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Would you advise a student with an obvious weakness to take a course in that area, with the idea of shoring up the weak flank?

In a perfect world, there’s a good argument for doing exactly that.  If we think of education as formative -- which it’s supposed to be -- then using education to shore up weaknesses makes sense. Steer the shy student into the acting class, the dreamer into the business class, and the accountant into the literature class. They may never major in those areas, or even take them again, but they may well benefit from the experience.  

But as Chad Orzel pointed out in a thoughtful piece this week, the freedom to do that is increasingly a prerogative of wealth.

If you’re an otherwise-strong student with good social, economic, and academic capital, and you’re in a selective and prestigious institution, and you’re well on your way to a lucrative and fairly well defined position, and you have an “elective” slot in a given semester, then yes, you can probably afford to take a flyer on something that will stretch you. If you pull a “C” in the acting class, well, who cares? You’re on your way, and it adds some character to your story. (At Williams, the institutional expression of that was “Winter Study,” or intersession classes, which were graded pass/fail.)  

But what if you’re paying by the course, you’re working your way through, you don’t have a safety net, and your school doesn’t have the prestige that comes from excluding most people? What if graduation isn’t a given? What if you don’t already have a strong track record?

For many students, especially at this level, risking failure in an “irrelevant” class is risking too much. If you’re juggling complicated life circumstances, a combination of failures and withdrawals can easily jeopardize your “satisfactory academic progress,” which is a requirement for financial aid. In this setting, better to show strengths than to document weaknesses. Weaknesses are assumed; there’s no need to confirm them.

The “guided pathways” model is based on a pragmatic, if somewhat reluctant, recognition of the higher cost of failure. The idea is to reduce systemic risk by reducing the chances of bad choices. I see it as spreading out choice over several semesters: you start with the Big Choice of a general field, and then narrow down as you go. It’s still possible to fail along the way, but it’s less likely that a student will get lost among conflicting programs.  

I’d like to see an economy robust enough that anyone who graduates college can get a good job, regardless of major; in that economy, we could restore some of those choices.  But for students lacking a glass floor, right now advice like “give it the old college try” is somewhere between tone-deaf and malicious. I wish that weren’t true, but it is. And I think we show students more respect by confronting the reality of the situation than by treating everyone as if they have a trust fund. The first weakness to shore up is economic.

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