Originally posted on April 6, 2015
As a fan of presidential trivia, I remember how surprised I was to discover that nine of America’s commanders-in-chief never attended college, with Harry Truman being the last to rise to the highest office in the land with such a humble pedigree.
Another reason this fact stands out is because of the obsessive push we have about ensuring virtually everyone in the next generation earns a four-year degree. We assume acquiring this piece of paper signifies you are an adult who is fully prepared to conquer the globe. The corporate world has bought into this mindset by requiring even entry-level employees have a bachelor’s degree.
The problem is the promise of a better life does not always match the reality. Students in America have borrowed more than $1 trillion to cover the cover of such an education and the average 20-something graduate has acquired more than $30,000 in student loans, with many owing much, much more. These recently minted alums need to find a job that will allow them to meet this significant obligation in the next decade, or else. This was easier in my generation and those before me, but with the skyrocketing cost of education, such a task has become much more onerous. Many of these problems and more are examined in the CNN Films documentary Ivory Tower, which I highly recommend.
Now that we’ve identified the problem, what is the solution? Well, as I see it, there are three questions to ask before making a decision that will impact the next 15 years of your student’s life, if not longer.
Who’s offering the most “free” money? Colleges are in the business of providing students with an opportunity to learn and, like other organizations that package and sell a product, have become very adept at concealing its true costs. Sure, going to college can cost $20,000–$30,000 a year, but the university’s financial aid department is willing to present what appears to be a very appealing package covering almost all of these costs. A closer look, however, reveals much of this assistance comes in the form of loans that must be paid back. It may look like your student is getting nearly a free education, but instead they will be expected to pay back $8,000–$15,000 or more per year in loans. If your student has earned a full-ride scholarship based upon grades or extra-curricular activities, then he or she is in a very fortunate position and probably should sign acceptance papers as soon as humanly possible. Yet for the vast majority of students, going to college is nowhere near this easy.
Is a four-year college the best place to go? We have been conditioned to think a four-year institution is the best place to learn what is needed to be successful in the professional world, but helping students earn degrees that automatically will translate into a job a week after graduation has never been the primary goal of college. It is helpful to remember higher learning was originally modeled on the idea of Plato’s Academy, in which the wealthy elites would contemplate the meaning of life and the world around them. Clearly such an education is unnecessary to fix a drain, repair a car, or help someone open a bank account. While it is a larger battle to convince companies that internship programs would be much more valuable to them than the bachelor’s degrees many require, we should at least accept the obvious fact there are many, respectable professions requiring advanced training not found at your local university. These programs often are less expensive than a traditional college degree program and have a much greater likelihood of job placement after graduation.
Is a four-year college the best place to go right now? Over the years, community colleges have earned a negative reputation for the same reason Ivy Leagues universities have garnered a positive one: acceptance rates. Relatively few people can get into Columbia, Harvard or Yale, but anybody can take classes at your local community college. Because these programs are so easily accessible and affordable, it has lead people to believe teens go to community college as a last resort and most students at these schools subsequently drop out and become failures in life. They also believe the opposite is true for those attending the regional university. As someone who has taught at five colleges, four of which were four-year institutions, I can tell you this simply is not true. You have good and bad students at both places. You might have more poor-performing students at community colleges because a wider swath of the population attends these colleges, but that doesn’t mean your student will fall into the trap of failure any more than he or she would attending any other school (as a side note, graduation rates at your student’s four-year school of choice may not be as high as you might think). And their workforce training programs offer a practical education at a quite affordable cost.
The honors programs at community colleges, for example, are their best-kept secret. At the community college where I currently teach, I know the director of the honors program and we regularly discuss its merits: small class sizes, great internship opportunities and a dedicated counselor making sure students are on-track to graduate from our institution and transfer to the four-year college of their choice, all for thousands less than going there right out of high school. I tell my students to run the numbers, and then buy a pennant from their dream college and put in on their wall as a reminder that community college is a steppingstone, not a final destination, for those who have higher aspirations.
So, the most important thing to understand is whether it is best in the long run for your student to attend a technical program, a community college or a four-year university.
For, in the end, it matters not where you start, but where you end up.
