started looking at applying to four-year schools. There are huge obstacles. She needs financial aid. And she lacks those extracurricular credits that so many college admissions offices seek on a resume because she's spent the past five years getting up at dawn to waitress and staying up late to study.

My friend wrote her a great letter of recommendation to the college she wants to get into. He also drove her there to do an in-person interview--SO important--and personally talked to the financial aid guy on her behalf. Being "in loco parentiis" has extended to my friend inviting this girl to eat and study at his family's house when the situation in her own home becomes too stressful (her parents--sheesh, you don't want to know).

This one is college material and she's having to claw tooth and nail to get in.

We love students like this girl. She's like the non-traditionals who start college in their mid-20s and work like the devil doing it right because they really want to be there.

Sometimes college (like the old saying about youth) is wasted on the young.


Blogger Morgaine said...

I was one of those "drop in occasionally - feign illness - show up around exam time" students. I really was ill though, because I was in early stages of bipolar disorder. My not going to class was a combination of depression, agoraphobia and panic attacks. I missed class one day because I couldn't decide what coat to wear and went into a full blown attack. It doesn't take much when you're right on the edge.

College is prime age for mental illness to take hold, and mine really did. The sad part is, I tried to tell people what was going on when I graduated high school, but nobody wanted to hear it. They thought I was just nervous about going away to school.

I got pretty good grades. I got A's on papers about books I never read. And it's not as if I wasn't learning - I was devouring entire sections of the school and the public library. They just didn't offer classes in what I was interested in, or if they did, I didn't know about them. I added a second major because I was taking so many English classes to keep my GPA up and got my degree in four years, because I went to school in the summer sessions, too and because I scored such high scores on my advanced placement tests. Not having to meet any language requirements frees up a lot of credits for electives.

I managed to get a degree because of some empathetic professors and a really good student counselor. She was a grad student, and I got free or low cost treatment for letting the grads practice giving tests with me.

I know there are a lot of kids in school that don't belong there, but keep in mind that some of us want to do a lot better than we are able. I was much better off for having gone to school, and I never would have gotten the counseling I got then without being in school.

3:40 AM  
Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

It is students like her that keep me teaching in the Philosophy Factory. I'm glad your friend has taken her under his wing, she's worked hard enough to have earned a small break.

6:33 AM  
Anonymous smirktastic said...

If college is "wasted on girls", why do women consistently outnumber men in undergraduate schools? Just a little rhetorical food for thought.

11:04 AM  
Blogger The Unknown Professor said...

I'll take the "mid-20's" non-traditional student any day. All too often, college is seen as the default option for young people. It's the place you go to while you figure things out.

In contrast, the non-tradits have lived a bit, and figured out what they want. In addition, they're going on their own dime, so they're not there to wast time. Finally, their opportunity costs are usually higher than those of your typical 20-year old.

As a result, they bring a seriousness and focus to their college experience that makes teaching a joy. They're not there to waste time, and they're not there to blindly copy down everything the prof says, either.

So, they're both more demanding and more enjoyable.

11:40 AM  
Anonymous handworn said...

Yes, I've often wished I'd taken a year or two off to work in the real world before going to college. I didn't do badly in college-- I wasn't one of the sleep-through-class boys (well, there were one or two of those interminable three-hour classes where I may have dozed a bit...) but to use another of those youth-is-wasted-on-the-young bits, if I'd known then what I know now...

1:06 PM  
Blogger Shelly said...

I 100% agree about non-traditional students. I went to college straight out of high school and acted like the dumb, immature 18 yr old I was. I got good grades and got a degree, because I was smart enough to get by on very little work. But in reality, I learned next to nothing. I had no idea what I wanted to be because I was too busy figuring out who I was. My husband, by contrast, worked and went to the Army before college. He was about 26 when he started undergrad. He dug in and got everything he could out of his undergrad years, graduating with honors in 3.5 years with majors in two subjects he was and still is passionate about. Guess what I'll be encouraging our daughter to do when she's deciding what to do after high school?

1:07 PM  
Anonymous Struggling Just to Get By said...

