Thursday, June 28, 2012

And to Think School's Out!

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The start of the off season for college counselors was sufficiently trampled last week with college news that makes you wonder what the future looks like.  The first episode started about two weeks ago, when the governing body at The University of Virginia fired their popular president after she was on the job for a scant two years. Thanks to significant outcry from the faculty, students, and alumni, President Sullivan was reinstated this past Tuesday, but there are issues of trust, communication, and leadership among UVA’s governing group to work out before school starts.

Many reasons for the poorly timed decision are unclear, but newly released e-mails suggest President Sullivan wasn’t changing UVA quickly enough, at least in the eyes of some of her bosses.  The whole episode reveals the ongoing tension between business-oriented boards who think changing the direction of a college is easier than changing a light bulb, and academic-oriented presidents who know that college change doesn’t have to be glacial, but it does have to be based on consensus.  Look for more of these tensions to surface, especially at public universities that are starved for funding—and know how that tension can make a campus an unpleasant place to learn. At least UVA’s crisis occurred when school was out.

One area of concern at UVA is their competitiveness in the distance learning market, a position that’s become more important since Harvard and Stanford have announced plans to make some of their courses available online for free.  While it’s hard to see the economic plus side of this venture for Stanford and Harvard, colleges who can’t keep up will clearly be in a predicament, since students would undoubtedly want transfer credit for these courses, keeping dollars out of the coffers of other colleges—and what school would have the temerity to deny a student transfer credit for a class taken through Harvard?

While some see this as a real money-saver for students, there are larger issues to address before brick-and-mortar colleges need to fear.  Studies indicate that drop rates for online classes are vastly higher for online classes than traditional face-to-face classes, and this only includes students who think online classes are something they’d like to try.

The new Ivyesque online presence will do nothing for students who learn best from direct contact with instructors, and the completion rates of these online classes could be even lower, since the content of the courses is designed by two of the most rigorous colleges on the planet.  Add the concerns some college professors have expressed to me about the integrity of online courses (“How do we really know who’s doing the work?”), and UVA’s concerns about going digital now may prove to be unfounded.

And just in case there are those who doubt all of this “Better, Faster, Yesterday” approach to college isn’t having an impact on students and families, there’s the story of the parents in California who are suing their daughter’s high school because their daughter—a straight A student—came in second in her class.  This high achieving daughter is heading to Stanford on a Gates Scholarship and has a NASA internship, so you would think her parents would be proud, yes?

The story says “… to Elisha’s mother, Carol, the second-place finish means that her daughter's "sleepless nights" were essentially “for nothing.””

To be sure, there are some legitimate issues when schools decide As in one class are more important than As in other classes—but Stanford on a Gates Scholarship is nothing?

To add a comma to the words of Was (Not Was), boy's, gone crazy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Opportunity, Liberty, and College

By Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D

If you’ve already packed your beach reading for the summer, it’s time to make room for two more articles—and perhaps a thesaurus. Both address an important part of the question of college most people don’t consider, especially during the school year, so their timing is perfect, and their message is important.

“Bachelor’s degree: Has it lost its edge and value?” is the lead story in the June 18th edition of The Christian Science Monitor.  Lee Lawrence’s work covers ground that is familiar to many educators, as the article reconsiders the long-standing assumption that a Bachelor’s degree is the best road to economic prosperity.
Nicely supplemented with case studies that show there are multiple paths to sound employment that go through, around, and short of the route to a four-year college, the article gives the same advice about postsecondary plans most counselors give about using rankings to choose the right college:  One size doesn’t fit all. This is a wonderful piece all parents should read, and one all counselors should pass along to the families they serve.  I can’t think of a better way to begin a serious conversation about individualizing plans for life after high school.

While Lawrence’s article focuses on the individual trees of economic opportunity, a piece written by the editors of N+1 magazine evaluate all of America’s cultural green space, and clearly don’t like what they see.  “Death by degrees” uses some of the same themes as Lawrence’s piece about the rising number of Bachelor’s degrees and concludes that America is creating an intellectual elitism that is already skewing access to power in myriad ways.  Consider, for example, that almost two-thirds of President Obama’s first thirty-five Cabinet members came from elite colleges, or that every member of the US Supreme Court attended either Yale or Harvard—a first in US history.

When read together, the two stories paint a future of higher education that ought to give us all pause.  Lawrence’s article tries to point out that there are many paths to individual economic success, and not all include a college education.  That can be seen as good news for everyone who wants to make a living and put a roof over their heads, but the N+1 article reminds us that this rush for credentials of any kind is pushing up the value of a rare few credentials, such as degrees from prestigious colleges and the need for advanced degrees—and that can further concentrate the social, economic, and political power of our nation into the hands of a very few.
The American theme of children wanting a better life than their parents is leading more students to seek training after high school.  That focused energy may lead our country to more opportunities and better solutions, but it could also lead to a raising of the leadership bar that could make access to parts of that better life even more remote.  That may be too much to consider while we watch the kids play Marco Polo, but it’s worth a thought as we look at a sky full of fireworks, and wonder if our current construct of opportunity may muffle the ideals they represent.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Two Important Ideas for College-Bound Students

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

As a college instructor, I hear it every single semester

"How could you give me a C?  I worked really hard in this class!”

