Saturday, March 31, 2012

It's my job

This article is a fascinating look at two sisters from a working class background. One went to college, all the way through to a PhD. She now teaches at Yale, albeit off the tenure track with a mountain of debt. The other forewent college and is now making just over minimum wage, but with no debts.

It's an interesting piece I encourage you to read, but the point I want to bring up here is that the sister without a college degree did spend about one semester at community college, only to find out the courses her advisor told her to take didn't count toward her degree. The very first commenter said: "[She] should have read the catalog and challenged the advice of the adviser.  Or hired a lawyer to sue the institution for giving costly bad advice."

Someone responded:

I come from a blue collar neighborhood in a big city, from which very few young people move on to college--and there's definitely a huge difference in social and cultural capital between those who have parents who went to college and those who don't (no matter how "smart" the actual young person is). It's actually extremely difficult to know how to work within/challenge/stand up for yourself in a large bureaucracy like a university. I'm lucky that my dad actually works at a university and had implicitly taught us kids "the system" so that I am confident and capable enough to navigate it on my own.

As a faculty member, the most terrifying aspect of my job is advising. I have a few students who have memorized the catalog, and a few more who argue because they want to get out of things, but the large majority of them simply take my word as gospel. Many of them not only expect me to know what they need to graduate and what courses have prereqs, but to tell them exactly what classes they should take next semester. I could tell them they need to go to a local CC and take advanced calculus, and they would.

It's not that they're stupid or lazy. It's that I'm supposed to be the expert.

Which is funny, when you think of it. Since faculty don't advise first-year students, all of my advisees have been here longer than me. At first, nearly every question they asked me, I had to field to someone else. I still do, sometimes - we have several versions of the marketing and management curricula that haven't graduated out yet. I worry that I will tell a student the wrong thing, and they'll end up a class short, or missing a required course. Because if I tell them something, they'll believe it.

I'm getting tired of the discourse that says, "Potential college students should make themselves experts in financial aid, loan repayment, career opportunities for several majors, accreditation, and their chosen college's policies." Otherwise, you know, if they get screwed it's all their own fault.

Looking back to when I was their age, what did I know? Financial aid - get it. Loans - don't. My major - I was going to be an English professor, and they were predicting a faculty shortage. (Yeah, remember that one? Sigh.) Accreditation - huh? College policies - OK, I thumbed that thing ragged. But I had college-educated parents, including a mom who did vigorous research on colleges - in the pre-internet era, when that meant buying books rather than surfing the web, and I still didn't know half of what today's advocates of responsibility would have our students know.

I don't advocate for student ignorance, of course. But it's the job of colleges - and states and associations that watch over them - to make information available in a readily understood way. It's our job to watch over and inform these students. They shouldn't have to be Sherlock Holmes or naturally rebellious to make it through college with their wallets and prospects intact.

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