"College Students Must Take Responsibility for Their Own Education"

Dr. David Svaldi, President of Adams State University, wrote an interesting commentary yesterday wherein the obvious (or what should be obvious) was stated.

I've written about the need for continuing support for higher education and, in particular, support for first-generation students. But it is also true that college students must take responsibility for their own education. Every year a majority of entering freshmen across the country indicate they aspire to be medical doctors or lawyers. Yet, one third of all college freshmen never complete a degree. In fact, the success of four-year degree completion is now measured by the percentage of students who complete in six years!

Nothing here is surprising. Many students start college and drop out after a year or two because they just can't hack it and others leave because of financial reasons. It's the "six year plan" that I find disturbing. There are a lot of reasons why a student can't graduate within four years. It took me five but I was "part-time" because I was working to support my wife (who was also in getting her degree) and new baby. The reason Dr. Svaldi looks at in his opinion is more interesting. In a nut shell, students are showing up at colleges across America with no clue why they're there beyond "I'm supposed to go to college."

It wasn't that long ago that young adults were expected to have some idea what they wanted to do before they graduated from high school. If a college degree was needed for that job, then the student choose a college that offered a program that would help them succeed in that job. Remember, not every job requires a degree. For example, a student might be better served by going to a trade school. The point is, that when a student went to college, they had some idea why they were there.

Now, plans can certainly change. Sometimes, what looks fun and exciting from a distance turns out to be boring or tedious. When I started taking classes at Adams State, my major was secondary math education. I had some great math teachers in high schools and I wanted to follow that example. Calculus convinced me that math was probably not the right field for me and tutoring made it crystal clear that I didn't want to teach students who didn't want to learn. So, I changed my major to mathematics with and emphasis in computer science. I still had to fight through the math classes but I found a career that was a heck of a lot more fun. It happens and, if a student is lucky, they find out that that career is wrong for them early so that less of their time and money is wasted. The latter is especially important for reasons that I'll get to in a minute.

The problem that Dr. Svaldi points out is that many students are coming to college with no clue. Their major is "undecided" and they bounce around between programs for years. If they're lucky, they finally get focused on something and graduate. More often, they drop out with earning a degree leaving them with lots of debt and nothing to show for it. Even if they do graduate, the student has built up an additional couple of years worth of student loans that will haunt them for a long time.

But things have changed. Now students at public higher education institutions pay about two-thirds the cost and graduate (if they do) with a debt load averaging $22,000. Market forces would seem to incent students to focus on a career path and to complete as quickly as possible. (I don't necessarily think that a college education is only about a "job," but that is a topic for another time). At my institution I see some students who figure this out, take full loads, study, and graduate in four years with little debt; but I also see some students who never complete, earn low GPA's, and end up with a debt burden they may never repay. Not all are poorly prepared, but they seem to lack motivation to work hard and focus. I have no answer as to how to solve this problem for these students. There is not a measure of motivation embedded in admission scores. Some low scoring students succeed and thrive in spite of what their ACT or SAT score says; some high school stars never make the transition and never graduate. As a society, we can no longer afford to pay for students to "find themselves." [emphasis mine]

That last sentence is important for a two reasons. First, for students who don't graduate, they may not be able to get a job that pays enough to get out from under the mountain of debt they built up in college. That's especially true if the student futzed around for a few years before dropping out. Even if they graduate, it may take decades before they can pay off the loan. They will be a slave to that debt for a long time.

There's a second reason which Dr. Svaldi skipped over. Students who attend public universities are subsidized by taxpayers. You and I get to pick up the tab for students taking time to "find themselves." For students who don't graduate, all of the money that was spent subsiding that student's education in the hope that the student will make a greater contribution to society is wasted. Even those who do graduate beyond four years have done so at a greater cost to society for no appreciable gain. There are solutions but they are hard for some people to accept and they won't fix everything.

First of all, we need to put a stop to the idea that everyone needs to go to college. Some students are just not cut out for it, academically. Those who would rather go into trade (electricians, plumbers, etc.) would probably be better off at a trade school.

Second, family, friends and teachers need to encourage students to consider possible careers (or career fields) before they graduate from high school. Much of the problem that Dr. Svaldi talks about stems from students who show up at college with no direction or purpose. By the time the student shows up on campus, it's too late.

Third, I disagree with most establishment academics in that I think that college is a place for specialization. Students should get their general education in high school and go to college to specialize in the field of their choice. Most "gen ed" courses are a waste of time and money. I enjoyed taking Art Awareness but, given the choice, I would not have spent the thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of my time required to take take it. The same can be said, to varying degrees, about world history, general psychology, sociology and music lit. Given the limited time and resources of most students, we do them a disservice forcing an additional year study on them that will have limited benefit off campus.

Adams State is typical of public schools around the country. Take a look at Adams State's gen ed curriculum for 2008 (PDF). There are 35 credit hours worth of courses required plus a couple of proficiencies that can be met by taking other classes. Remember a student is considered to be "full-time" at 12 or 15 credit hours per semester. That's more than a year of course work. Students would be better served by being allowed to focus directly on their major courses. They could shave a year off their degree plan or, like I did, take fewer upper level courses during a semester and focus on passing them.

There are other things that can be done to push students to graduate in four years. For example, governments could stop subsidizing students after four years or not subsidizing third year students who have not yet picked a major. The problem with that is students, faced with a sudden 33 percent tuition hike, will probably drop out. If colleges choose to eat that cost rather than pass it on to the student, will be forced to raise all students' tuition to subsidize the others. Neither is an attractive option from a student's perspective but would be more fair to taxpayers. There's nothing fair about taking money out of a family's wallet to fund a college student's indecision.

Full disclosure: I graduated from Adams State and am a current employee.