For the College of Wooster and the College of Charleston, bigger isn't always better. Both have designed student housing that embraces the concept of tiny living, offering relatively few square feet per student.
After spending 15 years in college and university administration, mainly at two-year colleges, and the past two years as a faculty member in a community college leadership doctoral program, I have become increasingly frustrated by the perpetuation of what I refer to as the myth of the nontraditional student.
All too frequently in my career, a graduating student has come to me to express appreciation for helping them to make it to that achievement, indicating that they did not think that they would be successful because they knew they “were not supposed to be in college.” They are the students our educational systems deem “nontraditional.” They are adults, they are part-time students, they have had jobs, some have had children, some have been caring for elderly parents. Basically, by not being aged 18 to 24 and a full-time student, these “nontraditional” students have entered college thinking they do not belong.
The shocking thing to me has been that these “nontraditional” students have made up the vast majority of those attending their institution. Further, nearly half of the undergraduate students in the American higher education system can be categorized as nontraditional. The National Center for Education Statistics shows large increases in the enrollment of students that have typically been characterized as nontraditional because their demographic makeup identifies them as an atypical college student. Yet the message that these students are the outsiders is persistent and causes much psychological distress and self-doubt.
Those of us who work in higher education should realize that there no longer is a nontraditional student or, at the very least, we need to revise the definition of what constitutes one. Further, the continued and frequent labeling of the majority of our college students as nontraditional is a form of othering that adversely impacts these students’ ability to successfully persist in many of our educational settings.
Referring to our students as nontraditional puts them at a starting line behind other college enrollees -- not only in their sense of self but also in the minds of fellow students, faculty members, administrators and policy makers. Using such language basically says, “We are going out on a limb by letting you attend college because this place is not really designed for you, and you really should not be here.”
What’s more, that statement might be true simply because many of our institutions, programs and traditions are not made for these students -- and this is a problem. Our institutions, programs and traditions are the problem, not the students. We must do better.
The nontraditional narrative is stunningly pervasive in higher education circles. To think about students in any alternate way is to go against the very fabric of the system of education that has been built in our country. However, we know that “traditional” college students are less and less frequently the ones that are entering the doors of many (and I would argue, most) of our institutions.
Some would argue that as educators we should simply re-evaluate our understanding of who makes up the conceptualized traditional college student. However, that is not enough. We must remove any designation of our students that would perpetuate a divide between who belongs in college, for whom college is designed and for whom college success is an option. And we must reframe our educational system for those students and address a variety of other aspects of it as we aim to meet the all too frequently proposed completion agendas. Those areas include: developmental education, student services, course scheduling, definitions of success and more.
In fact, most of the students to whom I am referring attend colleges and universities that might easily be labeled nontraditional themselves or somehow othered in the institutional hierarchy of American higher education. The elite, traditional institutions of our higher education system, the Ivy League, the land grant, the research intensive and the like continue to enroll high numbers of traditional college students, while the nontraditional ones are relegated to our teaching colleges, community colleges and the oft-criticized for-profit institutions. That further denigrates the students that cannot access traditional institutions because their demographic characteristics do not match those of the students for whom such institutions were designed hundreds of years ago. Creating institutions for these individuals that are underfunded (community colleges) or overcharging (for-profit) is not providing equal education for our populace. While I believe in the power of diverse institutional options, I do not believe in relegating students to certain institutions because of their demographic makeup.
We must think differently about whom our system of higher education serves and then drill that down to the institutional level. For example, many policy makers and educational think tanks focus only on four-year research institutions and the students they serve when making broad higher education reforms. That only offers a glimpse into a small percentage of the students actually enrolled in higher education in our country. They need a broader understanding of the actual student body of our nation, as a whole.
At the institutional level, we should check our assumptions about whom we are serving, as well as whom we should or could be serving. We must not assume to know our demographics but rather examine our programs, services and curricula to be sure they are appropriate for all students -- not just the ones that fit into an antiquated idea of traditional. Further, our developmental programs are designed to help traditional students in many ways but, in fact, those are not the students enrolling in the majority of developmental courses. How can we rethink developmental education for the actual student in the classroom and simultaneously stop blaming our failure to successfully remediate students on the lack of preparation in high school?
To be clear, I do not have all of the answers for how we accomplish the reframing and reconsideration of our system of higher education. There are many players and many thoughtful conversations to be had. But we can start with a discussion that comes from recognizing the inadequacy of the “nontraditional” label -- for only through recognizing the problem can be find new paths. And so I present to you a challenge and call for debate on the floor.
