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Tackling College Athletics

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Spelman College has dropped all sports and has picked up fitness. They plan to use their athletic facilities and budget to create healthy bodies and habits. Dr. Beverly Tatum, Spelman’s president, chose this path after making disturbing observations about the dollars spent per student athlete and the physical condition of students and young alumni. No doubt every college/university administrator has made these observations at some time. But Dr. Tatum has made an unpopular but wildly responsible move to create meaningful change.

Higher education costs have been rising exponentially for some time. At the same time, a bachelor’s degree has become a minimum requirement for most jobs. College, which was once for ‘some’ people, has become necessary for most people. Colleges and universities in the race to remain competitive have felt compelled to spend extraordinary amounts of money on features giving them an edge. For some schools, an edge means stellar facilities, for others it means technology programs that by their very nature are an insatiable repository of funds. Smaller programs, particularly liberal arts programs, fall to the wayside in some schools as they don’t provide the most obvious return on investment. An institution can sacrifice language programs, performing arts and soft sciences with its eye on higher education dominance.(Nobody ever got on a Top 10 University list by virtue of its wonderful poetry department.)

There has been a collective consensus in recent years that higher education is no longer simply an institution of thinkology. There are only so many resources (public, private, endowment) to go around. Yet athletic programs are still an assumed part of the college experience. Why is that? Why at a time when student debt AND the level of obesity is skyrocketing, do we think higher education athletics is simply a given? Now before you start waving your pennants or foam fingers at me; let’s have a word about school spirit. Piffle. Nobody ever got a better education or a leg up in life from painting their face and wearing overpriced sweatshirts. Is playing on a team fun? Yes, and so is performing in a play. Is cheering on ‘your’ team a kick in the pants? Probably, but so is watching the debating team wipe the floor with the competition. Do team sports teach team skills? One would think. But if we agree that team skills are important (and I’m not convinced they are) can’t they be built in class or on a Habitat For Humanity project?

But what of the schools who actually make a significant portion of their budget from playing sports at an elevated level? Quite frankly I would say; huh?! Is that really what we want higher education to be in 2013? If we really want to train young men and women to be professional athletes, can’t we just create technical sport schools? If we had a crystal ball we may very well see that these schools with profitable athletic programs will in essence become technical sport schools. But for every other school allocating large parts of their budget to athletic programs while their tuition skyrockets, it’s time to reevaluate. Yes the alumni will be up in arms, and yes perhaps some students too. But part of being a charismatic leader is being able to communicate why change is beneficial. The Spelman athletic director (with 25 years on the job) is on board and in agreement with Dr. Tatum’s directive. Dr. Tatum is currently fielding calls from college/university presidents questioning the value of athletics to higher education.

Great leadership should involve more than getting one’s institution’s name in the paper. Great leaders must make difficult and at times unpopular decisions for the betterment of the institution and the people it serves. Cutting costs by cutting sparsely populated (but wonderful) programs is not an act of bravery or long-term solution to higher education costs. We are now into overtime with the issue of higher education affordability. Too many qualified students cannot afford tuition (which is why they have such debt.) Pulling the plug on an expensive program that is not an integral part of a baccalaureate or graduate degree should be a serious consideration.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Education

 

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Hand-Picked For College

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According to today’s paper better colleges fail to lure talented poor students. If it’s true the reason is simple; it’s complicated. While it is not complicated to identify and recruit academically gifted poor students, it is more involved to ensure that they succeed.

Many if not most financial aid packages do not include monies for housing and/or dining. There are rarely stipends for books, computers or travel. There are several periods during the academic year in which dormitories close and dining plans evaporate. Students who come from great distances and/or do not have the funds to travel are left utterly unmoored, often during a holiday. Colleges and universities now invite not just parents, but entire families to weekend events on campus. Families with limited means could not attend and students might be affected. Student activities occur throughout the years that cost money (not supplied by aid). Joining the Greek system (aka fraternities & sororities) is not free. Attending sporting events, senior class events, or arts events are rarely free. Without a meaningful stipend a university would ensure a second-class status to poorer students.

