Liberal and conservative alike, this year's college freshmen are more tolerant than their predecessors. They're also more academically focused, struggling with finances and worried about job prospects.
Submitted by Gwen Dungy on December 23, 2011 - 3:00am
I’m beginning to think academic affairs leaders are from Mars and student affairs leaders are from Venus. Imagine the following scenario:
A vice president for academic affairs and a vice president for student affairs arrive at the student union for lunch, each carrying a book camouflaged in brown paper. The two make small talk and greet students they know who are relaxing with their peers. Then the conversation takes a turn. The vice president for academic affairs opens his book to a page marked with a tape flag and comments, "Look at this. All that crap you have been talking about on student engagement? Here it says that not only does it not contribute positively to learning, it degrades learning!"
The vice president for student affairs, mildly taken aback, quickly recovers and, whipping out her brown paper-covered book says, "Yes, and did you notice that it’s the faculty whose low expectations and lack of rigor by not assigning enough reading and writing is the real problem? That’s why our students are not learning as much as they should!"
A student nearby was listening to the exchange. The two vice presidents quickly turn and ask a nearby student listening to the exchange, “And what do you think?”
“Don’t you get it?” responds the student. “College is about more than just classroom assignments or activities outside of class.”
“Then, what do you think it’s about?” the academic VP inquires.
The student affairs VP, eagerly awaiting vindication, smiles at the student, only to hear the reply, “I don’t know. I’m just repeating what I heard in orientation.”
As you probably already guessed, the camouflaged book is Academically Adrift, and -- whether its research is on target or not -- it has focused attention on the incongruence of what we say we do and what we really do in colleges and universities. In theory, the “good” news is that everyone is to blame if students are not attaining a quality education, including students.
Let’s assume that students who enter college expect a return on their investment -- they want to get what they’ve been promised. What are the responsibilities of academic and student affairs to deliver on the promises? Certainly academic learning, career preparation, skill development, and the development of habits that lead to personal and social responsibility are all part of the mission of higher education. The burden of delivering on these promises falls on both the academic and student affairs sides of the equation.
Instead of pointing fingers and nodding in agreement with the parts of the book that seem to vindicate a particular point of view, the book’s message should serve as a wake-up call for all parties. It’s time to move beyond talking, accept responsibility, and take action.
For those in student affairs, it’s time to stop saying that our programs complement the teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom when at too many campuses student affairs has no relationship with the faculty and no idea about what the student’s experience is in the classroom.
A student affairs colleague at one university told me about a meeting with a group of residence hall directors and their supervisors that included much complaining about the lack of faculty appreciation. He asked the group if they knew the graduation requirements for their students. The response: silence – and then an embarrassed awareness of their lack of knowledge. He added that he’s also asked staff to indicate the amount of time in their weeklong training sessions for residential directors and residential advisers that is allocated to addressing the academic mission of the institutions. He reported, “I’ve yet to have a staff find more than an hour or two that does that. We in student affairs are too often not really in touch with the primary mission of our institution — the earning of an academic degree.”
Student affairs professionals cannot complement what goes on in the classroom if they do not know what is being taught or what students are expected to learn.
At the same time, faculty members have vague and usually inaccurate ideas about the programs and activities in student affairs. They accept the stereotype and paint student affairs with the old brush of party people, babysitter, and balloon people. Commented a student affairs administrator who conducts a session each fall with faculty members about dealing with challenging students and creating connections and relationships to enhance learning, “The discussion always goes back to ‘How can I teach them?’ They truly don’t know and no one is answering these questions for them. It’s an opportunity for us to help.”
Still another colleague shared that at her university, the debate over learning assessments has unfortunately stopped earnest efforts to actually measure learning. The time has come to stop permitting disdain for metrics. Faculty members who refuse to consider expanding learning outcomes beyond the discipline and assert that to address learning outcomes will diminish the objectives of teaching are doing a tremendous disservice to their students and the parents of those students, short- and long-term.
The truly good news is that there are some bright spots on the horizon. At the University of the Pacific, student affairs leaders are encouraged to teach academic courses, and most do – and not just in graduate programs in education. The retention task force at the University of Puget Sound includes student affairs professionals and faculty members, and the collaboration has reportedly increased appreciation on both sides. Student affairs now has a greater understanding of the impact of faculty on the lives of students, and faculty members are informed advocates for student affairs.
We can no longer afford to toss barbs at each other across a chasm. Faculty and student affairs need to reconnect the programs and activities outside the classroom to the intellectual and ethical purposes of higher education.
College is about more than just classroom assignments or activities outside of class, but we need to walk this talk with which we orient students when they enter college as hopeful learners.
