Friday, March 29, 2013

The second myth of college.

Myth #2:  “You’ll have to work hard to get through college.”




--actual e-mail from a second year student at my college, yes, it was in all capital letters, and not the first semester where such an excuse was offered by this student.


     Having achieved the precious admittance to college, further prestige is granted to the student for staying in college, even if a college drop-out in times past didn’t have nearly the stigma of, say, a high school drop-out. “Dating a college boy” was a prestigious goal for a high school girl of decades ago, or at least was often presented as so in films of the era.

    The reality is quite different today. A full time course load at most institutions is 12 credit hours, which represents 12 hours a week of sitting in a classroom. Actually, it’s more accurate to say 10 hours, since a class that meets for “an hour” really only meets for 50 minutes. At my college, more than a third of students spend less than 5 hours a week studying alone, and only a minority spend more than 10; the overall average time studying is less than half what it was decades ago.

    Think about that: the vast bulk of full time college students spend less than 20 hours a week on college work; more than a third spend less than 15 hours a week. That’s little more than what a serious hobbyist might spend on his weekends building model trains or the like. Half of students report they’ve never read more than 40 pages a week in a course—that’s perhaps the equivalent of reading a few newspapers a week…again, less than what many people do in their spare time. Similarly, about half of students didn’t write a paper of at least 20 pages in a given semester. The first three entries of this blog you’re reading now represent more writing than many degree-holders have ever done in a single semester, a few graduates probably didn’t do so much writing their whole career. How can students be to blame for not being able to read or write meaningfully when they’re not asked to read or write meaningfully?

     Dropping out of college now is quite an achievement, probably more so than getting into college years ago. Failing college courses in the past was certainly grounds for academic probation, and failing courses in multiple semesters could easily get a student removed from college. Certainly, students could get in over their head by signing up for a course beyond their ability, so many institutions had “withdraw” policies where a student could drop a course a week or two into the semester, after he’d had time to see if he could handle the material. While available, withdrawing like this was frowned upon in the past:  there was often a financial penalty, and a student could only exercise this option a limited number of times throughout his entire college career (the limit was three at my alma mater). Under these conditions, staying in college was an achievement—the college student was clearly working towards his goal, progressing towards a degree, and had no opportunity to waste semesters taking and dropping courses.

      Today, the withdraw rules are very different, because polices have changed. A student can withdraw as many times as he wishes, and the last day to withdraw from a course is well past the halfway point in the semester. Under these conditions, it’s all but impossible for a non-comatose student to fail a course, and it’s no surprise that students commonly take six years or more to get their four year degree. What prestige can there be to staying in college when ultimately this just means the student drops courses repeatedly? Consider the student quoted above: taking and withdrawing from courses semester after semester, learning nothing but getting student loans all the same. If the myth were “A good way to waste four to six years of your life and be in debt forever is to go to college,” would people be quite so willing to indebt themselves for a degree?


Excerpt from student paper: “…a new double barrow shotgun. Like Doom, Doom II offers Multiplayer support…”

--This particular passage, with its odd typo, allowed me to find the old web page a student had cut-and-pasted from, and submitted as her writing assignment. The thought of a shotgun that fires great mounds of dirt, burying an enemy, was amusing, but I hardly knew how to respond to this level of plagiarism. I asked administration for advice. Response:

Administration: “Please allow this student to re-submit the assignment. She needs this course to graduate.”


    The other way to get expelled from college, cheating, is a relic. Even extravagant cases of cheating on tests or plagiarism often mean little more than a slap on the wrist; worst case scenario is an F in the course, but the student can retake the course for a higher grade. He probably won’t be caught cheating the second time around, and even if so, it’s still highly unlikely he’ll be expelled for it.

     While the first myth pulls students into the system, the second myth, that college is supposed to be hard work, traps students into staying in a system far past when it was clear they should leave. It’s such a pleasant surprise when the student finds out how many classes are complete blow-offs requiring no effort at all, and the looks of pride and respect from family and friends at being “in college” surely help the student to remain as well. Yes, there are a few courses that take some effort, but those can be easily avoided, or dropped if the student, through some accident, finds himself enrolled in one.

    To avoid taking anything too difficult, most institutions’ course catalogues have pages and pages of “elective,” content-light, courses to fill out that schedule, to keep students coming on a full time basis. And so the student stays on for years, long past the point where he knows he’s not going anywhere, with everyone proud of his “hard work” taking courses in Women’s and Gender Studies,  Human Sexual Behavior, The Learning Environment, Creative Expression in Early Childhood Development, Language and Literacy in Early Childhood, Child Psychology, Adolescent Psychology, Social Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, Contemporary Social Problems, Marriage and Family, Criminology, Human Relations, Fundamentals of Speech, Techniques of Speech, Personal Communication, and others (those are all courses on my tiny campus, just a sampling, and larger schools have much more to offer in introductory courses).

     I know, as a mathematician I’m a bit biased in what I think is useful, but it isn’t (entirely) the subject matter of these courses, it’s how little these courses build on each other or lead to anything else. They’re all introductory dead ends, or nearly so.

     How does the student take these courses, go to an eventual employer and say “My degree took 6 years to get, and most of the material was subject matter that anyone could master in three months with no prior skills needed, and I don’t know it now because none of it was needed for anything else. Now will you hire me because I’m educated and have a huge loan to pay off?” These courses with minimal entry requirements lead, quite often, to nowhere, and offering them really facilitates students not having to work much to stay in college, facilitates retention. I’m all for electives, students should be allowed to experiment with knowledge…but the system is trivially exploited to the student’s detriment (and the college’s advantage).

     The myth of “You need to work hard to get through college” traps the student, who thinks it’s an achievement to stay in college, even though often all it does is just allow ever larger student loans to pile up while the student takes pointless courses, considering himself lucky (or smart) at not having to work as hard as he thought would be necessary to stay in college. He’s not being clever by staying in college…he’s being a sucker, racking up more money for the institution.

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