The more complex issue is that of social and/or emotional support. Attending classes and getting good grades is only one part of the college experience. If the idea of luring talented poor students to ‘better’ colleges is for them to get more out of the college experience (than they would’ve attending their local college) then more has to be done for them. Academic advising would need to be aggressive and include tutorials on research opportunities, graduate schools, and career opportunities. Student services would need to help foster networking opportunities to ensure the students reap the benefit of the stellar student body. Adjusting to college life is never all that easy. The environment always feels just a bit foreign, and the expectations daunting. For poorer students the culture itself could be off-putting and/or foreign. If a student has left an economically struggling family behind, it can feel disorienting to be among people with plenty. There can be issues of guilt if a family could use the student at home.

Finding talented students who are poor is not difficult. Every high school in the nation can identify their top 10% and SATs do a fine job of categorizing people. Many universities already recruit students from big cities (which no doubt offer a pool of talented, poor and ethnically or racially underrepresented students.)  Many schools have institutionalized support programs for students from ethnically/racially-underrepresented groups. If the ‘better’ schools are to recruit poor students from more remote locations they will need to create a similar model of institutional support programs. Recruitment and admission are only the very very beginning of the higher education journey. If colleges and universities take an aggressive role in recruiting students they must take seriously their obligation to ensure success.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2013 in Education

 

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Managing Binge Drinking

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Not every college students spends 5 out of 7 days binge-drinking. But to look at Facebook photos (and videos!) you would certainly think that is the case. It’s simply not possible to be that intoxicated all the time and still pass your classes; even in the most remedial of college programs. But there are a fair share of schools at which it appears that the number one form of recreation is drunkenness (which is not the same as ‘drinking’.) This behavior, even if we were to ignore the immaturity of it, is not innocuous. It’s physically dangerous. People die, people are raped, bad things happen. (College students would be a lot further ahead if pot became the substance of choice. There’s no such thing as ‘pot poisoning’ and long before a user would consider a violent act, they’ve nodded out.)

For parents (and others) who are concerned about the excess it’s helpful to consider the root causes. For students aged 17-22 there are probably finite reasons for habitual binge-drinking. There is most likely some percentage who suffer from alcoholism (a condition which has no age limitation.) But for the rest of the students it could be issues of social maturity and/or boredom. For the socially immature, they may be best served in a community college (living at home) for a while, or at a very small school at which social interactions are less daunting and actively encouraged. The socially immature should be encouraged to step away from the keyboard and find people with like interests (e.g., clubs, religious groups, teams, performance groups.) Even if this was all encouraged and done in high school, some people are never quite comfortable socially. For them it might be best to talk about managing their intoxication. With enough coaxing and patience you might be able to come up with a plan that helps the student avoid dangerous levels of drunkenness. (i.e., “When I no longer can hear the music, it’s time to stop.” or “I will always eat and drink water while drinking booze.”) We may never love underage binge (or any other kind of) drinking, but we do want our children to learn to be responsible and to care for themselves.

Binge drinking out of boredom seems much simpler to manage. If the student is seasonally bored (ex. he/she is an athlete on their off-season) a job or heavier course-load every other semester could work wonders. If the student is continuously bored they might be at the wrong school. Perhaps they’re disinterested in academics all together? Perhaps the rigor of the institution is not challenging? Perhaps they’d be more suited to an urban university? It’s best to address the issue before serious time and money is wasted (pun intended.)

There’s nothing wrong with letting off steam, making a fool of oneself, and learning one’s limits. But there is something troubling about defining one’s college experience with a series of blurry drunken episodes. One of the simplest and time-tested methods to ensure that a person gets the most they can out of an experience is for them to have a financial interest in the endeavor. Working during every school break, or at school not only breaks up any boredom, it boosts social maturity and self-esteem. It also helps (anyone at any age) to consider the value of what they’re paying for when they are paying for it themselves.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2013 in Education

 

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Parent’s Student Debt

During the past few years parents have been borrowing money for their children’s education with increasing frequency. Consumer loans, credit card loans (and the scariest of all) home equity loans are taken to provide higher education to children. Presumably much of this debt is incurred due to a sense of obligation to one’s children. In theory it’s hard to fault such sentiment but in actuality it’s terribly flawed.

