The “high cost of higher ed” is in fact not going to college (and in not going to class)

What am I missing

What am I missing?

David Leonhardt asks “Is College Worth It?,” and finds that the pay gap between college grads and people without college is at an all-time high.  Fortunately, he sings one of my favorite songs here too:

[The] public discussion today — for which we in the news media deserve some responsibility — often focuses on the undeniable fact that a bachelor’s degree does not guarantee success. But of course it doesn’t. Nothing guarantees success, especially after 15 years of disappointing economic growth and rising inequality.

When experts and journalists spend so much time talking about the limitations of education, they almost certainly are discouraging some teenagers from going to college and some adults from going back to earn degrees. (Those same experts and journalists are sending their own children to college and often obsessing over which one.) The decision not to attend college for fear that it’s a bad deal is among the most economically irrational decisions anybody could make in 2014.

The much-discussed cost of college doesn’t change this fact. According to a paper by Mr. Autor published Thursday in the journal Science, the true cost of a college degree is about negative $500,000. That’s right: Over the long run, college is cheaper than free. Not going to college will cost you about half a million dollars.

Longtime readers will recall my frustration with the “high cost of higher education” media conversation, mostly because I think it’s dominated by people who are choosing to pay for private, selective educations for their children, not by people who patronize our fine state colleges and universities, which have in fact kept the price of their educations artificially low by shifting a majority of their faculty from tenured or tenure-track positions to adjunct casual labor.  Also, where’s the accountability for school performance by students in these conversations?  Are students with 3.0 averages or higher suffering from unemployment at the same rate as students who didn’t work as hard in college?  We don’t know, because no one ever holds alumni responsible for any part of their achievement (or lack thereof).

This article comes just a week after I submitted my final grades for the two classes I taught in the spring semester, an upper-level course aimed at History and other Liberal Arts majors, and a lower-level survey course.  I think I handed out a record percentage of Ds and Fs in both classes, mostly because a number of my students have apparently decided that coming to class–a requirement in the upper-level course–is entirely optional.  In fact, in addition to the poor attendance records, a number of students also decided that not handing in one (or more) of the major essays was a thing they could do and still pass the class.  My students remain unfailingly polite, even in their emails inquiring as to why they received these low grades.

In sum, grade inflation is not a problem at my university.  I’m a lot more concerned about grade deflation, given that flunking or underperforming in classes is money (borrowed or otherwise) down the drain.

Although I generally do not write about my students unless I’m favorably impressed by them, I’m troubled enough by this that I want to hear from the rest of you.  Is it just me?  Did I have one of those bum semesters that come around once a decade or so, or have some of you noticed the same trends in your classes?  I have always in my 18-year teaching career had an attendance requirement in my upper-division classes, and offer a pretty huge carrot for it (participation is 30% of their final grade!) which can turn into a punitive stick as well.  No one has ever argued with me about the attendance policy.  No one complained about it during the semester.  So why did some students miss around 1/3 of all class meetings and think that was a reasonable strategy for passing a college course?

Three explanations have occurred to me:

  1. I am a bad professor no student wants to work with.
  2. In order to cope with the threat of declining enrollment, Baa Ram U. has admitted students who are in fact not prepared for college learning.  So things like reading the syllabus and seeing (on page 1!) how the final grade will be calculated are just not in their skill sets yet.
  3. To a generation of students who may take online as well as face-to-face classes, actually showing up for face-to-face classes is coming to be seen as an unreasonable expectation.

I am disinclined to go with #1 only, because my enrollment in the upper-division class was actually a lot higher than my colleagues’ numbers in their classes, and it was actually higher than my own recent numbers from 2012 and 2013 in my upper-level classes.  Also, while some students chose not to show up 1/3 of the time, most students were there most of the time.  To be sure, however, I will spend some of my sabbatical next year thinking about my methods and looking for new ways to spark and hold student interest without sacrificing intellectual for entertainment values.

#2 and #3 seem pretty persuasive, but I’d like to hear what the rest of you think and what you’re seeing among your students and in your classes.  What am I missing?

55 thoughts on “The “high cost of higher ed” is in fact not going to college (and in not going to class)

  1. My mom has been complaining about those too (humanities, regional state school). I haven’t had a problem with attendance recently, but I have been dealing with declining basic skills (writing, basic math, reading, and don’t get me started on how this generation doesn’t know how to use computers).

