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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Two Sides of the Coin

While I normally see higher education from the point of view of a professor, I am nearing the time when I will begin to look at it from the point of view of a parent of a child who will someday go to college.

April 25, 2013

When I teach statistics, I often use examples of flipping coins to illustrate probability. Since coins have two sides to them, it is logical to ask questions such as, “if you flip a coin one hundred times, how many times do you expect it to come up ‘heads?’” This concept came to mind recently when I realized that while I normally see higher education from the point of view of a professor, I am nearing the time when I will begin to look at it from the point of view of a parent of a child who will someday go to college.

I recently found myself with several other parents (and some grandparents) discussing higher education as a consumer. As the conversation made its way around the room, several questions began
to form in my mind. In each case, I found that I could look at the question from the point of view of a professor or the point of view of a parent. In most cases, I am not sure what perspective is the best one to take.

The first question that arose was whether one should borrow to attend college. One man told of a colleague who attended a graduate program, only to give up that field to work in another industry when it became clear that he could not both pay his bills and work in the field chosen, given the debt he had incurred to get an advanced degree. Certainly none of us would encourage our students to borrow so heavily that they could not take advantage of the degree they were earning.

As is the case in many discussions about higher education, most of the parents in the room seemed to think of college as a means to finding a job. I recalled the long conversations, often into the early hours of the morning, about what I used to call “the meaning of life” that I had with classmates in college, conversations that were not just enjoyable but helped me to mature into the person I am today. That maturity helped me to face and deal with several challenges that the years since then have thrown at me, challenges that I know would have been much more difficult to deal with had I not developed a moral and ethical compas that I could use as a guide. I was left wondering where such emotional growth fits into such a career-oriented approach to education.

Another question that the parents addressed was whether a child should go to a school where they will most likely be a typical student, or should instead choose a school where they will excel. I recall discussions about being a “big fish in a small pond” (as opposed to “a small fish in a big pond”; is that really a choice that we need to make?) when I was choosing a college more than thirty years ago, and I realize that such issues are still on the minds of perspective college students and their parents. The teacher in me hopes that every school can challenge every student to work at levels they never before thought possible, and I was left wondering where I could find such a school for my own daughter.

Of course, the question of how we will pay for college came up, and one man made the pronouncement that he will do what his parents had done. “If they want to go to college, they can find a way to pay for it themselves.” I was left with the question of whether this was a realistic plan when one compares the minimum wage with the price of tuition. In addition, I as I watch my students applying
to graduate school, I realize that graduate school, and the college education that precedes it, are not really options anymore. As I tell my often disbelieving students, almost all of them will earn a graduate degree some day. Indeed, I remember my sister swearing that she would never go back to school once she graduated from college. Even she went on to earn a master’s degree that helped her to move into management in the organization where she worked.

For the most part, I sat and listened to the conversation, the proverbial “fly on the wall” as those around me hashed out the issues that are so central to the piece of the economy in which I work. It was
interesting to hear what others had to say about some of the questions that are often discussed over lunch tables and coffee pots in the math and science building at Ursuline College. And so, readers, I ask you, what input do you offer when you find yourself involved in such conversations?


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