  • Higher Education is not a birthright
  • Incurring debt for someone else’s asset is risky
  • Parents (by definition) are older than their children & have less time to rebuild assets

It can be a dreadful feeling to discover you cannot give your child everything you wish for them. It is the rare parent who has not had his Bob Cratchit moment at one time or another. If we were to redefine what we wish for our children we might be able to assuage those Cratchit moments. Do we really wish for our children to attend a four-year private college, and study whatever they choose without cost consciousness? If so, why? Why would we think that shielding a young adult from making realistic decisions about economics and their future is ‘giving them everything?’ Isn’t giving them a realistic understanding of dollars and sense and the world at large, a gift that will last a lifetime? College isn’t (or shouldn’t be) summer camp. It’s not a protected and posh enclave where our adult children should experience life. If it ever wasn’t it simply isn’t anymore. College is a commodity and should be treated as such. Higher education is not one size fits all. We spend a lot of energy trying to match a student’s interests and personality with an institution. Affordability is the starting point for the selection process. If a four-year private college is not affordable, the value to a student of a community college+public college is far higher than a private college.

Public college still costs money and the person to incur that debt (if there must be debt) is the student. If the parent can help the student repay the loan, wonderful. Besides the obvious very real economic risks to a parent in incurring debt on behalf of a child, there is risk to the child as well. Being shielded from the realities of financial life does not help anyone make practical decisions. Being aware of the burden a parent has taken on also affects decisions. Attending college without contributing in a significant manner (i.e., summer jobs, scholarships, loans, work-study, etc.) is no longer the norm, and hasn’t been for quite some time. College is not finishing school and it’s not a series of laurel wreath opportunities. It’s a means to an end and a significant number of students don’t achieve that end. (Imagine losing one’s house or retirement without even a child’s bachelor’s degree to show for it!) Nothing helps a person (especially a young person) take something more seriously when it’s his or her own money at stake.

College has become crucial for future workers; as such we need to rid ourselves of our romanticism about the experience. Getting ready for the big great world is a process. It shouldn’t start after tossing one’s cap in the air. Putting one’s home or future security in jeopardy to delay that process is simply unwise.

 

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2012 in Education

 

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College Affirmative Action

Higher education affirmative action is in the news again. It’s not all that surprising that in recent years people are more comfortable discussing its merits. It has been (almost exactly) fifty years since Ole Miss first integrated and fifty years is a long time. It’s enough time for people to forget and it’s enough time for generations to come of age free of the first hand effect of segregation. Add to that a shift in our collective attitude about college being for everyone; and it’s no doubt the subject of parity crops up. The continued need and efficacy of affirmative action is often discussed in academic circles. Lately, it is also often played out in the courts and media.

The lawsuits (or protests) that bubble up often have to do with a perceived lack of fairness. Thwarted students compare their own applications and numbers (i.e., test scores, grades, rankings) against those who were admitted. The would-be (white) students compare their own larger (or equal) numbers to that of a non-white student and feels there has been discrimination. All issues of affirmative action aside, that understanding of the admission process is deeply flawed.

Straightforward scorekeeping is the determinate in plenty of endeavors. When you play sport, or lose weight; numbers are all that matter. But most of life’s external accomplishments are much more subjective than a numbers game. The skyrocketed costs, four-star amenities, and assumption that college is for every high school graduate, has created a sense of a transactional relationship. There are thousands of four-year colleges/universities in this country. Before a student applies he/she has presumably poured over websites and determined; “Yes, I’d be a good fit.” The student knows the requirements for admission, knows the average SAT/ACT scores and class rankings, and knows they fit the bill. Rejection stings, and many struggle with trying to get past the hurt. Parents and children will rattle off admitted high school classmate’s rankings, and GPAs in their struggle to understand the rejection. Resentments and overall icky behavior often ensues. No one wants to be told; “Thanks but no thanks” particularly when the rejected was set to pony up (potentially) over six-figures for the privilege of acceptance.

But what these parents and their children might not realize is that those numbers are simply how one gets to be considered. Creating an incoming class involves much more than comparing numbers. The goal of creating a class is generally two-fold; the students should be able to succeed and the students should be able to add to their classmates’ educational experience. “Succeeding” can mean many things and varies according to schools and programs. What a student can add to the experience is dependent upon the historic nature of the school, the location, the discipline, and many other elements.

Whether our country is in need of creating equal opportunity for all based on ethnicity and race is a subject for another day. When we do engage in that conversation we should think long and hard about economic class and first generation students when we talk about equal opportunity. But until then let’s be crystal clear about college admissions. It is not simply a numbers game; (hint: that’s why there are essay components and pages of extracurricular activities on the application.)

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2012 in Education

 

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