Why are you here?

There are many things I don’t understand about my college students.  In my 13th year of teaching as a professor I think I can at least make some solid observations.  Much of what I observed leaves me with more questions than answers.

My undergraduate experience was perhaps not typical in any way.  My parents paid my tuition, which was heavily subsidized by the Canadian government.  It is still a decent $3.500 for the year, which was a decent sum of money was back in the early 90’s.  I lived at home though, the university was about a 50 minute transit ride.  I am sure the fact that my mom got me a part time job at the university signing student loans was important in realizing how fortunate I was to not have to go in debt to pay for tuition.  My parents instilled in me that education was important and that doing well was also important.  That being said, despite the work I put in, I still ended up with only a B+ average in my undergraduate.  It was a lot of math and physics, and it was hard.  I wasn’t the perfect student either.  I cut a number of classes, but I was always aware when things were due and when were really important days to be there.   I never missed a deadline or a test.  If poor attendance led me to a less than perfect grade, there really was no one to blame but myself.  Sometimes you did get a bad teacher that discouraged you from wanting to attend that class.  But sometimes there are bad teachers.  You can complain, but it’s probably not going to make them a whole lot better.  Everyone was in the same boat and you did your best.  I never drank alcohol as an undergraduate; neither did most of my friends actually.  Which is perhaps a bit odd considering the legal drinking age in my province is 18.  I still have lots of fond memories of those days, and think it was a rather fun period of my life.

I held that dedication throughout my time in graduate school and it was that view of university and college life that I held as I became a professor at a small university in Pennsylvania.   I have found that my views about what college is about vary vastly from most of the students that are here.   Look, there are a lot of societal problems at work here too.  Perhaps the fact that guidance counselors try to convince every kid they should go to college when in fact they would be much better off in a trade school, or just taking some time off and working a low paying job to really understand what it takes to be successful in life and manage your time and money better is part of the problem.  Perhaps the fact that student loans are given out with alarming ease, with little time taken to really explain to the 18 year old how it will affect their life is the problem.  Nevertheless I have just seen a lot of baffling behavior among students since I have been a professor and it just makes me want to ask the question:

 “Why are you here?”

I have seen students spend the whole class text messaging, reading a novel in class, doing makeup, showing up 20 minutes late to a 50 minute class, or show up to class drunk, high, coked up.  And then there are the ones who don’t

From http://images.collegemagazine.com

show up.  The class is too early, too late, they are too hung over, it’s too cold, too nice, raining, etc all serve as excuses not to make it to class.  I have seen students make it to only half the classes in the semester.  I have seen students who seemingly only realized they missed an exam 3 weeks after the exam was given.  I have had students complain that I made a test for the day after their birthday, the day after St. Patrick’s day, the day after homecoming weekend, or worse yet Fridays.  Apparently Thursday nights are just party nights in general so having an exam on a Friday, especially in the morning is seen as a cruel thing for a professor to do.  All this is considered part of the “college experience”. Yet none of the people who are hired to teach or work at staff are hired to support this experience at a college, because the institution is designed to help young people further their education for the purposes of a career. Once again:

“Why are you here?”

So many students enter university undecided.  Spend an extra semester or 4 getting a 4 year degree because they switched majors and dropped classes so many times or had GPA’s so low they had to repeat courses.    The cost of

From http://www.studentloannetwork.com

tuition, even at this modestly priced public institution that I teach at, with housing, costs about $10,000 a year.  After 4 years you will start out $40,000 dollars in debt if you complete your degree in the standard time.  While it is sad that the government doesn’t emphasize education more and subsidize the cost more, from a practical point of view it is difficult to justify attending college without at least some clearer picture of what you want to do, and to simply do it as quickly as possible.  The student loan system in this country is terrible and sometimes it’s your only choice to getting an education and a career that you want.  That being said, it IS money you will have to pay back, and if you are going to be in that much debt it behooves you to also choose a career path that will allow you to pay back that money as efficiently as possible.  If you aren’t think of the financial reality before entering college then I have to ask:

“Why are you here?”