    Also, I don’t think it’s so much about lack of interest that makes students skip classes. Just taking attendance loudly at the beginning of class every period seems to do more than any amount of entertainment.


  2. By coincidence, I just deleted an e-mail from a publishing concern that cited a study finding that 65% of students are not purchasing textbooks “because of the price,” and that 93% of these abstainers *think* that such behavior “*might* be problematic in terms of their grades.” So yeah, a big part of the problem is deeply buried in the culture itself. There were no comparative figures on students willing to return to the days of their grandparents, when the weekend (itself a new thing under the sun) began on Friday night. Or declining to purchase a second pitcher of beer and instead putting the money in the book fund. Then again, students on various kinds of financial aid who encounter snags upstream in the bureaucratic pipeline find that they can’t buy or get any kind of access to books until too deep into the semester for it to matter. So, if the institution doesn’t care, they reason (I imagine), why should they? I don’t think mandatory anything has much resonance anywhere in the academic universe at this point. Notes like “Hey. I’m in ur class. What did we do today? Can u send me the notes?” are commonplace.


  3. @Indyanna
    Our current stats textbook is a ridiculous $100 to RENT. $200+ to buy and they come out with a new edition every 2 years, each one riddled with more errors. We’re seriously considering changing textbooks because of the price. I suspect with many of our students it isn’t a matter of a second pitcher of beer, but another 10 hours/week of work.


  4. I’m seeing a significant percentage of students missing about 1/5 to 1/3 of my classes lately; often these will be among my better students, so it’s not like they don’t know better.

    And I also make attendance part of the grade — that is, I reward them for showing up, and penalize them for missing too many classes.

    In the case of our university, I think it’s because our students are over-extended. Most are from working class families, and either have kids (even at the age of 23 or 24) or have extended families that depend on them for support. They’re all working jobs, many of them full-time jobs, besides going to school full-time, besides caring for these families.

    When I inquire about the absences, they all have fairly legitimate reasons — a sick kid, an aunt who needed a ride to court, a boss who switched their work schedule — but still, they’ve missed class.


  5. I’ve seen more #2 than #3. I have what I describe as draconian attendance policies: participation is at least 25-35% of the final grade, you lose that with three unexcused absences and fail the class with five. This past year, I’ve had majors who decided that they weren’t to be held to those policies. And were furious with their final grades.

    I finally got to the point of telling the students that to get a C in the class, they had to do everything on the syllabus in an acceptable manner. That gets them a C. For an A, they have to do much more and do it much better, with far more sophistication and polish. They were surprised. They told me they figured that the syllabus was the A level work, but could not tell me where they’d encountered or internalized that fallacy. Which goes back to #2.


  6. delagar & Belle: I adopted my attendance policy (I used to be like Belle & give them zero points if they missed more classes than the alotted three) precisely because I didn’t want to adjudicate between “legitimate” versus non-legitimate reasons to miss a class. As delagar notes, in the end, they’ve missed class, so it doesn’t really matter why.

    I’m certainly sympathetic to students who communicate with me and the university, and who make every other effort to show good faith & to keep up in class–but at some point, I think, their lives might in fact be too complicated to undertake college at that point in their lives. I sometimes worry that my policy makes it difficult for returning students, etc., but I’ve never even gotten wind of this kind of thing, let alone seen class non-attendance at these levels.

    I think I may need to go back to the stricter policy & just strip all points after 2 or 3 absences. I might be in an arms race with other professors for the toughest policy on absences.


  7. p.s. on nicoleandmaggie’s comment about the quality of basic skills: do you (two?) think that it’s gotten worse over the course of your youngish careers? Is it that the same students (compared to 5 or 10 years ago) are objectively worse, or do you think it’s that there are more students with weaker skills in the mix of your student body? (This goes to my point #2 above.)


  8. Other half of N&M here. I think it’s the latter.

    Some of my students have full-time jobs, sick children, messy divorces, cars that don’t work. I feel bad for them, but they’re gonna fail.

    I also have perfectly capable students who never seem to realize that not turning in assignments will result in 0 points, and that that will make them fail the class. They have no excuse to not come to class except sheer stupidity, and sheer reluctance to exert themselves further than their iPhones. They send me emails wondering how they can fix their grades, and I tell them it is 2 months too late to start caring about their grade.


