Paper finds no negative consequences for 4-year to 2-year transfers

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New report on transfer of struggling students from universities to community colleges finds students benefit from moving in nontraditional direction.

The enduring power of textbooks in students' lives (essay)

“We can give you three dollars,” the clerk at the campus bookstore told me.

“That’s all?” I asked. I had hoped to get more for the book I wanted to sell back, given what I had paid for it just months before.

“Sorry. It’s not assigned next term.” She shrugged.

“Well,” I decided, “for three dollars, it will look good on my bookshelf.”

That was the moment I kept my first college book.

At the end of every term, college students lug piles of books across campus to sell back to the bookstore (or post the books online to sell directly to next term’s students) for a fraction of what they paid for them. Selling back books is so ingrained in college culture that it seems natural, inevitable. Strapped for cash, most students accept the few dollars joyfully.

But there’s something to be said for keeping books, too. In the years since my own small beginning -- just the one book, just three dollars, just to look good on my bookshelf -- I have developed a lasting commitment to having books around.

These days, as each semester nears its end, I find myself on the losing side of a friendly argument with my own students. I tell them they should not sell their books back. They raise objections:

“The book’s not in my field.”
“I already read it, and I remember what it says.”
“I can always get another copy if I need it.”
“I can find the same text, or the same facts, online.”
“The information will be outdated soon.”
“The edition will be replaced with a new one soon.”
“I want to put this class behind me!”
“It’s too expensive to keep. I need the money.”

I do my best to respond. Then, of course, the students make their own decisions. I’m afraid I’m not very convincing. And I understand why. Most of the reasons to sell back books are quite reasonable. In certain cases, I have to concede the point.

Yes, I do agree, some books are just fine to sell back. I have little fondness in particular for stereotypically textbookish textbooks: repositories of facts, good for exam prep but not for actually reading, likely to be replaced by a new edition in a year or two, apparently written by a committee or a machine, duplicating material available online for free. By all means, students should sell those back.

And, yes, I also agree, some books are too expensive to keep. Costs for textbooks are the primary reason students sell textbooks back, rent them instead of buying, pirate them or simply don’t get them at all. Each year, costs for books increase faster than tuition. A multibillion-dollar industry, bookstores and publishers for college textbooks take advantage of a rather trapped student market. For many students -- particularly students with multiple jobs, loans and responsibilities to young children or aging parents -- just getting books each semester can be a Herculean (indeed, Sisyphean) task. And not selling books back, even if they would love to keep them, can sometimes simply be out of the question. By all means, if it’s keep the books or pay the rent, students should pay the rent.

Accordingly, colleges and universities must recognize that not being able to keep books is a disadvantage faced disproportionately by students from poor and working-class backgrounds. We need to take steps to make books affordable as a matter of social justice. Some have suggested switching to ebooks as a solution. But ebooks can cost just as much or more than used print books and offer less. (Moreover, most students prefer print.) Better ideas include increasing financial aid, reducing the overall cost of college, including books in the cost of tuition, assigning more affordable books and writing our own books and giving them to students for free, among other strategies.

Even with these caveats, I still insist students should keep books. As college teachers, we usually focus more on what students do (or do not do) with books during our courses, not after. But I think we can do more. Just as we would like students to remember what they learn in our courses and to continue learning after the courses have ended, so should we also care that they keep the very books that can help that remembering and learning along.

With the loudest voices (including bookstore advertisements) telling students to sell their books, it’s up to us to teach them otherwise. We can assign books worth keeping. We can help students connect with the books for themselves. We can talk to students about keeping books, telling them something like this:

Keep your books. Not every single one, necessarily, but keep many. Keep most, if possible. Do not let a book go without deliberation. Begrudge the ones truly not worth keeping. Grieve the ones you truly cannot afford. Keep books from your field and from other fields as well. Be well-rounded in your keeping.