I have had a similar experience as this student. I attended community college for a couple of years and completed my associates degree while working full-time and going to school some mornings, at night and during the summer. There were so many times I wanted to give up because it was so hard to never be home and to deal with the stress of work, school and life in general. Fortunately, finances for school never played a part because the tuition was so affordable at a two-year school. I was surrounded by people like myself, some much older. People who had made a commitment to get their degree and most all the students also worked and many had families.
It was quite a shock transferring to a university. I realized very quickly that college was simply a waiting room for many kids who just didn't know what else to do after high school. What a disappointment. I had worked so hard to get there and sacrificed so many things only to find that it was like a playground for kids unsure what to do with their premature freedom.
I also realized that the university system is not really set-up for people who have to work to survive. In my degree program, I have to attend classes five days a week, plus many of the classes are smack in the middle of the day. Tuition? Although it is more affordable than a private university, I have to scape up everything I have and it is still not enough. Although I have supported myself for 4 years, I don't meet the criteria for financial aid based on my mother's income. So I receive no parental support, state support and scholarships barely cover half. This also makes one value school more when they have to pay for it themselves.
I have almost always had good relationships with all my professors. I think because when you work so hard to get something you show up to class, you study, you earn your 4.0 because you know that you have worked your rear off to be there and you don't feel like wasting a few more years.
I think college would be better for everyone if we were "non-traditional" students.

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most irritating part about this is that SO many of the kids who go straight to college are giving the rest of of us a bad name. And the stereotypes just pile up.

You don't have to have lived in the "real world" to appreciate your opportunities in college or to want to work hard. (Though I'm sure it helps.) And going straight from HS to college doesn't predestine your education to be like a "waiting room" or "playground." Nor does it turn you into someone who "blindly copies down" everything the professor says. (Speaking of which, I do copy down everything, which is not a wholehearted endorsement of what's being said, mind you. I probably took more notes during lectures by professors whom I didn't agree with.)

I'd just like to suggest that we shouldn't create too big a gap between "traditional" and "non-traditional" college students. There are no doubt cases that fit this formula perfectly, but that doesn't account for all of us. Nor even most of us, I'd argue.

Also, I hate that so many times these blog entires focus on one extreme or the other. Either we talk about Ashleys or we talk about the people who are high on dedication and low on resources. Not much in between. Keep in mind that there are lots of people out there who don't fit these categories.

5:30 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

Your comments are so thoughtful and wise. Thank you for reading and responding. It keeps me at work, trying to keep up with you. And happy spring break everyone!

5:48 PM  
Blogger hannah said...

I think my problem with this is the same as the anonymouse commenter above. Yes, university is wasted on some people who go there straight out of high school, but some people are there because they want to learn and because they value the experience. Yes, I know I'm privileged to get to go; but I have worked so so hard to get here. My family background is not that of higher education at all, and getting a BA in English Lit was something most of my family looked very askance at and just asked me why I wasn't going to get a job instead. So yes, I take copious notes and do all [or most of, mental health allowing] of my reading. I question my profs though and I like to think I'm getting everything out of it that I can. I have to prove to my mother that this financial sacrifice is worth it, that I deserved the chance to spend three years doing something I love instead of working fulltime, although I do also hold down a 20hr/week job.

All power to the elbow of the people like the girl in the entry, and to the non-trads, but don't forget that some of us there through the traditional route are actually busting our guts for that BA.

7:58 PM  
Anonymous alicia said...

i can't say i belonged in college, but my parents sort of pushed me there, even though i wanted to take some time off and figure out what i wanted to do. so even though i went to every class and earned myself a more than decent gpa, had great extra-curriculars, and worked to boot, i graduated even more confused about who and what i was than after high school. and instead of taking some time to figure all that out, i went straight into graduate school. i'll graduate with a master's in two and a half months, and be looking for jobs i'm not even certain i am interested in.

college was a great place to learn, but it has done nothing to prepare me for the real world. my simple jobs (barista, lifeguard, swim teacher) also did not help me. so while soon i'll have a fancy title after my name, inside i'm completely lost about where life is going to take me. i'm not passionate about what i've done my master's in, and my biggest fear is i've wasted the last six years, and will have to return to school in ten years to study what i really want to do with my life, after i know what the real world is like.

i work in a department office now, and i hear a lot of comments from transfer students who reiterate the idea that community college seemed full of students driven to get somewhere, who took their studies seriously, and who worked their butts off to make ends meet. these students are shocked on this university campus, where the rest of the undergrads whine, drool through class when they bother to show up, and expect life to be handed to them on a silver platter. it's everywhere, even here on the west coast.

you get out of your education what you put into it. i just really wish that meant something in postgraduateland.

