Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How Many of our Students are Adequately Prepped for Maximum Return on a College Investment?

The subject of how to prepare a student for college continues to be on my mind...

Recently, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education that describes many of the issues associated with computing return on the college investment:

As I consider the viewpoints expressed in this article, I again wonder if the role of preparation is given sufficient attention.

A common assumption made by students and their families is that college will illuminate a clear career path and guarantee a certain salary. In other words, college is a ticket to the good life; you simply buy that ticket, and off you go.

My feeling is that we need to communicate much more clearly to the students that college is an enabling experience... not an entitling experience. If a student doesn't understand that key difference and realize that this is in fact a good thing, then that student probably isn't ready for college.

A transformative college experience is something in which students must truly participate- i.e. it's not a movie that they can sit through, passively view, and exit with more than they arrived. College should not be viewed as mere credentialing. Our students should be better prepared to engage and expected to engage; this is the "collegium" of college- it's not just some high-priced theatre that you watch. When students are ready to come and participate with the faculty and with each other, then the outcome is far greater for all.

And on this overarching topic of preparation to engage... what I think is most obviously missing from so many discussions of college's return on investment is how to gauge preparedness. Pre-college preparation is not measured simply by points on an ACT or SAT! The important question is whether the student has the academic and social maturity to get the most out of their experience. Many parents seem unaware that their students simply aren't ready to dive in... in which case, all the points and counterpoints about the college return on investment are fairly moot. Even the very best programs will do little for an underprepared student. 

I first wrote about the 'prep problem' on this blog around a year ago.... and I'm even more convinced of its importance today.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Campus Counseling Visits on the Rise.. Why?

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that "The number of college students with severe psychological problems continues to increase, while anxiety, depression, and relationship issues most commonly send students to seek help at their campus counseling centers, according to a report released last month."

Here's the article link; you probably need a Chronicle subscription to read it:

First, I have to say that it's very sad to read this today, on the anniversary of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, which took place six years ago. Have we made any progress toward prevention of such events? It doesn't seem to me that we have. There are so many distressed young people, and our discussions about these issues are still so superficial.

Interestingly, the study cited in the Chronicle reports an inverse correlation between the number of counseling visits per student, and school size:

"Centers at small, private colleges typically draw a greater percentage of students than do those at large, public institutions. At private four-year colleges with enrollments between 1,500 and 2,500, roughly 18 percent of students visited the counseling center, the report says. At public universities of more than 30,000, only 7 percent of students did."

On this topic, I suspect that financial issues are one of the main drivers behind the anxiety that students feel. If that's the case, then there may be a correlation between counseling visits and sticker price. Also, based on recent discussions with several sets of parents, I'd say too many parents make an incorrect assumption that a small school is necessarily more socially welcoming and supportive than a larger one. Usually, those making this assumption cite the student-teacher ratio, which is very limited metric, in my opinion. Parents often assume that smaller is better, but it's really not that simple. I have worked with a number of students who really loved and took great advantage of the more diverse student population that they found in a large public university. They like the social options and, perhaps to some extent, the anonymity. 

One young fellow I've worked with on career goals for a few years told me that a small college he visited felt too much like high school... cliquey and full of the same kinds of kids. This is consistent with my own experience. I don't know about you but for me, high school was a rather awful social experience, where it was very hard to find kids with whom I could identify. My transition into a fairly large public college brought tremendous relief!

Overall, it seems to me that many of our schools have become places of great stress, with too many students believing that every test is make-or-break... and too many faculty teaching to the tests, rather than really connecting with the students. Grade inflation has made it so hard to distinguish oneself that the students are scratching and clawing over every plus or minus. And we now have a quarter or more of our students resorting to amphetamine-based prescription medications to assist with cramming... 

...not to mention the anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants. It seems that college has become a fabulously profitable pharmaceutical enterprise. Is anyone really surprised? Is today's college environment where students want to come and feel inspired to take those first, tentative steps toward finding themselves?

Far too many discussions I have with students now revolve around finances and related anxieties, e.g. whether there will be a job for them, whether they can cram it all into three years, etc. In addition to that direct financial stress, several other factors seem to elevate the anxiety in our colleges. The enrollment surge is something many of our colleges were ill-equipped to handle, and that surge led to larger and less personal classes and now perhaps even acceptance of courses that students won't even attend in person, because that's how the system thinks it can pare instructional costs. And this is "college"... collegium... a social environment.