  9. It’s certainly been worse over the past seven or eight years for me than ever before.

    I don’t know if that’s because I’m at this university, which has an entirely different sort of student; or because the rising cost of tuition and the crashing of the economy is requiring my students to work so many more hours; or some combination or these.


  10. They are also fully incapable of writing an English sentence, or calculating percentages, or any useful life skills. I blame NCLB and the horrible ‘education’ system in this back-asswards state.


  11. By “worse” I mean that I always had students who just didn’t show, or missed most of the classes; but before it was one or two students per semester, and these were students who just didn’t want to be in college anyway.

    Now it’s about a third of my students, sometimes more, and as I said, many of them are, in fact, very good students, who are doing the reading and the papers and all the other work, except for the classes they miss.


  12. There were lots of conversations about poor attendance in my department this year — it seemed to a lot of us as if things had taken a sharp turn for the worse. It’s really frustrating because it’s not just the attendance mark that suffers: especially in discussion-based classes, students who are frequently absent never quite figure out how to do the work that’s expected in their assignments because they aren’t there practising, trying their ideas out loud and getting supported or challenged or refining them in light of what someone else says. Plus, of course, they are missing the intellectual engagement that is the real point of it all! I think some of it is your #2, some of it is students with a lot else going on,and some of it is the intense focus (by parents, the media, recruiters…) on the product (the degree) instead of the process: a lot of students seem to be registered to get that piece of paper, which has been pitched to them as an essential step to success in ‘real’ life, without really caring much about what it is supposed to represent.


  13. When I got here, students were better at Excel and everything computer-related than I was. Now I’m getting the NCLB and they only know how to use their phones, and not even that well for some of them. Even forgetting their zero spreadsheet use, they don’t even know how to find files on their laptops. My returning students are much better. All those stereotypes about young/old folks and computers are going to be going away as gen X gets replaced by the NCLB/smartphone generation.

    I also used to be able to just tell them to write an essay and it would be an essay with paragraphs and complete sentences. Maybe one or two would need remediation. Not so much anymore– it’s one or two who do a stellar job (often home-schooled kids…). And it gets worse every year.


  14. Now that I am teaching high school I have a lot more insight about the students who did poorly in my classes when I was a prof at second-tier state institutions. For high school students there are mechanisms in place to help keep them from falling, from their parents to teachers sending home notices when work isn’t turned in. Many students who benefit from this close care in high school collapse in college because they don’t have much experience in self-motivation. I also think that the vocational mentality that dominates student thinking inclines them to see their degree as a certification to be obtained with the least amount of work possible. The beer and circus of colleges (big time sports, rock climbing walls, luxury dorms) reinforces their feeling that they are not really in college to learn anything.


  15. I suppose I’m glad to hear that it’s nothing personal to me, but how can we combat (or correct) the kind of mentality that Rohan and describes? I already talk about why I compel their attendance when I introduce them to the policy outlined on the syllabus. I take attendance every day in class, so that even the dullest student who missed the speech on day 1 might wonder about this practice and consult the syllabus to see what they missed.

    n&m’s discussion about the not-so-mad skillz of the Millennials is pretty funny. Who knew that some rudimentary knowledge of BASIC, FORTRAN, primitive relational databases, and pre-Windows IBM OS would come in handy? Maybe some of that old operational logic is embedded in our brains & helps us navigate the computing world as it has evolved to the present.

    I wonder if it’s similar to Gen X (most of us, anyway) being the last generation to receive the smallpox vaccine. If biowarfare unleashes the smallpox virus on us all, it’s only going to be those of us 40something and older who will survive. (When did the U.S. stop including smallpox in our vaccine panels? I used to show my smallpox vax scar to my students to impress them with my age and experience. Sadly, they no longer need convincing of my decrepitude!)


  16. WHB’s cross-posted comments now have me in a slough of despair. I appreciate the insight you offer about the kind of helicoptering our students grow accustomed to in middle & high school, although it makes me almost want to go do a Sylvia Plath on all of you tonight.

    Why don’t parents just let their kids take a few Ds and Fs when failure’s cost is relatively low (finanically as well as permanent-record-wise), and help the children learn some developmental lessons about cause and effect, instead of nagging them through their K-12 years and then letting them crash and burn in college?