Yes, appreciate what the internet can offer (through sites like Project Gutenberg), but also appreciate what books can offer. Yes, some books contain nothing but information with a short shelf life, but keep the books that are not of this sort. Keep books with ideas, argument, voice -- books in which writers say something to readers. Keep books you know you will use again and books you think you won’t, just in case.

Start small, if it helps: keep one book you otherwise would have gotten rid of. Next time, keep two. Keep keeping books until you’ve built a library. Why? There’s value in having books and being the sort of person who has them. This value often outweighs the cost. Sometimes books are even worth a little sacrifice.

Finally, while asserting there’s value in having books, we teachers can also explain just what that value is. We might communicate to students the following points:

Having books around can make a difference in students’ lives. Analyzing decades of data from dozens of countries around the world, sociologists found that the number of books in a home correlates strongly with academic accomplishment for children in the family. Specifically, the more books around, the farther in education the children go. That holds true across time, culture and socioeconomic status. The connection between books and academic accomplishment is so strong, the researchers comment, that there almost seems to be “an intrinsic advantage in growing up around books.”

Of course, merely having books around is “not enough,” they add. One does not imagine books that are just sitting there unread, unnoticed and ignored doing much good. But there is a high “correlation between owning books and reading.” Books offer “skills and knowledge.” Having books around demonstrates “a commitment to investing in knowledge.” Having books around indicates that people in the house “enjoy and value scholarly culture, that they find ideas congenial, reading agreeable, complex and intellectually demanding work attractive.” In a home that has books, it is likely “conversations between parents and their children will include references to books and imaginative ideas growing out of them.”

Students who are (or hope to become) parents should certainly keep books for the sake of the children. But if children benefit from books, no doubt adults do as well. It’s not that books are magical (at least, not in the strictest sense of that word). It’s that deciding to have books and to be the sort of person who has books can change a person’s life and the lives of those closest to them.

Students might want to read certain books in the future. Sometimes students feel finished with a subject once they complete the final exam. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. They do not know what they will want to read or reference in 10, 20, 30 years. But if they have built up a library over that time, it will be all the easier for them to grab the right book when they want it.

Students might want to lend books to someone someday. It is easy for students to ask, “Will I use this book again?” But building a library allows students to be a resource to others. One of my fellow professors calls it a “joy” to have the right book on hand to give to someone. He compares it to the proverbial “word fitly spoken.”

Books can serve as physical reminders of what students have read. Reading doesn’t end when one puts a book down for the last time. Reading ends when one thinks about a book for the last time. When students read enough, they will likely forget not just what they read in certain books but even that they read certain books. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies here.

But so does the opposite. Books as physical objects sitting in plain sight on a bookshelf, glanced at regularly and browsed through from time to time, can remind students of what they have read, keeping that reading alive, active in their minds. (For this to work, of course, books can’t stay boxed up in storage.)

Books can serve as physical reminders of what students have not read. As Umberto Eco and Nassim Nicholas Taleb know, unread books remind people of what they do not know. Some unread books eventually get read. Others don’t. In that way, sitting on bookshelves, unread books can remind students to be both curious and humble.

Books shape the meaning of a place. According to place theory, places are not mere locations; they are laden with meaning. The physical environment of a place shapes its meaning (including walls, doors, furniture, the lack thereof, etc.). What happens in a place also shapes its meaning. So do names, memories, objects and so on. A grass field marked by the lines and plates of a baseball diamond means something different than a grass field marked with tombstones and flowers. The apartment wall lined with books means something different than the apartment wall lined with family photos, band posters, sports memorabilia, works of art, bottles of wine or nothing. Having books around says, “This is a place where thinking and learning are valued.”

Books shape students’ identities. Of course, people are more than their books, degrees, careers, relationships or experiences, more than their thoughts, feelings, even bodies. And yet, these all shape how one lives in the world, the kind of person one appears to be, one’s identity. Having books around says, “I am the sort of person who values thinking and learning.”

