Jill (not her real name) has been a student in two of my classes and has a 4.0 grade point average. She writes for the campus newspaper, serves on the executive board of our university’s professional journalists organization and works a full-time job. With her exemplary writing and class attendance, she is easily one of the shining stars of our department.
She also comes to me at least once a semester for a cathartic cry.
Jill’s world comes crashing down on her often. Sometimes the pressure and time constraints get to her. Other times, there is an issue at home or with roommates.
But the underlying cause of her stress is an issue she tries to ignore in everything she does: Her parents think college is a waste of time.
Jill’s issues at home and all the time constraints that put pressure on her academics and her social life stem from the fact that she pays her own way through school, with only a small amount of help from student loans and scholarships.
Sometimes she will ask me or whichever professor or adviser she is confiding in that day the question that many of us are scared to ask ourselves: Is it worth it?
There are tons of self-made success stories of billionaires abandoning their college educations in the pursuit of grander things, a la Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. Their stories float around social media, distributed via Facebook memes, chain-letter emails, and Wikipedia entries, and they provide fodder for parents and teenagers who would rather not spend money on or fund four-plus years in a classroom when they could be out making a living and getting started with their occupations now.
And why wouldn’t they?
Jill’s story is like those of so many of my other students who work themselves into exhaustion just to be here in school. For me, their circumstances raise two important questions: As a professor and club adviser, how can I work around these students’ extenuating circumstances in a way that is sympathetic yet firm, and how can I convince these students that college is worth their while?
I often have students come in with late assignments or club members who have fallen short on fulfilling their obligations to the group. They need more time or more help or they just drop the class or club completely. The most common excuse: I had to work.
My gut reaction is to be sympathetic to these students. I know how difficult it is to maintain a job, or in some cases many jobs, to support oneself in school -- I was in the same boat when I was there. At work, students have little control over their schedules or the demands put upon them. The bottom line is simple: You don’t show up, you don’t get paid and you get fired.
But in their academic lives, students become their own boss for the first time in their lives. Suddenly, there is no parent or boss or teacher breathing down their neck, leaning on them to go to class, do their homework, or attend that meeting.
When an exhausted, newly autonomous 18-22-year-old has to make the choice between work and school commitments, the scale is hardly balanced. On one end, there is the job they cannot afford to lose, and on the other, there is the education or organization that looks good on the resume, but produces few immediate tangible effects. After coming home late at night following a full day of work and classes and meetings, that paper due tomorrow might just have to wait.
The party line for most professors when dealing with this situation is this: School needs to be each student’s top priority. But is that really always fair to assume?
The challenge becomes weeding out which students are in Jill’s position from the barrage of excuses from those who are just being lazy. Often times, the difference is obvious. Students like Jill, who genuinely want to be here and are working hard for the privilege, rarely offer excuses.
Sure, I’m aware of Jill’s circumstances and the circumstances of others in her position, but she has never once failed to take responsibility for any lapses in work or effort. These students are here because they recognize the value of education, and they treat it with the same seriousness they do their jobs.
Still, things come up, and I am faced with a choice, too. Do I punish these students with poor grades or boot them from the organization they have let slip to the back burner, or do I find some way to keep them above water and feeling involved?
The easy choice, of course, would be to tell students like Jill that I can’t make exceptions for them because then I would have to make exceptions for everybody. Having to rearrange my schedule, my rules, and my expectations puts more pressure on me, and in this job, who needs it?
But I didn’t become a teacher so that I could be a taskmaster or a tough boss. It’s students like these that need and want our guidance the most, so I try my best to give it to them.
First, I try to work with the student, finding out if there are alternative times or locations to meet or making myself more accessible in case there is something I can do to help him or her understand the assignment better and complete it on time.
When other students complain or can’t understand accommodations given in unique circumstances, I use it as a teachable moment, reminding them that they will come across situations in the working world that they don’t understand, and everyone’s circumstances are not identical to their own. Sometimes as a manager, I say, you have to be flexible and do what is best for each team member to make the operation run smoothly.
Yet, when dealing with students like Jill, I find such accommodations are rarely necessary. Most of the time, all she needs is a little guidance, an open ear, and someone with authority to tell her she made the right decision.
Which brings me to my next big question: How can I convince students like these that college is worth their while?
Tuition costs are skyrocketing throughout the country, and more students are accruing eye-popping amounts of student loan debt each year, which means they will graduate and start their careers in a financial ditch. Programs have been cut to save money, and class caps at many universities have risen to generate more revenue from more students. Many colleges with an eye on the bottom line have increased the number of online classes they offer, in hopes of reaching more students in more distant locales.
There is an easy answer to give students who question the value of a college degree: Most career-track jobs nowadays require them. A high school graduate is not likely to compete with a college graduate for a teaching job or a marketing job. But there are still plenty of vocational careers and office jobs with decent salaries and potential for upward growth to give pause to students and parents who are not sold on the idea of college.
If Jill’s parents were sitting in front of you, challenging you to defend their daughter’s decision to put herself through college rather than going straight into the work force, what would you say?
When I graduated from college with my degree in journalism, I went to work in a small newsroom feeling prepared. I felt poised, brave, and ready to take on whatever challenges were presented to me.
I was a fool.
My journalism degree did not prepare me for every eventuality I would come across in my reporting career. What it did is give me the basic skills and knowledge I needed to secure the job and the ability to learn something new every day. I owe my success to brilliant professors who gave me the footing I needed to succeed and taught me to absorb education not just in the classroom but also throughout my life.
A fool without my background would have taken one look at her new job and run. This fool stayed, knowing I had the tools I needed to learn and grow. And I never looked back.
The opportunities for growth that came my way stemmed largely from professors who knew my abilities and pushed me to flourish. Yes, I learned the ins and outs of writing news stories while sitting in a classroom, but the real takeaway was the belief that I had the ability to fly above a Category 5 hurricane, knock on accused murderers’ doors, and grill disgraced politicians – all of which I did as a young reporter. When it got scary or it felt like too much, I remembered the lessons I learned at my alma mater, and, occasionally, I even contacted my professors for help, and I managed to carry on.
While in college, I was given the fantastic opportunity to fail. I botched articles, mixed up facts, missed deadlines, and, more than likely, offended sources more than once. Had I done any one of those things in my professional career, I likely would have been looking for another job. As it turns out, my college education was like juggling knives while wearing body armor, allowing me to fail without total destruction.
Furthermore, I never would have been a reporter had I not had the opportunity to dip my toe in other waters. I began college as an archaeology major. (Upon realizing archaeology is a science, I quickly turned and ran.)
I toiled with notions of becoming a theater worker, a “communication specialist” (whatever that is), and a public relations practitioner all before one wonderful journalism professor noted my work and talked some sense into me. Had it not been for college, I might still be looking for my passion and spending and losing a lot of money in the process.
As Jill walked across the stage at graduation last spring, I saw a confident, hardworking young women eager to begin her professional life and sure to be a success. I only hope her parents saw it, too.
Jennifer Brannock Cox is an assistant professor of communication arts at Salisbury University.
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