It is so amazing how quickly perception changes. In less than a decade (or, just at the decade point, if you consider my matriculation year), the expected amount of time to graduate with a bachelor’s degree was 4 years. Flat. 4.5 years if you “took your time” and still, it was considered unacceptable to finish in that amount of time, or else, people gave you the before-it-was-a-thing side-eye. Like: what took you so long? And now, national numbers of college graduation rates give a standard spectrum of 4-6 years. Today, it is almost considered a miracle to finish in 4 years. Sometimes, it is a miracle.
A lot of information and programming of CBO’s (Community Based Organizations) today goes towards getting our NYC youth into college, but a lot less of nonprofit funding and city money is invested in getting our NYC youth through college and towards graduation.
My work right now is within a CBO which was founded on getting middle schoolers into highly selective high schools and support them through that process, and through the college application process. The official program ran from middle school through high school graduation with some light college-prep programming in between. Anything that happened after August of their senior year was a fringe benefit of having graduated from the program, and on an ad hoc, as you ask basis. Many other CBO’s in the city are like this. Except maybe SEO or Posse. Their programming starts later (SEO–high school through college; Posse–8 months before college and through college graduation). But the conversation we had was: since we know these students so intimately–some, like my program, for more than half their lives–how can we implement programming or what can we do to not only get our students into college, but to completion?
I have to admit, sometimes, it is a miracle I made it through, in four years. I had no model (mama Lucille Clifton). I “transferred” out of Chapel Hill because I was upset about the ticket price for having crossed a state line and my NC peers paid exactly 1/6th of what I did. But then, I got into the classroom of the SC school and knew within two weeks that I would not get my degree there. That was how I understood the price of quality education and what I was paying for. And even though it was unfair I was paying such a higher premium, it would have been an even higher price to stay where I transferred to by the time I graduated. So when I got back to Chapel Hill, I had to take 18-19 hours three semesters straight to make up for some of the lost time (I dropped a course before I transferred out of Chapel Hill, and one class in the SC school wouldn’t transfer back) and to graduate on time. This is in addition to working at a Credit Union and at an Art Museum on campus. And, discovering I didn’t want to leave college without having some semblance of a social life (I was all work and no play for 3.5 years..). Somehow, I made it. And somehow, I can draw upon those experiences to help me in my current work.
Being an academic advisor for students who might not have been fully ready for college for two years forced me to develop effective methods of translating the importance of college, higher education, as well as the importance of the financial investment the students are embarking on. I recognized that because the students never actually put any physical money down (they were coached on how to fill out loans, their parents might have paid the deposit, etc), nothing is quite at stake. So if they stop going to class, the concept of their having just thrown 3000 out the window for that one class is foreign. They didn’t spend any money.
Additionally, the college-going machine has somehow translated the schooling one should get after college into looking more like a trade school: if one wants to be a doctor, one should only take science classes. If one wants to be a nurse, one should only take nursing classes. Etc. The idea of liberal arts education–much to the college’s need for its prominence is not a selling point for college. Surely, my Historian self would be even more of a minority in college today. But I remember at orientation so many people introducing themselves as future English, Communications, Journalism, History, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology, Music majors. In fact, those are the exact majors of many of my friends and myself. But my students feel a sense of shame to speak about their interests in Creative Writing, or History or even Political Science. They have been conditioned to believe it should be Biology, Mathematics, Engineering. They have been conditioned to believe that those majors = careers = big paychecks.
Even some of the literature I used in my workshops before I started to develop my own were pointing the students in this direction, with trying to acknowledge the reality they put not only myself down, but anyone who may potentially have an interest in the fields. This workbook said that students are frustrated by the binary, of “wanting to make a big pay check and be financially secure versus wanting to work in the non-profit field.” This is not to say that I have a big paycheck, but even in trying to suggest it’s OK to consider working in the non-profit (or, liberal arts fields in general) sector, by choosing that route, they are automatically not in the camp of “making a big paycheck”.
I’m going somewhere with this. So then you have schools who have core requirements, which say that students should receive a liberal arts education in order to be “well-rounded” citizens. The students do not understand why they should have to slog through two writing classes, two history classes, two humanities courses, or a diversity course if all they want to do is perform surgery, write prescriptions, or design and build robots. So they lose interest. They believe that it’s a waste of time. They want the paycheck and the money and they don’t want to be made to read Shakespeare or care about African Colonialism. Didn’t they have to learn this in high school? They argue. And because they can’t equate this sociology class about race into a career which is then translated into a paycheck, they lose interest (if it was even there to begin with), and flunk out. Or stop going all together. Because they know if they were working at GAP or Pathmark or Victoria’s Secret they would get cold hard cash at the end of their shift, and that alone could be some (if not enough) food on their table. And they didn’t have to read a book. This is not even spending an increasing amount of argument time on students who are just not strong in math and science but who insist that in order to be successful they have to study the subjects in which they are weakest in the hopes of getting a degree “that matters” and, you can already see where that line of thinking may lead.
And I haven’t even gotten into the economic catastrophes that happen for those students who stop going to the classes they have signed a loan for, but who do not understand the investment they made. And how crippling it can be. On a real level. Sometimes, when I think of my last job as an academic advisor, at a place that was tuition-driven (read: invested in #’s and not on the student, despite my own wanting to care about the student…), I think about some of those students and feel like a used car salesman. I didn’t admit the students so by the time they got to me, they’d already made the investment, but I tried my damned hardest to make them understand that they needed to fight like hell to get through. That this–college–wasn’t just some thing you do after high school without understanding the why.
My students now understand a bit more the importance but less so the necessity of finishing as soon as they can. Because surely, their education will not end at bachelor’s level. They will still have 1-2 more years of even more costly education after that. Guaranteed. And so to push back the average graduation rate to 6 years is saying that this generation of students might be finishing college at say, age 24. With more debt than if they hustled until 22. And then add two more years and you’re in the mid-to-late twenties and only just now trying at entry-level (because let’s be real. A large part of getting a graduate degree is only saying you might not work at McDonald’s these days) job or at least entering the first years of your professional-level work and salary and only starting in your mid-to-late twenties with paying back that education, despite the fact that you may be thinking about wanting a family and to get serious and to find your own place, you’re in no position to do so.
Multiple things must happen, and happen fast:
- stop budget cuts to colleges, which are increasingly lowering the amount of aid offered to students even those with very high need.
- This should happen for college-going students or not: increase financial literacy workshops, programming, learning. Help students understand financial implications of certain huge investments. even if it means you have less students choose to enroll or matriculate to college.
- Talk about what 25k, 50k, 100k in loans looks like in the pay-back period with an average salary, taxes and living expenses. (I am reminded of the Cosby episode where Clif and Theo are talking about Theo’s desire to be grown and pay his own bills and what the reality of that looks like. And how Theo didn’t understand until Clif started literally taking money out of his hands for each of the expenses Theo didn’t consider.)
- Talk about transferable skills. And what kind of work one can get with a liberal arts degree.
- Talk about gaining experience, and combining that with a college degree to get the level of and type of work you desire (let’s be serious. I’m not using my history degree. *but i do have experience and “relevant coursework” for the types of jobs I have had)
- Those who are on campus and struggling, efforts need to be made to teach students to advocate for themselves and understand that they have the same right to ask of their professor’s time, to utilize the tutoring center and career center and any other college resources as anyone else.
I always have to remind the students to have fun, too. But not at the expense of grades or gaining experience. It’s not the “best four years” of your life, but it is a very unique experience and environment that will probably never occur again (especially considering the reality that almost NO ONE is in a financial position to retire these days).