Sunday, January 30, 2011

Freshman Excuses

A recent article in the Kansas City Star got me thinking about my college days. Oh I know that looking back that far is difficult, and am sure that Socrates and Plato have long since retired as philosophy professors (but that's a story for another day). I could not help but be taken by the point of view of the article, and of the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute study that it reported on. For it seemed that UCLA and the KC Star's Diane Stafford, rather than welcoming these young people into this fledgling period of adulthood, have instead discovered yet another way to produce a class of victims in today's society. While I'm sure that in fact many of those entering higher education today are under a degree of stress, I'm not sure that it's any higher than it was for previous generations, including my own lo, those many years ago. Of course as they enter college, these young people are:

  • For the most part, on their own without daily parental supervision for perhaps the first time in their lives.
  • Attempting to balance class work, a social life, and sometimes even part or full-time jobs while attempting to learn.
  • Having to begin to make decisions as to long-term goals and their employment futures.
So have students entering college for many generations. This is a required skill set of maturity, and a necessary part of growing up and accepting adult responsibility. In fact, I would suggest that this has been the case since higher education became a realistic goal for most in this country. I would dispute however, that the nation's economy has a greater influence on their long-term coping skills. After all:

  • Students in their first year of college are far less likely to be concerned about what department they will be earning a degree in, as they are required for the most part to take general education credits.
  • Early choices of major are largely made without much real understanding and are likely to be change multiple times before a chosen field is settled on.
  • While there are always majors that lead to higher paying jobs (medicine was one of them until the government recently decided to take it over), it is still the case that a degree in almost anything will do as a stepping stone to a better job.
  • The economy that they will be looking at four years from now will, according to most predictions, be far better than today's; and far more likely to offer them greater opportunities.
  • The availability of grants and low interest loans is far greater than at any time past, and it appears likely that the forgiveness for any such debt incurred will be far more likely in the days ahead if the government who now controls it has its way.
The article instead goes on to point out that in order to cope with the stress of this situation, some students are either going home more on weekends, or "partying hard on weekends as a relief mechanism". I hate to seem unsympathetic to the mental anguish described, but going home to mommy (probably to have your laundry done as well) or underage drinking is something that has been going on far longer than the current economic downturn, and can hardly be lauded or written off as today's version of 'coping skills'.  

What I do agree with in the study however, is the conclusion that students "are arriving in college already overwhelmed and with lower reserves of emotional health". I would further suggest that they are arriving without the requisite educational tools to gain higher education. So perhaps instead, this study should be used as an indictment highlighting the failures of the education system at the college level as well as those we are increasingly becoming aware of in K-12. 

Students ill-prepared academically in grade school will certainly experience stress as they enter middle school. Middle-schoolers whose education skills are not up to snuff will experience stress as they enter high school. It certainly follows that as those students graduate without the expertise required to take on advanced learning, they will feel even more stress when those failures become a hindrance to further educational achievement in college. (I was recently told a story by a friend who has returned to college that in the first day of class, a student asked the professor if papers submitted needed to be written in complete sentences.) 

We must then ask ourselves who it is that trains the teachers that go on to instruct these young people in their first twelve years of education? Is not in some part the failure of those educators to provide basic skill sets required of their students not also a failure of the college professors who trained them to be teachers? Are today's professors themselves not also a product of the same failed education methodology at every level? Is not their failure yet another example (like the UCLA study) of a system that focuses far too much attention on the feelings and self-image of students and far too little on the acquisition of knowledge, the achievement of goals, and the ability to compete with others who are doing the same? 

It seems however, that rather than admitting that they have failed to equip these young people to cope with the challenges presented by a university education in every way, the study simply hands them a victim button. Perhaps instead, it's time we told these young people the truth about life before they are forever thrust into it. It is and always has been a tough, competitive world out there; and you will have to work hard and compete in order to succeed. That may at times mean stress and perhaps even failure, but excuses in most cases will be neither accepted nor tolerated ... unless of course, one's long-term goal is to remain always a freshman.

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