Needham Yancey Gulley is an assistant professor in the higher education student affairs program at Western Carolina University.
At the liberal arts college where I used to work, we did some of our most interesting teaching in the context of academic advising. Each faculty member had five to six nonmajor advisees and a dozen upper-level major advisees. Advising meant having a lot of conversations, ostensibly about credits, requirements and majors. Yet those conversations also became the foundation for teaching students how to build a relationship with an adult who was not a parent, boss or guidance counselor.
We faculty advisers offered ourselves as mentors to nonmajors, and by spring of sophomore year, were helping students find new mentors who matched their intellectual ambitions. We supported young people as they struggled to survive the routine traumas of the first 24 months at college: discovering that other students were as, or more, capable than they were; coping with a sudden illness; managing heavy reading burdens; and dealing with divorcing parents, class anxiety or coming out -- to name a few. Those conversations helped to solve problems, but they also encouraged students to reconnect with their own resilience and self-confidence -- essential qualities that college can quickly whittle away.
I thought about this last week as I read about Nayla Kidd, the 19-year-old Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science undergraduate who went underground -- prompting fears that she was in danger and a police search for her -- rather than finish her sophomore year. A formerly good student whose mother is a research scientist, Nayla attributed her need to disappear to the “high pressure and unreasonable expectations” of a selective science program. But she also told a reporter from The New York Post, “School just wasn’t interesting to me anymore because I didn’t have any close connections to my teachers.”
Although it caused her mother a great deal of worry and pain, Kidd then demonstrated the kind of pluck that a faculty adviser could do a lot with. She turned the act of dropping out into a carefully planned, and successful, adventure in taking back her life. She raised a stash of money by working hard and selling personal belongings. She found a place to live in New York. She went off the grid, closing out her regular phone and her Facebook, and refusing to take calls on the new number she had given to friends.
Could Nayla Kidd have used that initiative to make a connection with a teacher? It’s hard to say. Because faculty members do less advising than they ever have, the mentoring relationship that might have kept Kidd at Columbia may be less likely to occur now than it ever has been.
The urban university where I work now, which has made the shift to centralized advising, is typical of that. Although students may have a faculty adviser and even a peer adviser, the ordinary meetings that became the foundation of student-faculty relationships -- preregistration, making an academic plan, adding and dropping classes, solving institutional problems -- are now usually handled by administrators who specialize in advising.
This is true at the vast majority of schools -- even at Columbia, which has a far higher proportion of full-time faculty than my own university -- and it has consequences for students in crisis over an academic career that has gone off the rails. A 2011 survey by the National Academic Advising Association revealed that 22 percent of colleges and universities use full-time professional advisers exclusively, 18 percent use full-time faculty advisers exclusively and everyone else uses a mix. Whatever the approach, according to a 2014 article in The New York Times that cited the survey, “rarely do faculty advise in the first two critical years of college when students are more likely to transfer or drop out.”
That means that, during those years, students at a whopping 82 percent of colleges and universities may have, as their most structured adult contact, someone who is not an intellectual mentor or role model. These students will need to come to campus with the self-confidence and skills to reach out and establish relationships with faculty members -- whether their own teachers, or those they hope to learn from in a major, on their own. At large, multicampus universities like Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, students might not even create a relationship with a single professional adviser. The business of advising can be accomplished by dropping in or making an appointment at an advising center on any of the four campuses, through careful use of the advising website, or through online chat.
I don’t know what opportunities Columbia offered Kidd; they also have an advising center that handles routine institutional tasks. And I do know that faculty members don’t always do a terrific job as advisers, are sometimes frustratingly unavailable and can be ill informed about things outside their department.
I am also not implying that professional advisers are not good at what they do, or that faculty, peer and professional advisers do not function as the wraparound service teams that many university websites claim they do. “Think about your academic adviser as a partner as you go about developing your network of success,” a short video on the New York University advising website proposes.
The mission of advising offices, as their websites will tell you, is not relationship building: it is “student success.” This concept includes steering students away from courses of study where they have struggled in the past and toward majors in which good grades and on-time graduation are more likely. It includes making sure students have the right credits in the right departments to graduate in a major and a minor or two, can be sent on to postgraduate education, and can identify internships that, in turn, will lead to employment.