Keeping books allows students to return to them over the years. The most meaningful connections people can have with books play out over a lifetime. The weeks or months during a course count as an introduction. That’s enough for some books. Others offer more. Students can return to a book after 10 or 20 years, reread the notes they wrote in the margins the last time they read it, observe how their thinking has changed, see what new layers of meaning they can find in the text at different times in life.

Books are a tangible investment in lifelong learning. College students’ finances vary vastly. It’s not my place to tell students whether they can or cannot afford books. At the same time, I know many students already sacrifice a lot to attend college, as an investment in something that matters to them. All I can add to that is that books are a good investment, too, a real commitment to continue learning long after graduating.

Distinguished scholar bell hooks testifies to this final point. Growing up poor in a patriarchal, segregated town, she learned the value of books from her mother, who had never graduated high school. “Against my father’s wishes,” hooks recalls, “she was willing to spend money on books, to let me know the pride of book ownership and the joy of possessing the gift that keeps on giving -- the book that one can read over and over and over.” Reading books, she continues, “empowered me to journey to places with the mind and imagination … expanded my consciousness … made the impossible possible.”

At the end of each semester, when the line at the bookstore to sell back books is at its longest, one of my dear friends and fellow professors walks by crying out, “Traitors! Traitors!” His joke -- and, of course, he does this playfully -- contains a historical pun. The Latin root of the word traitor, traditor, was the name given to those early Christians who under persecution handed over their sacred texts to be burned by the Roman authorities. The Latin cognate literally means “to hand over.” To hand over one’s books is a betrayal of our common purpose -- although if it’s that or die (or miss the rent), one will surely be forgiven.

We hope students leave college with memories, friends, knowledge, skills and a diploma, and we do well when we remind students to obtain them. We need to add a library to the list. When students sell back their books, they sell back part of their education. I care much more about what books students keep, and what notes they wrote in them, than what courses they passed or what grades they earned. Students’ bookshelves say much more than their transcripts.

Paul T. Corrigan is associate professor of English at Southeastern University.

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Doubts About Career Readiness From College Seniors

Only 40 percent of college seniors say their experience in college has been very helpful in preparing them for a career, according to the results of a survey by McGraw-Hill Education. Students majoring in arts and humanities are more than three times as likely as other students to say they feel “not at all prepared” for their careers (18 percent compared to less than 6 percent of all other students), according to the survey.

The third annual version of McGraw-Hill's workforce readiness survey found a rise in the perceived importance of preparing for careers in college. While students report that they are increasingly satisfied with their overall college experience (79 percent in 2016 compared to 65 percent in 2014), an increasing percentage said they would have preferred their schools to provide:

  • More internships and professional experiences (67 percent in 2016 compared to 59 percent in 2014).
  • More time to focus on career preparation (59 percent compared to 47 percent).
  • Better access to career preparation tools (47 percent compared to 38 percent).
  • More alumni networking opportunities (34 percent compared to 22 percent).

The survey also queried students about whether they would have chosen a different college path if community college were free, with some of the responses below:

Report Looks for Better Results for Remedial Students

A new report from the Century Foundation examines how to improve outcomes for students who begin college needing remediation. "When College Students Start Behind" offers a redesign of how community colleges should approach remedial courses.

The authors state that to produce more college-ready students colleges should accelerate remedial courses, supplement college placement exams with GPA, connect pre-course work topics to students' individual interests and shift from a "drill and practice" type of teaching to more contextual, real-life applications.

The report also points to the City University of New York's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, as an example of where these types of reforms have been implemented. A recent study of the program found that it nearly doubled graduation rates.

Hopkins Students Object to Change in Grading System

Students at Johns Hopkins University are objecting to a plan to end the practice of "covering" the grades of freshmen during their first semester, The Baltimore Sun reported. Under the policy, students receive either satisfactory or unsatisfactory as their grades. Even though students learn the letter grade they would have received, the information is not shared on transcripts for future applications to graduate school or for employment. University officials said that they fear the system delays students who need extra help from seeking it out. But students say that the current policy works well, reduces pressure during the first semester and is especially important to disadvantaged students who arrive at Hopkins without the benefits of the high school preparation wealthier students have received.