  17. @Historiann– being unable to answer those questions is the primary reason my husband quit academia. (I get a much higher caliber student in my major– his former students had predominately already flunked out of a harder major.)


  18. Syllabus reading and syllabus comprehension skills are not strong. I go against the grain by putting a lot of weight on frequent tutorial responses/participation or short reading responses in classes.

    You won’t believe the number of students who, despite this percentage weight shown in bold on the front of the short syllabus and on each assignment, will still assume that they’re only risking 10% of their mark by not showing up for these meetings and participating or by not handing in the papers when it’s 35% they’ve blown off.


  19. As a former academic and now HS teacher – it is NOT the parents who care about a few D’s or F’s – at my school parents are absent form the academic process. Schools are GRADED on their passing and graduation rates – if too many 9th graders fail and need to repeat our school can be given a failing grade and put into receivership. Same with 4 year graduation rates/ drop out rates; we cannot let kids fail or our AYP will slip and we will be shut down/ relieved of our positions (at least 50% of staff and all administrators)/ taken over by the state. As to attendance we have staff that drive around to pick up students (AYP again). I have kids in AP classes who have missed 40 days – they will get to buy back their time so that they graduate on time and I must have a very good reason for failing them – and missing 40 days is not reason enough. We send out kids off to college and lots of them don’t make it. Enough do to make it worthwhile all the same.


  20. Wow, amelie: I didn’t realize that your pass/fail rate was such a big part of NCLB ratings, but of course now that you point this out, it makes perfect sense. Thanks for spelling it out for us.

    How’s all of that buck-passing for education working out for us, with politicians (and the public in general) deciding that it’s politically easier to blame the teachers rather than to look to parents, communities, and themselves? Awesome!!!

    Janice: I guess we could blame the HS math teachers for their students’ failure to comprehend basic arithmetic and fractions, but that wouldn’t be right, would it?


  21. Hypothesis #1 seems unlikely, even absurd, from here. You are in your prime. Probably better than ever. Surely #2 can be investigated? At my place whenever admission standards get lowered we faculty hear about it.

    Smallpox vaccine: a few years ago I mentioned to a class that I’d had it. They looked shocked. I think they thought smallpox went away around 1798, like leeches. Fortunately the group included a student from Brazil who said she too had been vaccinated.


  22. My colleagues and I have been struck by the disconnect we see, with students doing patently self-destructive things (like not showing up when there is an attendance policy). There’s a disconnect, where they don’t see consequences for their actions. For example, I had a student who wanted to go to grad school, except her GPA was below 2.5: she’d worked full time so she didn’t need to take out loans.

    Our hypothesis has been that since our population has such a high number of first generation students, they don’t get it. (I’ve had colleagues in the sciences tell me that students don’t seem to realize that if they have a C in Bio 1, the odds of getting in to med school are pretty slender. So it’s not just humanities.) Several of my colleagues won’t accept a paper if a previous paper hasn’t been turned in. That has helped the missing paper department.

    But I think WHB’s description of the monitoring that takes place in HS is a useful reminder. There is *so* much in HS now that doesn’t help prepare students for college. (My real complaint is that students think there is one right answer. And they don’t know how to ask questions.)


  23. Really interesting post and discussion.

    I sometimes wonder if students confusion outcome and process. Students want the outcome: a good g.p.a, leading to a good job. They are less concerned about the process: showing up to class and learning.

    I suppose it’s like writing. Many want to have written a book, but few have the discipline or motivation to actually write.

    For students, it could be laziness, but it might also just be distraction. Coming to class is just one of many activities competing for their time (social, or work, or whatever), and it is not necessarily their first priority.


  24. (My real complaint is that students think there is one right answer. And they don’t know how to ask questions.)

    Amazingly enough, this is something that attending class can help with! I agree that NCLB standards & the five-paragraph essay have destroyed a generation’s ability to reason with language, but that can be remediated by reading assignments and conversations in class with me & with their peers about historical methodologies, the choices that scholars make, etc.

    But, yes: the self-destructive nature of these behaviors is distressing to see. Middle-aged runner may be right that this has to do with credentials vs. education. In the past, I thought that my colleagues and I were effective in sneaking in the education while the credentials were being earned. But if students won’t come to class, then there is little hope for the education part to happen.


  25. @Susan
    “My real complaint is that students think there is one right answer. And they don’t know how to ask questions.”