Please don’t get me wrong as I have met many mature students.  I would easily say that half of the students that I see, even ones that might not be doing particularly well in my classes will graduate and hit the ground running.  I hesitate to say too many numbers as my observations are only anecdotal, but I would say after teaching over 200 students a semester in 12 years that there are, conservatively, 20% who really don’t care and really would prefer to not be in college (or rather not be in college for the purposes of education).  Given how competitive it is to get a job, given how expensive it is to get an education, and given how salaries haven’t kept pace with inflation, why spend $50,000 on an education, to get a mediocre to poor GPA (especially when you’re field of choice has a low amount of jobs available)?  Isn’t there a better way to spend your time, money and resources?  For some people it is loan money, for some it is their parent’s money.  Interestingly I have never met a student who was paying for their own tuition who didn’t understand the importance of doing well and make the most of the money they were spending.

So ask yourself the question “Why are you here?”  And think about whether you might not be better off somewhere else.  Somewhere that was better suited to wear you are in life.  Somewhere better suited to what you want to do.  Somewhere that will give you a chance to figure out what it is you really want so that when you do enter college you are ready to get the most out of that environment.  College is an immense challenge in terms of your time and energy.  You will expand your mind and your heart.  You will meet great people from different walks of life. But, like it or not, university is about learning and education.  You can party anywhere like a rock star any where.  But think about the fact that your country needs you.  Young people are the ones with the energy, the ability to learn at a faster rate and think outside of the box.  Young people are the ones who are most needed in a democracy to be educated about issues.  Issues that they will face in the many years ahead of them.  There is a surprising amount of time to still have fun, but also start being a positive part of society and perhaps not getting wasted every night.  I love my job because of all the great young people I’ve met over the years, I just want to see young people also think critically about their decision to go to university.

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4 thoughts on “Why are you here?

  1. The reason they’re there is, more than likely, that it’s becoming the new highschool. It’s becoming the standard to have a college degree, even in ‘undecided’, just because it’s what you need to survive. Trade school does carry a different weight to it, and it’s almost degrading to go there in some places.
    The counselors are trying to make the college money (if they’re college counselors). College/uni is a business. If they’re highschool counselors, it’s just because it’s the standard to have a 4 year degree in something.
    My biggest problem in the choosing of your major is that they almost make you do it right away. I know a bunch of people who’ve done their general education courses first and dabbled in the different majors. They usually understand that it’s probably a little better to waste a little money and time now than waste a lot of both later going back to college, or waste their whole life in a job they hate when they retire, but loved when they were 18~20.

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    1. The business like approach does muddy the waters for certain. The fact that trade schools are seen as degrading is part of the problem though, because that’s not the way we should be viewing those important jobs in society, and quite honestly I think many of the students who end up in college might be happier learning in that way and doing something with their hands. But if college is going to be the necessity of todays world, then all I’m arguing that since it is cost a whole lot to be there, why wouldn’t you do the very best you can do? Why would you just spend the entire time drinking/partying, missing classes, dropping classes, and getting a low GPA in the process?

      In terms of choosing your major, I just feel like the education system pre-university should be doing more to help students see what they are interested in. Sure if you have the money go ahead and explore…my point is that $10,000-$20,000 extra dollars for your degree doesn’t seem to be the wisest monetary investment just to figure out that you like criminal justice over psychology.

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  2. Never in a million years will I understand the US education system. I don’t know if the Canadian model is the same. But only in (North) America would you graduate from high school. You go to school, you leave and either get a job or go to university. Nope Americans graduate from high school and then go to school? Or sometimes college? And have swanky societies and frats and join Greek letter clubs. And have to major in something? Sure there’s an element of choice in degrees but what’s difficult about choosing the most interesting course?

    Doesn’t matter whether it’s my first degree in Ancient and Medieval History and Archaeology or my master’s. Neither needed a major, but both involved options. Maybe the US system likes to make life difficult!

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    1. The Canadian system is not vastly different from the American one in terms of structure. K-12 and then university. However education is still subsidized more, and as a result there is also more stringent requirements to get into programs and into universities on average. Curriculum is taught differently as well, with less stress towards standardized testing. I avoided the fraternity/sorority thing because that’s a whole other thing I don’t understand at all. That is something that is not as big in Canada, nor is college sports either which is extremely popular here in the U.S. To the point where in most states, the highest paid public employee is the coach of a college football or basketball team.

      I’ll admit that I knew the field I wanted to pursue by the 8th grade, which probably puts me on the other extreme of spectrum so I have a tough time identifying with those who still can’t decide what they want to do. But since my tuition wasn’t paid for with my own money, I’d like to believe that I wouldn’t go wasting that money had I been unable to decide, or at the very least I would have made sure I still did as well as I could in what I was taking, knowing that getting at least one degree for free was better than not having a degree at all after 4 years.

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