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A professor takes his classes on a walk (essay)

Literally walking side by side with students while teaching a class can bring unexpected benefits, writes Del Doughty.

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A humanities professor visits colleges with his daughter (essay)

I have spent a lot of time in the past year visiting college campuses with my daughter. She is a senior in high school and has recently made her college choice. We visited all kinds of institutions: elite private schools, liberal arts colleges, Christian colleges and public universities. My daughter is a humanities person. She will most likely major in something like English or history. If she dabbles in the social sciences, she will probably pursue anthropology or sociology.

She was also very perceptive about the vibe that she got from the colleges that she visited. She did not merely want an institution with strong humanities programs. She wanted one with a humanities ethos that pervades the campus.

A few months ago, on back to back days, we visited two very prestigious private universities. The first institution, despite its reputation as a world-class research university, presented itself, first and foremost, as an undergraduate liberal arts college. The admissions office and tour guides noted that many of the professional schools, including the graduate school, were located in remote parts of the campus. The layout of this campus exuded a sense of community rooted in ideas and questions about what it means to be human.The departments of History, English and African-American Studies were all located at the center of campus. When my daughter told some of the current students that she was thinking about majoring in English or history she was greeted with enthusiasm.

The second institution -- another world class research university -- offered a very different feel. Little was said about the humanities and liberal arts. Our tour did not even venture to the location on campus where these departments were housed. Instead the presentations stressed professional programs: business and engineering.  When we talked to some students at an off-campus residential community, we learned that none of them were majoring in humanities-related fields. I think my daughter was embarrassed to tell people on the campus that she was interested in the humanities.

Last fall, we also attended a few Christian colleges. One of these colleges had a strong tradition of liberal arts and humanities education. During her evening in the dorms, my daughter met several humanities majors. The next day, during presentations, tours, and classes, she was deeply impressed by the way the questions raised by the humanities-oriented disciplines animated everything that happened in the curriculum of this institution. (This college is not defined as a "liberal arts college" by the Carnegie rankings.)  

My daughter was not sure if she wanted to attend a Christian college, but if she decided to do so, she wanted an institution with a strong commitment to the integration of faith and learning. She was aware that such integration is difficult, if not impossible, without robust support for the humanities -- history, English, theology, philosophy, languages and the like. Those disciplines raise the “big questions” about what it means to be a human being in the world -- the kinds of questions more compatible with religious faith. She felt at home in this place.

The other Christian college that she visited attracts more students interested in professional majors. The humanities programs are solid, but the faculty spends a lot of its time fighting for the importance of the liberal arts. During the course of the visit, a few students asked my daughter about her intended major. In every case, when my daughter said she was interested in history or English, her new acquaintances asked her if she wanted to teach. When my daughter said she was not interested in teaching, her hosts responded: "Then what are you going to do with that [degree]?" She also sensed that the admissions staff did not know how to talk about the humanities.

My daughter came home from the visit wondering if she could find any conversation partners or friends with the same interests. Everyone she met, it seemed, was majoring in athletic training, nursing or business. I told her that she certainly would meet people at this institution who had the same passions and interests as she did, but, in the end, what my daughter sensed was correct: this college did not have a humanities or liberal arts ethos.  She felt it.

I have enjoyed seeing these various colleges and universities through my daughter’s eyes. I have concluded that the liberal arts and humanities are still strong at the small institutions of higher learning that continue to define themselves as “liberal arts colleges” and are categorized as such. But beyond those elite colleges, the chances of finding an institution in which the humanities define the academic culture are slim at best.

In my experience, students are still interested in subjects like history and English, but they see these more as a "hobby" than a legitimate focus of undergraduate study. I can't tell you how many times I have heard a talented undergraduate tell me something like this: "I love history, and I would love to study it, but I am not sure what I can do with it, and neither are my parents." 