Gwen Dungy is executive director of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
Today, I add another notch to my belt. The signs of aging are clearly beginning to show - in the past year or so, I’ve managed to hurt my shoulder throwing a tennis ball for the dog, pull something in my leg vacuuming, and injure my neck while sleeping. And to top it off, my body seems to insist on accumulating what appears to be spare material around my waist.
But my rapidly deteriorating body is not the only thing I’ve noticed. With each passing year, I lose a bit more perspective on what it was like on the other side of the student-faculty divide. So before it is lost forever, I thought I’d share some of the more illuminating differences in perspective between many students from younger generations and many from older ones. I certainly don’t claim to be able to speak for entire generations, but I do have reason to believe that these views are fairly widespread.
Many older folks within academia are fond of telling stories about how they worked over the summers at low-paid jobs to fund their education. This is sometimes accompanied by lamenting the laziness of today’s students. Most of the younger generation find these stories interesting but irrelevant to our lives, much like stories of using slide rules to do math. What many in the older generations seem to be unaware of is that except for those students attending the very lowest-cost institutions, their experience is no longer applicable. Working at the minimum wage, a typical student at a four-year college could pay their total cost of attendance in 1976-1977 by working 23 hours a week, 50 weeks a year.
Thus, it was feasible to finance your education with a summer job and a little part-time work. By 2009-2010,however, a student would have had to work 58 hours a week. As a result, instead of attending college and working on the side, students are increasingly working full time and attending college part time.
(2) For many students, college is all about the job.
Any time someone makes the point that a certain college or even a college degree may not make sense monetarily, they are immediately hounded by a slew of individuals retorting that there is a lot more to a college education than getting a good-paying job. This is obviously true. I myself gained a much greater appreciation for literature thanks to some schedule-filling class where we read the Odyssey, something I probably never would have read otherwise. But this point is usually overblown. Back when tuition was a couple hundred dollars a semester, it didn’t much matter if it helped you get a better job. Now a degree comes with an average of $25,250 in student loan debt (for those that borrow), not counting what parents borrow. Students don’t take on that kind of financial burden to become a better human being – we do it to get a better job.
Moreover, college is not the only place where these non-vocational skills and attitudes can be acquired. Now that school is no longer getting in the way of my education, I’ve rekindled numerous interests and still learn new things (the first poem that I ever enjoyed I read for work).
(3) We’ve realized that higher education has higher priorities than the education of students.
As new college students, we completely bought into those orientation speeches about how dedicated faculty are going to mold us into tomorrow’s leaders. Within a year or two though, we’d had classes taught by TAs and adjuncts who are too busy to prepare for class or give us timely feedback, or tenured professors who are too lazy to update their lesson plans from before we were born (some of these are written on yellow paper -- not yellow legal pads, mind you, but paper that has yellowed from age). But the worst are the classes where the professor/adjunct/TA doesn’t even speak English. The first couple of times you encounter these issues, you assume that it is just some sort of fluke, soon to be fixed. But by the time you graduate, you have encountered these too often and have come to one of two conclusions: colleges are either nearly incompetent in making staffing decisions, or teaching is simply not a high priority for colleges.
(4) We are goal-oriented, meaning we’ll follow the path of least resistance.
From what I’ve been able to gather, many in the older generations went to college to explore (at least that’s what they tell us). Many in the younger generations go to college to achieve a goal. We are told that a college degree is virtually required for a middle-class life, so we go out and get a college degree. But since the goal is a degree rather than a journey, we follow the path of least resistance. We do this not because we are lazy (well, that too) but rather because it is what we’ve been trained to do. We’ll take easy courses and seek out easy professors to ensure that our grades are high enough to reach the next level. This is problematic because we assume that the paths have been designed properly and therefore that we will be ready for life when we graduate. Too often, that is not the case (see point 3).
(5) College is not always worth it.
Most younger people know numerous people for whom college was not worth it. This colors our perception of the entire enterprise (and the advice we give to others). This is the difference that I think the older generations have the hardest time coming to terms with. When they went to school, as long as you didn’t drink yourself to death, it was almost guaranteed to have no long-term negative impact. That is no longer the case.
All the debt students acquire still needs to be paid back even if they drop or fail out. Even more disturbing, most of us know quite a few people who managed to graduate, but then couldn’t find a job, even before the recession. They generally find something eventually, but typically after a few years of aimlessness, and the job they finally get often does not require them to use their degree in any meaningful sense. These are smart, capable people. They would have achieved the same level of success regardless of whether they went to college or not, but all felt compelled to go, at great expense to themselves and taxpayers.
If you are older and disagreed with any of these five points, worry not. If my rapidly deteriorating body is any guide, I’ll be coming around to your views soon enough.
Andrew Gillen is an adjunct professor of economics in Washington, and research director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.