These are not small things. However, professional advising websites also imply that academic problems, which must bring in a healthy number of clients, are linked to failures of character. Columbia’s advising office lists six attributes that a student needs to bring to the advising “partnership.” They include active engagement with the adviser, being “forthcoming about perceived obstacles to success” and looking for information on their own. The Office of Academic Services at Rutgers instructs a student that he or she must “accept responsibility for making your own plans and decisions” and “become an educated consumer.” At Liberty University, “Professional advising exists to help students build ownership and critical thinking skills as they work to achieve their spiritual, academic and professional goals.” The University of Pennsylvania devotes a whole page of its advising website to student responsibility, a virtue that includes the making and keeping of appointments (something that demoralized students are even less good at than their peers, in my experience), being “active and informed participants,” and “learn[ing] to take responsibility.” Rutgers advises students that one key to making good use of an adviser is to “be on time.”
It’s hard not to see the heavy hand of the market in this language. Every personal quality I have listed above is a useful character trait and a foundation for success in any moneymaking endeavor, including being a college professor. But they are qualities students develop at college and should not be prerequisites for accessing higher education or for making a successful mentoring relationship with an adult. They smack of the ideology of individualism that has transformed economic, social and political citizenship since 1980: if you can’t stand on your own two feet and make good decisions, we can’t help you. Yet students often end up in academic trouble because they haven’t made good decisions, a skill generally cultivated as a mature person.
One great obstacle to students’ overcoming the various forms of failure they will encounter in their first two years at college is the mistaken belief of many otherwise successful young people that they ought to be able to solve problems on their own, and certainly without bringing their teachers into it. One way to change this is to have students practice making relationships with faculty for no practical reason at all. As Harvard School of Education Professor Richard J. Light wrote in How to Make the Most of College (Harvard University Press, 2004), after having a general discussion with each of his first-year students, he would give each one a task: to have a conversation with one faculty member other than himself that semester. It is an “obvious idea,” Light writes, “that part of a great college education depends upon human relationships.” The attenuation of faculty advising eliminates a crucial opportunity for a student not only to practice these relationships but also to do so in ways that may be self-revealing and not entirely goal oriented.
As an experienced adviser, I can testify that it isn’t unusual, even at a small New England college that prides itself on advising, for students to disappear or for a graduating senior to not know more than one faculty member whom they feel comfortable asking for a recommendation. Nor is it unusual for a student to respond to profound unhappiness, and the isolation and fear often tangled up in that, by embracing solitude and self-reliance. I once had a student who went to bed about a week after arriving on campus, leaving her room only to eat and to visit with me, her adviser, every two weeks. She assured me her classes were all going well. Not one of her instructors let me, or her dean, know she had stopped attending.
It’s easy for faculty members to slam professional advisers, and I don’t mean to do that. I am pretty sure that many who work at colleges and universities where they partner with faculty members have a lot to say about how unavailable many of us are often are for the conversations that bright, capable students might require. Yet that relationship with a faculty adviser prior to establishing a major program may be the key to making college seem worthwhile to students like Nayla Kidd, who expect, and need, a conversation -- not a prepackaged path to success.
Claire Potter is professor of history and director of the Digital Humanities Initiative at the New School in New York City.
A couple years ago, I noticed something strange: intelligent and interested students were showing up to class without having done the reading. That might not sound shocking, but even those who came to class early and stayed late to ask questions and were deeply invested in the topics under discussion were routinely failing to put even modest efforts toward preparing for class. Puzzled, I asked them why. They claimed simply not to have the time to read or prepare for class due to commitments to extracurricular activities.
My students are not dumb. Nor are they lazy. Can so many of them really be so busy singing in a cappella groups, planting trees for the environment and playing intramural ultimate Frisbee that they just can’t find the time or energy to get to readings or problem sets? It seems they are. And it is robbing them of their education.
I should clarify at the outset that I not talking about students who need to work full-time jobs for financial reasons or who have onerous and essential duties to care for children, siblings, parents or other family members. Such students face other, larger challenges than those presented by campus activities.
I am also not talking about that small subset of students actively pursuing specialized careers -- e.g., in professional sports or on Broadway -- that are deeply related to activities outside of course work (and for which these activities can often become effectively extended auditions). My students also are not just lounging about all day or partying all night.
Sports, clubs, social advocacy groups and other activities can all be good things and have positive impacts on students and the community. But a critical mass of some of the country’s most talented and diligent students systematically sell themselves short, turning away from their academic work in favor of all and sundry extracurricular activities. Many are intensely stressed and consumed by those pursuits, such that they appear to have substantially less time for rest and leisure than their counterparts did two decades ago, even as they spend much less time in the library or laboratory.
Why would they do this? What would make all those extras seem more important than the curriculum itself? It isn’t just that they are more fun -- though many may be -- and, in fact, some students said they didn’t enjoy or even really care about all those activities. Yet they compete for opportunities to squander much their college years on them. I have no authoritative answer but can suggest some hypotheses.