For the last several years, I have been arguing (along with a lot of other people) that humanities departments need to do a better job of showing students how the skills they learn in our courses are transferable in the marketplace. As part of their college experience, humanities and liberal arts students should know how to articulate those skills to potential employers. We want our students to get jobs in the business and nonprofit sectors not in spite of the fact that they majored in a humanities discipline, but because they did.  I have made these arguments in my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and at my blog “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” through an ongoing series of posts that I call "So What CAN You Do With a History Major.”

As a history department chairperson, when I speak to potential history majors, or even curious students in my general education courses whom I am trying to "convert" to the history major, I emphasize not only the content that they will learn in history courses but also the transferable skills. I would encourage professors in liberal arts colleges to work with admissions officers about making sure students know that humanities majors can make a decent living in a variety of different professions and careers. If trained well, they should know how to think clearly, write well, communicate effectively, tell stories, empathize with others and take small bits of information and make meaning out of them.

A move in that direction may also require curriculum changes or additions. For example, at the college where I teach, we added a one-year "Introduction to History" course that contains a substantial unit devoted to careers. The students read the pertinent chapters of Why Study History? and hear from career-center staff about how to sell themselves as history majors to potential employees. Our department even added an "administrative studies" concentration to our curriculum. Students in that concentration take the full history major, but they use some of their non-history electives to take courses in business, leadership, economics and politics. 

I have worked hard at trying to transform my department along these lines, but sometimes I wonder if I have gone too far in this direction. Instead of championing transferable skills and all the things students in history can "do" with their majors, maybe I should have spent more time challenging this market-oriented approach by defending humanities learning for learning's sake. We don't spend as much time anymore talking about the non-marketable values of the humanities or the benefit of humanistic learning to make us better people or citizens. I know that my faculty colleagues care about this, but I'm not so sure about the majority of the students whom I encounter. I worry that the success of a particular humanities discipline is now being measured by utilitarian ends such as career outcomes.

This career-driven approach to the humanities is the new reality for those of us who teach at tuition-driven schools with smaller endowments. I am aware of the high-profile cases in which politicians with control over state budgets have attacked the humanities. I realize that unless we start focusing on careers and transferable skills we will continue to have depleting enrollments in humanities majors, continue to lose faculty lines in our departments, and see government funding for our disciplines dry up.

But I still believe this: STEM and other professional fields may help to build a strong economy, but the humanities -- and the liberal arts more broadly -- provide education for a democracy.

I understand that my daughter's interest in a college with a humanities ethos is unusual in today's day and age. In the end, she decided she wants to attend a college with a culture where the humanities define the warp and woof of everyday life and where she will not have to explain to dorm mates and other friends why she is majoring in history and what, beyond teaching, she is going to do with such a major.

John Fea is the chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA.

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The importance of teaching students not to fear (essay)

None of our concerns about student readiness for college are ever going to be resolved if we don't help students learn how to stop fearing questions, themselves and others, writes Laurence Musgrove.

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Understanding the differences in what credentials are being stacked and why (essay)

Credential innovation is a hot topic in higher education, from microcredentials to digital badges, from competency-based and clickable transcripts to stackable credentials. Case in point: to facilitate dialogue, Lumina Foundation launched the Connecting Credentials initiative to help shape the vision and align the work of some 80 co-sponsoring education, labor and business organizations (including Parchment, where one of us serves as CEO).

While numerous articles have been written (by Kevin Carey, Ryan Craig and others) and conferences held on credential innovation, for many people in academe the concepts are new, with an emerging vocabulary that includes both familiar and unfamiliar terminology. Of those terms, “stackable credentials” is perhaps the most commonly and differently used. In our view, it is also the most important concept in the broader discussion. The term itself is clever, invoking the image of Lego blocks and the metaphor of assembly. But assembly of what? With what linkages?

The most common description of stackable credentials goes something like this: over a lifetime of learning, individuals can assemble, or stack, a series of traditional degree-based and/or nontraditional credentials -- certificates, certifications, licenses, badges, apprenticeships and more -- that recognize achievements and provide an accurate assessment of knowledge, skills and abilities. The more credentials learners accumulate and stack, the more they increase their currency in our knowledge economy, creating more direct pathways to better jobs and higher wages. While that narrative captures a number of key ideas, it glosses over important differences in what credentials are being stacked and why.