Originally posted on July 14, 2014
One thing America prides itself on is being a land of infinite variety. We have ice cream parlors famous for the number of choices they provide, popular restaurants with secret menus for regulars and big box stores featuring rows and rows, or webpage after webpage, of options.
The same is true with class schedules for today’s students. Seeking to meet the diverse needs and interests of modern teens, high schools provide an abundance of activities, clubs, electives and sports. While we think being involved in more groups in high school means your student is likely to get into a better college, it seems that doing fewer things better would be more impressive to a school looking at thousands of applicants playing the same game as everyone else.
Now, there is nothing wrong with trying something out for a season or a semester, but adding activities on top of each other wears you out and doesn’t do as much for your teens as you might think. They become exhausted when they have daily club meetings and sports practices in addition to their usual stack of homework. And, with travel ball programs training students in the off season, being at practice all the time eats up time that could be spent on other activities, perhaps involving the whole family. In addition, the costs associated with partaking in all these activities, after you factor in uniforms, equipment, travel expenses, training and so forth, adds up pretty quickly.
While it is fun to see the star football player belt out tunes alongside the rest of the drama cast in the spring musical, perhaps this should be the exception rather than the rule. It is perfectly reasonable for your student to have 1-2 sports or activities at school that occupies his or her time in addition to regular schoolwork. And now with the push to have students complete mandatory community service hours, there is little time for old-fashioned, nonscheduled teenage fun. Besides, maybe it’s time we get back to the notion that it’s good for adolescents to find ways to entertain themselves without an electronic device or a coach telling them what to do.
When I teach Henry David Thoreau to my juniors, I pause for a moment to focus on what he said in Walden about making our lives less complicated. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million, count half a dozen...”
When it comes to our lives, and those of our children, this is an idea worth considering.
Originally posted on August 18, 2014
With the first day of school fast approaching, this is the perfect time to ensure your student is prepared to be successful right out of the gate. In the educational world, the letter F has a very negative connotation, but I hope to redeem the sixth letter of the English alphabet as we discuss how Food, Folders and Faith can be key to starting off the school year well.
It seems elementary to suggest eating a good meal is vital to being a good student, but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t see this principle flouted every day. Students regularly stroll into my classroom with a large, sugar-laced, blended coffee concoction and perhaps a doughnut or fast-food breakfast sandwich. They may not be allowed to eat or drink them in my classroom, but I know these items will not magically turn into a glass of water and piece of fruit when they carry them out the door. For the students who don’t wake up in time to eat, setting an alarm 15-30 minutes earlier than normal can address this issue. Even those who have lower incomes can qualify for our free and reduced-lunch programs, which some students do not take advantage of this because they are embarrassed about how they will be perceived by their classmates. No matter what excuse they give us, we need to be united in the proposition that a healthy diet will result in a fit physique and robust academic performance.
The next most important element in student success is organization. For every three or four reasonably well-organized backpacks I see students lug from class to class, there is one teen who is just carrying a poorly organized folder or a pack so messy he or she could hide a small land mammal inside and no one would be the wiser. While students often will balk at the nod to conformity, if they don’t have an exact place for their papers, I can pretty much guarantee their work will mysteriously disappear mere seconds before it’s due. Time and again I have observed a direct correlation between a messy folder and lower grade in my class. Again, for those who cannot afford backpacks, PTA groups or individual teachers or staff members have been known to purchase them for those in need. Even I, who spent my high school years arguing that a clean desk was a sure sign of a sick mind, know the more organized I am the better I can do my job.
The final part of this puzzle is for students to have faith in themselves and their future. Whether beginning their high school careers or just coming back from a summer away from the hustle and bustle of projects, exams, homework and dating drama, it is always good to have a fresh start. I always tell my students I care about their future much more than their past. We all have high expectations for these young people, but if we can encourage them to do well and remind them they can, and should, learn from their failure then they will have the internal faith needed to handle the challenges they will face in and out of the classroom.
So, while it may not be applicable on their report cards, getting down these three F's might be a surefire way to earn the As and Bs you and they both desire.
I have been a public high school teacher in Southern California since 2005 and writing since junior high. I have an affinity for chocolate, photography, sarcasm and well-written TV shows that refuse to talk down to their audiences.