    We have GRAD students who think this. It got so bad that we now spend a good portion of the first day of class in all the first semester classes talking about the difference between undergrad and grad school. I think it’s partly a problem with how many state colleges in the South are run– our students recruited from directional state Midwestern universities have far better critical thinking skills than the ones we get from flagship R1s in much of the South. But they all get them by the end of the first semester.

    My honors college students here complain a lot about how they’ve only had maybe one required course that made them think ever, even in their honors classes.

    Kids today… education today… *sigh* *shakes stick and tiny fist*

    But hey, summer.


  26. Yes, summer!!!

    I guess those of us who teach at non-elite institutions should just figure on spending even more time teaching the students *how* to do college. I thought I already did a lot of that, but it looks like I’ll need to get more intentional & explain to them **why** I’ve designed the syllabus and writing assignments as I have.

    Something else that has occurred to me as I’ve read through everyone’s comments: to what degree might this behavior in students also be due to the adjunctification of faculty labor? That is, with more and more of us only teaching and with high teaching loads, I’m sure that my adjunct colleagues don’t have the time to do things like weekly writing assignments and keeping track of attendance. So when students accustomed to that style of teaching run into me, they don’t put it all together fast enough to succeed in my classes.

    Just another major problem that results from universities eating their seed corn! And it’s a race to the bottom from here, I guess.


  27. It’s not just you, and I’ve had many of the same experiences as commenters above. Declining attendance, not buying the book and not turning in work leading to poor or failing grades. My university has a strict attendance policy, and I follow it, which means about 1/4 of my students fail due to attendance. I also have a no late work policy (they can get extensions if there is a reason and everyone gets one 2 day extension no questions asked as long as it is requested in advance). I’ve been teaching at teaching-focused institutions for almost 10 years and I’ve seen college readiness decline as NCLB has gone into effect at the same time assessment has been pushed into higher education. Something has to give or the US is in big trouble, not just as a leader in scholarship but also in cultural literacy and a strong workforce.


  28. @Historiann–

    The depressing thing is, I’m *at* an elite institution. Well, a flagship R1. If people are having problems here, then it’s got to be widespread.

    And yes, a lot of it is that it’s far easier to grade and deal with student complaints when all they’re being tested on is facts. They’re right or wrong with no subjectivity. And it’s what they’re used to from high school, especially with the emphasis on standardized testing.

    With our grad students we found it really helpful to have *all* four of the professors they get in the first week explain how they’re going to have to think and it’s going to be hard and they’ll get cognitive dissonance, but that’s what makes the graduate degree more valuable in undergrad. (Inwardly I cringe at this part because I had always learned that’s what makes college different from high school, but… I’m from the Midwest not under NCLB and I went to a SLAC for undergrad.)


  29. Pingback: The so-called “liberal” academic workplace : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  30. From the “old Millennial” perspective (in college and grad school between 1998-2011) I only have one experience of students not showing up in class and being baffled why this could or should affect their assessment — and this was during my study abroad period in Scotland. The university students there, in third-year honors seminars, firmly believed the seminar meetings were optional even when the syllabus required attendance. I thought at the time it must be a cultural thing: I gathered from watching the academic culture at the Uni that only recently had class attendance become a formal part of assessment. Previously, the ONLY marks that mattered were on mid-term and final exams or essay assignments (typically two 20-page papers per semester, each worth 50% of the final grade).

    Coming has I had from a mid-size liberal arts institution in the American Midwest where class attendance was required (I think we got two freebies per semester, per course; anything beyond had to be negotiated with the faculty member — and we’re talking things like long-term disability, parental death, etc. — if credit was to be received) this trivializing of class discussion was as baffling to me as the requirement of class participation was to these Scottish honors students.

    I’m offering this anecdote (which I realize does not substitute for data) as a caution that generational cohort or technology may not be the reason for a turn in academic culture around attendance. Students in 2003-2004, across the ocean, when the Internet was still only available in computer labs and you still *called* people on cell phones, were blowing off class sessions like it sounds your students are doing today. I wonder if it IS a product of NCLB and other high-stakes testing (which the UK system has long operated with).


  31. Middle-Aged Runner’s comment made me think of this:

    A lot of students these days think of education — and have been *encouraged* to think of education — as a hoop they have to jump through to get the credentials that will get them their jobs.