Stacking Credentials: Vertical, Horizontal and Value Added

Attainment of the four-year degree has increasingly become the primary focus of higher education, as evidenced by the shift of many two-year institutions toward transfer-friendly programs for learners whose final aspirations are a bachelor’s degree. At the same time, the longer history of community colleges, as well as many land-grant and technical four-year institutions, has been to provide educational programs and credentials tied to occupational fields at the certificate level, tied to a certification or, at the associate level, with a tight vocational focus. Those distinct types of educational programs and pathways have given rise to distinct forms of credential stacking.

In short, credentials can be stacked in many ways. We think the best framework is vertical, horizontal and value added, although we are not sure who actually coined these terms. (Will the master builder please step forward?) Most citations go back to Salt Lake City Community College.

Vertical Stacking. The original and more traditional version of credential stacking, vertical stacking, thinks about credentials in a hierarchy -- with one level building on another, enabling the learner to progress toward a higher degree. For example, a high school graduate earns an associate degree with a specialty, followed by a four-degree in a selected industry, like engineering, and finally an M.B.A. in preparation for a corporate upper-management position.

Vertical stacking is driven by the social forces at play in what Burning Glass Technologies calls the credentials gap: the difference between the education levels of currently employed workers and those employers are demanding for new hires. According to Burning Glass, an increasing number of jobs that nondegree holders historically filled now require degrees. For example, 65 percent of postings for executive secretaries and executive assistants now call for a bachelor’s degree, while only 19 percent of those currently employed in these roles have a B.A.

Horizontal Stacking. With horizontal stacking, the level of the credential is less important than the subject matter. Learners expand their subject matter expertise by earning credentials in related fields that, collectively, prepare each person for a specific type of job. Unlike vertical stacking, there is no explicit ordinal ranking or prerequisites, although some credentials may build on others.

For example, many highly skilled, highly sought after and highly compensated IT professionals don’t follow a traditional baccalaureate path, stacking degrees vertically. Instead, they build a series of nondegree certificates and certifications horizontally across an occupational field. A learner could earn a CompTIA certificate, Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert certificate and Cisco Certified Network Associate certificate with the goal of broadening his or her skills as a systems administrator or analyst.

Value-Added Stacking. Combining the concepts of vertical and horizontal credential stacking, value-added stacking is when a learner adds an area of expertise to an existing two- or four-year degree with shorter-term credentials to prepare for a specific type of job. In South Carolina, for instance, many of today’s health care professionals follow this path. A learner could add patient care technician and phlebotomy certificates to an associate degree or supplement a bachelor’s degree in health management with an information services certificate -- all leading to a position as a medical office administrator.

Why Stackable Credentials Are Worth Defining

Increasingly, Americans are earning many kinds of credentials to improve their position in the labor market. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 46.3 million adults (aged 18 and over) held a professional certification or license, and 19.1 million held an educational certificate. So while Burning Glass is right that a degree still matters, as research by the Georgetown Center for Workforce Development demonstrates, nondegree credentials can have a significant impact on earnings as well.

On average, says the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, high school graduates receive a 20 percent wage premium with a certificate. And certificate holders, especially those in high-earning fields of study, do better than many with an associate or bachelor’s degree. For example, in computer and information services, male certificate holders have higher earnings than 72 percent of men with an associate degree and 54 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. Women certificate holders in the field earn more than 75 percent of women with associate degrees and 64 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees.

At the center of credential innovation and its related lexicon are the learners and the pathways they take. Increasingly, the best advice we can give students is not simply to get the highest degree possible. Instead, we need to think clearly about occupational goals and the different ways credentials can enable access to the fields they aspire to enter.