And in those fourteen words lie two very important lessons.

First, as a teacher, I don’t give anyone a grade.  The only thing I give is a syllabus, which explains the rules everyone has to play by during the class, including me.  After that, the class is kind of on auto pilot; you turn in assignments and earn points based on how well those assignments demonstrate the ideas discussed in class.  Later, I add up the points and assign a letter grade based on what the syllabus says your points are worth.  That is the grade you get, because that is the grade you’ve earned.

Nowhere in the syllabus does it state, suggest, or even remotely imply I give you points; it also doesn’t say anything about earning points for whining, sighing, or telling me you’re an A student. You don’t decide if you’re an A student; the syllabus does.  If you’ve done the studying, reading, discussing, and writing of rough drafts that helps you learn, you will earn a good grade.  Coming to my office to discuss your progress might help as well; coming to my office hours to tell a good joke won’t help at all.

Our partnership as teacher and student is meant to enhance your learning, but it cannot replace your learning—I could easily respect and like you as a person, while your demonstrated knowledge of the material earns you a C.  Grades aren’t about being friends, sharing the same interests, or filing other students’ papers for extra credit—they are about what you know. If you demonstrate the knowledge, you earn the grade …which leads to the second lesson.  

Some of my students have hired baby sitters and rearranged work hours—not so they could take my class, but so they could study for it.  Free of other obligations, they highlight text, do online research, submit rough drafts of papers, form study groups, come to class an hour early…and earn a C.

In the very same class, some students come to class without a notebook, spend a remarkable amount of class time looking out the window, and turn in papers 30 seconds before they’re due—papers that could be printed in scholarly journals.  These are A students.

Since the C students worked harder, you may think this isn’t fair—but think about your auto mechanic.  Would you rather go to the mechanic who opens the hood and gets you back on the road in five minutes, or the mechanic who does an hour of analysis before telling you they know what’s wrong, but they don’t know how to fix it?

Now that you’ve answered that question, tell me—which one is working harder?

Different people learn different things in different ways, and good teachers help every student understand their different mix for success.  Your eight hours of studying may instill a stronger work ethic than another student’s twenty minutes of studying, but long hours alone won’t fix the car if you can’t pinpoint the problem—and the purpose of taking an auto repair class is to learn to fix the car.

If you take the time you need to study and see the big picture, you’ve achieved the goal.  If you’ve put in a lot of time and can’t see a thing, it’s time to do something more than hope your teacher will confuse diligence with achievement—it’s time to hit the books until they don’t hit back.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

It's June, and College Admissions is Still Rocking

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Who would have thought late May would be a time of college admissions madness?

Stories from two coasts raised the ire, eyebrows, and I-can't-believe-its of counselors, parents and students everywhere, as news about college costs and college tests sent members of the high school Class of 2013 running into the summer sun, hoping to find shelter from the brighter heat of what promises to be another interesting year in college admissions.

The first news came when College Board announced a 2012 summer testing date<> for the SAT. For the first time in a long while, students would have ample time to focus on the test without the distractions of regular school -- provided, of course, they enrolled in the three week summer program at Amherst College, the one and only place where the summer test will be offered.

If you're afraid of where this is going, don't worry -- it's already there. The cost of the program was $4,500.

In response to concerns that College Board is engaging in elitist practices, a statement defended the action, saying security measures have to be closely monitored before "millions" of students had the chance to take the test...

...but that logic didn't hold long.  The story broke last week, but by Monday, there were calls for College Board to pull the plug on the project.  They did just that on Tuesday, stating the project wasn't in keeping with College Board's commitment to access and equity.

It's often wise to begin change slowly, but piloting this long-requested test date at a few public high schools and one or two Upward Bound<> summer programs would have gone a long way to make this effort seem less privileged and more representative of those who take the test any other season. It's great College Board remembered that in June; it would have been better if had occurred to them in April.

The second news came from the chancellor of the storied University of California <> system, who admitted the educational quality of the UC system is not quite what it used to be. Citing skyrocketing costs and higher enrollments, UC and its students have had to do more with less, including the laying off of graduate assistants, a reduction in the number of classes offered, and class sizes that swell above 500.

This isn't news to many college counselors, who have had students come back from UC campuses complaining they will need well more than four years just to get the classes they need for a degree -- and at $54,000 a year, the five-year plan isn't exactly pocket change to most families.

If passed this fall, a new tax would raise significant revenue for the UC system. Then again, with a presidential election on the horizon, voter response to a tax hike is likely to be even more vociferous than usual, even if the increase is in the best interest of their colleges, their students, and their property values.

Things have come a long way from the days when the SAT was just something students did one Saturday morning, and UC colleges were tuition free to all California residents. Let's hope this first move doesn't make summer testing the New Coke of college admissions, and the second move doesn't foretell the end of a college system that was once the envy of the world. Both are good ideas that have hit a rough patch; smoothing them out is something students deserve.