    That is, they have been encouraged to think of education as a waste of time, or a joke; they have to get the degree in order to get the job, but OBVIOUSLY they’re not going to learn anything in a classroom, amirite?

    Everything in our culture, from the denigrating of teachers to American anti-intellectualism, supports this worldview.

    With this attitude firmly in place, why wouldn’t they put everything else — family, church, jobs, their social life — ahead of going to class and doing the work?

    I actually did have a student (not a good student, but still) tell me that he wasn’t coming to class because he had a job and didn’t have time for “busy-work,” which apparently was what attending class was, in his worldview.


  32. “I actually did have a student (not a good student, but still) tell me that he wasn’t coming to class because he had a job and didn’t have time for “busy-work,” which apparently was what attending class was, in his worldview.”

    The only reasonable response to this is, “then you don’t have time to earn a college degree.”

    Having read amelie’s and WHB’s comments upthread, this may be an attitude conditioned by the use of classroom time he saw in his high school. If teachers are using classroom time to have students do their homework or otherwise not taking advantage of the group meeting time, then yeah, I can understand why he might assume that your classroom involved just “busywork.” Of course, it’s hard to disabuse someone of that notion if he never comes to class. . .


  33. Interesting to see you note this. I teach a large lecture (130-150) at a major research university. This year, I noticed two attendance problems:
    1. Students are invited during the term to a lunch with me and about 12 others. Full attendance in past years; about 20-25% missing this Spring.
    2. I have had a long-standing policy of dropping students with three absences and no good reason. This year, one came up: first, I was told by advising that new university policies about minimum credit load meant I could no long drop students after the 3rd week and secondly, the student was having performance problems that lead to serious depression, which I am also seeing more of.

    Lots of stuff coming together.


  34. amelie and WHBear’s have hit the points I would make. Especially amelie.

    Your job depends on passing students? You pass the students. I’m not currently teaching, but am very close to people who are, and they’re seeing the exact same trends among students: amazement that they will not be given credit for (best case) keeping a seat warm or (worst case) just paying tuition.

    Also: increasing problems with absences and increasing problems with inability to fight their way out of a tissue paper bag. There again, I’m convinced that’s due to teachers who have to pass everybody to keep their own jobs.

    I’m also convinced that it’s only a matter of time before the fantasies about promoting “quality” by making teachers “accountable” for student performance hit higher education. So far, I’ve only seen some adjuncts put in that bind, but it’s only a matter of time before legislators who need a keeper to put on their socks on for them make it an issue for everyone.

    And then we’ll be trying to run a technological society with people who can’t find files on a computer. I shall watch our future progress with considerable interest.


  35. For what its worth, I no longer give points for attendance in any of my classes or grade class discussion in my Western Civ classes. I do send out the sign up sheet, but its mainly for the advising people. We do mid semester reports on certain categories of students where the advising people ask for attendance information. I also like it when students come to complain to me about their grade. I can then pull out the attendance sheet and ask them to count up their own absences for the semester. Typically a student fails the class because they don’t come to class and/or don’t do the work.

    In my Western Civ class 15% of the grade is for quizzes, maps, a news presentation, and other short assignments. I do not grade the short assignments terribly hard, but it does give me a sense of what the students do or don’t understand about the reading. So there are plenty of middling B students who earn an A for this part of their grade, because they are attending class. You can’t earn an A in the class if you don’t do these assignments and also earn A’s on the exams. So its a sort of passive aggressive Midwestern approach to attendance.

    I once had a student who earned A’s on all the exams but still earned a B in the class because he/she skipped for most of the semester and missed a lot of short assignments. I think this was a fair result. The student had clearly done the reading and could write the kind of essays I expected, so they legitimately aced the tests. But they still hadn’t done everything expected of them in the class, so the overall grade was fair.

    I do have a discussion grade for my upper level classes. If a student misses class, they clearly haven’t been able to discuss the material, so they are marked down accordingly. But I do not have a cut off for the number of absences.

    I think the discussion of why students don’t seem to understand attendance policies or see the connection between class participation and academic results is interesting. I had not thought of NCLB as having this kind of effect, but it sort of makes sense. I also think students working longer hours at multiple jobs also explains it. I regularly have students who work 30+ hours a week during the semester.

    At commencement our University President said that 60% of the class of 2014 were the first in their family to go to college. I know some first generation to college students who face extreme indifference from their families. Their parents essentially said, “well, you want to go to college, thats nice, but we can’t help you. Its time for you to move out, and good luck.”