Most learners will never know the term stackable credentials or recognize that what they’re doing when they earn follow-on credentials is stacking. Instead, the responsibility falls on higher education institutions to have a clear conception of the term as we work to make our programs truly stackable and help our learners turn more credentials into more opportunities.

Jimmie Williamson is president of South Carolina Technical College System, and Matthew Pittinsky is an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and CEO of Parchment Inc.

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Commencement advice to students from a professor who is retiring (essay)

As the semester ends, my graduating students have only one thing in mind: getting through the ceremony so they can finally start what we all coyly refer to as real life.

That includes sitting through the inevitable, and frequently interminable, commencement address. As a professor, I have endured plenty of them and been by turns bemused, bored or just plain exhausted. You can take only so much wisdom, especially when you know that most of it sounds better than it works. I have heard all the advice, snappy quotes, telling anecdotes and smart jokes, and I always hope that my soon-to-be ex-students get more out of all that than I do.

I do, however, have sympathy for the speakers. I can only imagine what it must be like to face all those young people, filled with energy and anxiety about their plans, confident and concerned about their future, hopeful and worried about what comes next. It must be hard to figure out what to say that has not been said before.

But not for me. This year I have something in common with my graduating students. They may be ending their college careers, but I am, too. After decades of teaching, I am planning to retire. So although no one has asked me, I know just what I would say to them as they face their uncertain futures. Only six words: “I know exactly how you feel.”

Pearls of wisdom gathered and polished over years of adulthood would play better, but, to tell the truth, I have little to offer in that respect. In fact, I would prefer to sit down with the students and commiserate and share worries -- although I doubt that it would be proper to descend from the podium for a nice whine party.

After all this time, what I have to tell them is less about success and more about how I feel their pain. It is ironic but true. Here we are, after all, at opposite ends of the work cycle -- not to mention the life cycle -- and yet we share more emotionally and psychologically than anyone would imagine.

The most obvious point is that we are all seniors now, although the description may be a tad more upbeat for them. About three million undergraduate degrees will be granted this year. That’s roughly the same number of boomers who will retire. We are all ending one phase of life and starting another … and trying to figure out what to do next. I see the worry in their faces when they talk to me about it, the hope that things will work out for them and the concern that they might not. But honestly, I see that exact same expression when I look in the mirror.

Naturally they worry about money, about making it and keeping it and having enough to meet their needs. News flash: me, too. The average student loan debt this year will be around $35,000. That is something to be concerned about. But my generation has not only education debt but credit card, car and mortgage debt, too. I would love to be all wise and sympathetic about this, but I have my own problems here.

We are also all looking for jobs. Students need to jump-start new careers fast, but so do I. Boomers for the most part do not retire; they re-career. My recent graduates are mostly working, but all of my retired friends are working. The trader became an actor. The teacher became a docent. I will return to writing full time. But there is no guarantee that any of this will pan out. When I gently reassure students that they will find something fulfilling and rewarding, I suspect that I am also trying to encourage myself. My secret dread is that I will end up somehow competing with one of them for a job. Or being hired by a former student. Or worse, being fired.

We share other things as well. We can’t remember anything. The so-called senior moment is true only in the sense that they have it as often as I do. Maybe more. Even on my worst day, I remember far more than my students can -- in spite of the fact that I have more to remember. I may not recall the name of that actor in the movie whose title also escapes me, but neither can they. And they have only seen scores of films, not the many hundreds that I have.

And if, as they sometimes tell me, they think they can finally abandon their obsession with tests and scores once they leave school, I have news for them. Worrying about a GPA is child’s play once you start dealing with PSA, HDL, BP and plenty more. Other than the fact that young folks want higher numbers and adults want lower ones, we are all constantly being tested and waiting and wondering.

So I can see why requests for my commencement address have been lacking. You cannot inspire by fretting nor uplift with worry. I would not know what else to tell them other than what I try to tell myself: hang in there. Keep trying. Be positive. And I hope it all works out … for both of us.

Alan Robbins is, for the moment, a professor at the Robert Busch School of Design, Kean University, N.J.

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