1:38 PM  
Blogger War Bride said...

Most of the time, I don't feel bad that I dropped out of one of the nation's better schools after I got married. But it did leave me with some disadvantages. One day last summer my mom was on the phone telling me she had run into an old acquaintence from town. She had told my mother that there was a great scholarship her organization was giving out, and I should apply. My mother replied, "Lisa didn't have a car for the first 8 months of her marriage and took all her community college classes from home on the computer. Since she got her car she's been working 40 hours a week and going to school another 17. I'd love to see her get the money but she's never going to have the community service she needs to get another scholarship."

And for the most part she's right.

Then there are the days when I seriously debate with myself. Am I happy being married and maybe graduating a year or two late? Or am I that much of a slave to education that I need to just leave my husband behind until I finish my degree?

If nothing else, I've learned all my lessons.

10:59 PM  
Anonymous lucille said...

I think 2 years of mandatory civil service (Peace Corps, build a bridge, tutor elementary-school kids) would be great. Then everyone would go to college at 20 or 21 having done something else first, and value the time to just read, think, be an activist, join clubs, and so on. I was 18 when I went to college and 23 when I went to my Ph.D. program. I "excelled" in both but honestly, most of my life was taken up with boring postadolescent angst that did nothing for my intellectual life. At close to 40 now, I wish I could get a second B.A. and then a second Ph.D.

2:10 PM  
Anonymous highschoolkid07 said...

I managed to get a degree because of some empathetic professors and a really good student counselor. She was a grad student, and I got free or low cost treatment for letting the grads practice giving tests with me.
What does that mean?
I had no idea what I wanted to be because I was too busy figuring out who I was.
What does THAT mean? That's scary!! I don't know who I am or what I want and it terrifies and upsets me. :/

I join clubs. I take advanced courses. I try to do EVERYTHING because I have NO CLUE what I WANT or what I LIKE. And I pretty much lost it. I'm glad I made that mistake in highschool because I think it leaves a bigger mark when you get into college, right? But even now, I'm not even at a crossroads. I'm just exsisting. :/

I don't think I'll be one of those kids you guys are talking about. I generally care about everything I do or atleast I try to. It just frustrates me that I share a common aspect with these kids (and I SAY I will never be like them, but who really knows?) which is -- I have no clue what I'm doing.

Is that what the kids' problem is? I don't know how to fix it. :/

12:23 PM  
Anonymous Dolores said...

It's a pity that so many of those blockhead "younguns" have to ruin the reputation of the rest of us. I'll be the first to admit I'm not like that impressive young woman who most definitely deserves a full ride to any school she wants, but I too deserve my spot at SMU. I work hard for my grades while working hard at my job. My parents do support me, but I've managed to pay for my education there on my own with scholarships and grants, and taking out only a $1000 loan for supplies. I am proud to be at this university, and while I am not willing to ignore all the slackers that are here I'm also not willing to ignore that there are slackers at every school. SMU has rich kids who drink and party. UNT has white trash kids who are high on hookah while they drink and party. A&M has kids of all creeds and backgrounds who drink and party. And yet, a small percentage of kids still manage to get through school without taking a drink, a puff, or whatever it is you take at one point in your 4 (or 5) year career.

I love that you highlighted someone who isn't an Ashley, and I'd hope to see more of that soon. Give us good kids a little time in the spotlight, huh? We're already pushed aside in favor of the incredibly stupid WASPs, and shadowed by the incredibly smart Asians and Indians. Give us middle men (and women) a little love. ;)

12:11 AM  
Blogger Baruch Grazer said...

We love students like this...

Yes. Yes, we do. We love students who make up for the others, because, well, they make up for the others.

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