    I think anyone who has had a parent who went to college has a leg up in our system. There is a tremendous amount of cultural capital that they can pass on, even if they can’t help financially. Knowing how to read a syllabus, knowing that you have to go to the library to study, figuring out how manage your own time, these are all tacit knowledge that a college educated parent can impart to their student.


  36. I see a huge divide here. In most of my experiences taking history seminars at a top university, attendance is largely optional—especially in the research presentation section of full-year courses. I had very few professors who took attendance in any systematic way and I simply can’t imagine any of my fellow students getting a C, let alone failing, for not coming to class.

    It seems to mirror the divide in rule enforcement in secondary education: By and large students at elite schools are simply not allowed to fail; all the rules are can be bent and everything is up for negotiation. Papers can always be made up, deadlines are not enforced, and the threat of a parental phone call always looms. This, in addition to the privileges that most of these students have (most importantly not having to work full-time) makes failure essentially impossible.

    On the other hand, students from working-class backgrounds, who actually have jobs and children fail because of draconian attendance policies. Unsurprisingly, resources, support, and flexibility flow to those who are already privileged.


  37. This morning, driving into work, the local radio station asked, “What do you miss from school?” and one of the answers was “Being able to skip class without it mattering.” The DJ agreed and said at work you lose a sick day or a vacation day or just don’t get paid, but if you’ve got something better to do with your time than going to class you can just skip unless attendance is required or something.

    I didn’t text in. But I also didn’t text in last week when he said that every dollar of increase in the minimum wage was going to result in an increase of a dollar in your McDonald’s hamburger last week, which is also wrong.

    (Usually I listen to NPR on my morning commute, but when the news is depressing I flip to the top 40 station.)


  38. Jon, I take your point about privilege and attendance policies. However, I take seriously my role not just as a “content provider,” but as someone who can and should teach my non-privileged students *how* to succeed in college. As Matt L. says, at non-elite unis, we have a lot of first-generation students who don’t have parents to help prepare them for college and/or to navigate its challenges.

    Even if I taught at an elite school, I’d take attendance and distribute the awards and punishments accordingly. Attendance is about half of what I call the “participation” grade, the other half of which is short writing assignments. I think it’s more democratic to reward the students who show up and do the work, rather than the bright and outgoing chatty Charlies and Cathies whose attendance is spottier.

    That said: working 30 hours a week on top of a full-time class schedule is ridiculous. I’ve had students who worked like that, but they took only 9 or 12 credits per semester so that they could learn something and keep their GPAs up. Trying to work 30 hours a week and take 15 credits or more is just too much.


  39. One of our most contentious posts was about whether or not students should work full-time or take out loans. We got taken off a lot of personal finance blogrolls for saying that working crap jobs during school can be a false economy. But it is if it makes you fail classes or not graduate early or not get as much out of your classes. It goes back to that idea that the college degree is just a box to be checked rather than something that provides value by itself.


  40. I’m with you, n&m. Most students manage to use both a part-time job and student loans to muddle through.

    I think there was a study recently that said that working something like 15 hours a week was correlated with higher GPAs, but that working more than 20 hours a week correlated with lower GPAs. The theory was that students who work part-time get on a schedule and are more dedicated about getting their schoolwork done because of their work commitments, so their grades are better than unemployed students as well as overly-employed students. But I’m too lazy to look for a link!


  41. n&m: just finished the comments on that thread. Boy oh boy, were some of your commenters defensive, or what? I guess they thought you were accusing them personally of not getting the most out of their college educations, or something, rather than commenting on the jams you see your students getting themselves into.

    Also: somehow the conversation devolved quickly into stark extremes–that you were somehow saying NEVER work/ONLY borrow, and the only other choice was ALWAYS work/NEVER borrow.

    Internet FAIL.


  42. I’m always struck by the adult lifestyles my students seem to have, and I wonder about how much of their work is really about going to school and how much is going to fund the adult lifestyle. Most undergrads seem to have cars and their own apartments (albeit shared with roommates.) And a huge amount of socializing has to do with drinking in bars, which is the most expensive way to drink.

    Whatever happened to the dorm room, the bicycle, the fistful of laundry quarters, and the very occasional pizza? I have a car and a house now, and I dream–quite literally–several times each year that I’m back in college in the dorm, without any other responsibilities, and I’m SO HAPPY in those dreams!


