You’re in the Way


Sadly, another seven-week break quickly comes to an end, and in a few days I’ll find myself in front of hundreds of college freshmen. First, however, we have faculty meetings. The buzzword before this break, and for several semesters prior, was “Retention.” College enrollment has decreased across the country, and administrators are worried about how to keep the students from dropping out.

Then there’s me.

We all received an email asking what we thought faculty could do to “retain” students. The question wasn’t meant to “blame” faculty, though some took it that way; instead, it was a plea for help, a way of saying “We are at a loss as to why they’re leaving; what do you think?”

Here’s what I think: They see no reason to stay. Most college students don’t drop out because they aren’t up to the task, and while money is a major issue even that is not difficult to deal with. No, most community college students don’t see the point in attending.

First of all, many have the ability to do the work, they’re just conditioned to be lazy. We live in a world of convenience and college course material is not at all convenient.

Last year on the first day of the semester I asked students to all write a 150 word introduction to a paper about their first day at college. When they finished I asked them if they thought they would have done a better job if they knew I was going to read them all but only give A’s to the top five and I would fail the rest. They agreed they would have done better. So I raised the stakes: I asked them if they knew that the five introductions which caught my attention and made me want to read the paper would each receive one thousand dollars, would those introductions be better written. They all sat up straighter and said with absolute affirmation, “Yes!” There it is. I told them, “So you always could do better; you just couldn’t be bothered.” When I put some reward in front of them, something more tangible than an A or the promise of being better prepared for the world, they suddenly were bucking for honor roll. Take the reward away and replace it with the obscure grading scale as the only immediate satisfaction, and boredom quickly kicks in.

One more: In my Humanities class I asked my students to read Hamlet, or watch a good version since it is a play, and to come in the following week ready to discuss why is it still so relevant and still taught in classrooms four hundred years later. The following week they came in predictably and embarrassingly unprepared. So I asked if I gave them another chance to read or watch Hamlet and come back ready to discuss it, the five people who all contribute the most intelligent material to the discussion will all get brand new I-Pads that day, would they be ready? They all, again, laughed and agreed, and one student said he would watch every version and memorize the Spark Notes. I said. “So you can do the work, you just don’t bother. Listen, you’re wasting your money, your time, my time, and you are, without a doubt, in everybody’s way. You really should reconsider college. You’re not up to it.”

The dean of my department hates when I do this.

Listen, we’ve lowered the bar so far we are trying to come up with new ways to beg them to not leave. We’ve compromised entrance and placement exams, we’ve offered accommodations up the whazoo, we’ve got work-study students calling the students who leave and asking them to return, and we are allowing them to do more work online in case they “can’t make it to class.” Colleges now offer courses so outrageously simple that pre-teens can master the material: at the university, “Curves: the shape of women in art”; “The Simpsons: A comprehensive study”; and even at Amherst—AMHERST—they offer a course on the music of (Dear God) Miley Cyrus. I am not kidding. What can we do to retain students? Here’s an idea: maybe we have so lowered our standards that a “college education” doesn’t command the respect it once did. If I were in college today I’d leave too.

In addition, students don’t see the point of spending tens of thousands of dollars for a degree when they’ve been conditioned that the degree is a means to an end, and the end is not looking very hopeful. Forty years ago a college education offered hope. There was a brick wall out there and the degree was the ladder of hope necessary to climb over. Now many students only see the wall itself, and a college education doesn’t offer any better hope of clearing that wall than a dozen other avenues, all of which are infinitely cheaper and less challenging.

We need to make the wall irrelevant. College should become the destination, not an exit ramp from high school to life. It needs to be the arena of discussion and connections so that students see being in college as the objective. But offering simple-minded courses shows the student such disrespect, curriculum committees should be embarrassed. Keep the courses challenging; make having a college degree something not every person can or should do. Raise the bar so that if students can’t make it, then they shouldn’t be there to begin with. A degree can then once again command the respect earned through hard work, focus, and discipline, and not through the music of Miley and binge watching cartoons. Then, if students drop out, it is because they aren’t up to it, and not because we bored them out of there.

Unfortunately some students have parents who don’t prepare them. Some come from high schools that only made things worse. Some are too spoiled, too smart, too dumb, too hyper, too distracted, too angry, too tired.

Too bad. Yeah, welcome to the fucking race, Frosh.

It isn’t like they aren’t warned about what is required of them. Every course outline in college now spells out in anal-retentive detail every aspect, expectation, and demand for the semester. All students understand how many times they can be late, how many absences are allowed, when papers are due, what happens if papers are late, how long papers must be, and what to do in an emergency. They know professors’ phone numbers, emails, office numbers, and if they check some social media, they can learn professors’ temperament, workload, travel schedule during the semester, and more. No matter what shit-field these poor bastards had to wade through before they arrived, make no mistake, once they’re registered and sitting down, every single student is well informed and warned about what is expected of each of them going forward. They are told that if they don’t understand or have a problem or need to discuss things or are completely clueless as to what anything means, they should come see the professor, or a counselor, or an advisor or the dean. But many simply don’t bother. Retain them? Ha! Get them out of the way! DING! We have some lovely parting gifts for you.

Many students simply aren’t up to the challenge of college and it is way easier in the real world to seek out and find challenges they know they can conquer. The worst part is that in a world of college grads with outrageous debt who can’t get jobs, many new students wonder why they should go to college in the first place. Colleges don’t seem to offer as much promise for the future as they did when I was eighteen.

And now we are assigned with the task of “keeping them here” until they complete at least two years. The students who understand the value of a college education will need no explanation at all; and the ones who can’t figure out why they have to study anything other than the subjects in their field will never grasp the concept of a “higher” education. No, Higher Education is not about legalization, sorry.

So how about this: Admittedly, the grades are clearly not the most enticing element to make students want to bust their collective asses; I’m with them on that. So maybe they need to understand that the key to success in college isn’t simply showing up, it is how they act in class, how much they focus on what is going on at the moment, how well they can tune out distractions, how well they show respect for the professor, their peers, and the subject matter, and how sincerely they knock on the door and say, “Help me understand, please, how to get through this to your satisfaction.” If they don’t understand that, I don’t want them in my class to begin with, let alone beg them to return.

They’ll be back, though. As a professor at a community college as well as a university catering to retiring military students, I know they almost all come back, and are almost always infinitely better students at an older age than had they come right out of high school. We don’t need to “retain” students; we need to find the ones wandering around in their late twenties and say, “Are you ready yet?”

They will be ready eventually. And they will no longer make excuses. They will know something that their eighteen-year-old counterparts have trouble grasping: if you’re not going to take going to college seriously, seriously get out of the way and let someone who gives a damn have a shot at it.


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