Holdover mentality from high school. Many American high schools push their students to excel in as many extracurricular activities as they can, often because they think this helps those students gain admission to top colleges and universities. To the extent it does, a purposely selected sample of the most driven extracurricular participators turn up on our campuses.
Barely removed from extracurricular hothouse of high school and admissions, they are suddenly thrust into a world in which their time and lives are truly their own and the possible extracurricular activities are nearly limitless. Unable to shake what has been so deeply ingrained, they sign up for as many as they can. They then feel that dropping any activities would look bad on a résumé, so they remain overextended (and probably become increasingly so) throughout their college years. Some students even said to me -- mistakenly, in my view -- that participation in a wide array of extracurriculars, even at the expense of excelling in their classes, was necessary to land a job or for success in the admissions process for law school or graduate school. It is as if they believed the whole world works like high school.
Also, we tell young people of the need to show leadership, so they seek out arenas in which to demonstrate it, even when it hurts their main occupation as students. On campuses, administrators talk frequently of training new generations of “leaders.” Some employers likely ask job candidates to talk about or demonstrate “leadership experience.” In its pathological form, such leadership fetishism drives students to believe earnestly that serving a term as deputy assistant secretary-general of the Model United Nations is more important than doing the readings on organizations and institutions for their international relations class. A corollary is that today’s youth, reared in a fishbowl of social media and extreme in-group stratification, feel intense pressure to show their peers publicly that they belong -- through turning out for water polo Quidditch, as well as on Facebook or Instagram.
Competitive differentiation in an era of extreme grade inflation. Extracurricular overextension may be a result of decades of extreme grade inflation. If everyone gets at least a B, and most students are getting A’s, how does one stand out from the crowd? It may just be, at least in their minds, that extracurricular activities are one of the few ways for our students to distinguish themselves when all GPAs are high and rising. As students put less and less effort into their classes, we also feed the grade inflation machine by continuing to award high grades nonetheless. The academic bar sinks lower and extracurricular activities become ever more important markers of achievement.
Unintended consequence of helicopter parenting and overscheduled childhoods. It could be that students whose days were planned in 15-minute blocks since the age of three are uncomfortable with unstructured time. Many grew up with doting parents who handled the scheduling for them, always ready to step in to ensure there was time for homework, bassoon lessons, volunteering at the homeless shelter and the cross-country track team, as well as for adequate sleep and healthy meals. With no one to set limits or manage their time for them, these students may be unable to choose or say no when confronted with the smorgasbord of college activities. If their grades do not suffer much -- which they aren’t likely to in this era of grade inflation -- such students may never get the wake-up call that tells them to drop some of the teams and clubs for the sake of their education or their sanity.
Whatever the cause, extracurricular activities now crowd out academic work and cause critical harm to students’ intellectual and personal development. Several years ago, researchers led by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published a study called Academically Adrift, arguing that today’s students were learning very little (perhaps nothing) and spending too little time or energy on their studies. Indeed, some of our country’s best and brightest (and hardest-working) students are falling haplessly into this pattern -- all because they feel a misguided compulsion to climb rocks, perform improv comedy or host ice cream socials to talk about HIV, when really they should be reading or studying.
Perhaps most usefully, our students ought to try just thinking about what they are learning (or seeking to learn) or meditating on how their lives are changing and (hopefully) coming into focus. In short, the extracurricular arms race needs to stop before it destroys undergraduate education. But how are we to stop it?
We should not try to place undue restrictions or limits on our students’ participation in activities. College students are adults and should be treated as such. Indeed, some parents’ infantilizing micromanagement of their children’s lives may be at the root of the problems we now see. But I do believe we ought urgently to consider at least four concrete steps.
First, admissions officers should reduce the emphasis placed on extracurricular activities in evaluating applications, and they should make it clear publicly to high school students and teachers that they are doing so.
Second, faculty colleagues and college administrators should do all they can to rein in grade inflation that has spun completely out of control at most colleges and universities. This may be easier said than done, but it behooves us to try.
Third, administrators and student life staffers should curtail excessive praise of leadership and leaders to focus instead on helping students develop contemplative, thoughtful and mature scholarly, emotional and social lives and personae.
Fourth and finally, colleges need to stop competing with each other so intensively in terms of the climbing walls and squash courts and return to their roots of rising or falling based on the academic rigor and intellectual vigor to be found on their campuses.
Only when we restore sanity and sober perspective to our own approaches to undergraduate admissions and education can we expect our students to do the same.
William Hurst is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.