  43. Yeah, I’m not really sure what happened with that thread. (I was actually at a conference when it posted and only checked in intermittently.) The person we were using as an example, her parents refused to even fill out her FAFSA, so she had to pay full freight, even though her family was poor (so she should have gotten need-based grants). She wrote a blogpost talking about how she barely slept, seemed pretty miserable throughout, but it was totally worth it because she came out with no debt. After she graduated she ended up in a customer service job that paid next to nothing (something she often complained about on her blog as well). Now, of course, she’s making 200K/year with a blogging empire and had bought an enormous house, or at least that’s what was going on the last time I saw. (You can buy her web book on how to make money blogging or hire her to handle advertising on your blog.)


  44. All of the people on that thread who felt “personally attacked” because they in fact worked 40-60 hours a week in college and consider themselves now successful and educated people were peddling an only *slightly* more benign version of the “Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are college dropouts” concept. (Yeah, but they got into Harvard before they dropped out of it, so does this really go for kids dropping out of Wichita State?)

    I think they thought of you (incorrectly, BTW) as denigrating their achievement, rather than counseling today’s students against such a high-risk, high-exhaustion strategy.


  45. Well, we also may have hinted that even the successful ones could have done even more with their lives if they’d made different choices– they might have graduated from college earlier, had more lucrative majors, gone to more prestigious schools etc. Assuming money is all they care about, of course, and there’s no other reason to spend time and effort on classwork.


  46. Historiann,

    I too wonder about my students semi adult lifestyle. Most of them have better phones than I do. Although both humanities students and their prof seem to be driving 10 year old cars at our school. Its moving time and I see students hauling around all manner of widescreen TV’s, X-boxes, and other spendy toys. On the other hand, a my wife pointed out, yes, they have a better TV than you do, but thats the only thing they own.

    I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. My university does not provide much on campus housing, probably only 30% of the total enrollment, so the students from out of town really do have to shack up in apartments and shared houses. My in-laws went to Woebegone State in the 1960s and said that this was a chronic problem even back then. (And my father in law had a car too). I think most of my students work to pay their tuition and living expenses.

    Although there are a couple of Richy Riches who also have bass boats and snowmobiles parked on a trailer in the driveway of their student slum. I get the sense that these students are mainly in college to punch their ticket and to socialize with their peers for another four years before going to work at daddy’s car / implement dealership, lumber yard, drug store, etc. But these are a pretty rare bird at my school. Most of the students of my acquaintance (anecdotes not data, I know) really are working to pay the bills.


  47. After reading through the comments I’m left with three thoughts:

    1. As someone also on the old end of the Millennial group I’m only slightly shocked at how technically illiterate my students (and my colleagues!) are. Yes, my family had computers growing up but a specific set of circumstances (a particular work/study job; not letting a terrible hs programming class get me down; etc) led me to be more technically literate than most people around me. Sometimes I struggle to understand how the people around me are so curious about many things but are content to be stubbornly ignorant about technology. Sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t code or really feel the need to in what I do, but at least I know what I’d need to do if I wanted to take the time to do it.

    2. I teach in a discipline where attendance really does matter – given our methodologies you can’t learn another language if you’re not in class to practice it. Though sometimes I wish this weren’t the case this also extends into our upper division courses, since many students are still not where they should be on their language acquisition. The only time I’ve had serious attendance issues have been with students who were either struggling to graduate (in multiple areas), or who were dealing with new mental health diagnoses. That said, the only grade challenge I’ve ever had to deal with (only 10 years teaching so I’m sure there’ll be more) was due to an attendance issue that a student disagreed with (ze didn’t win the challenge).

    3. My uni has an entire 1 credit course that all new students (including transfers) must take that is basically how to do college. When I’ve taught it I talk about time management, project management, self-care, etc. I learned these things in my home, but most of my students have only gotten bits and pieces, if that. It helps that we’re a SLAC so our class sizes aren’t ridiculous, but I’ve had students come back to me semesters later to thank me for teaching them those specific skills (both in that course and in upper-division courses in which I end up teaching time/project management so they’ll get the assignments done well and on time).


  48. And a note on those Richy Rich-es. A few years ago (an a few institutions removed from my current one) I once had a student railing against our sitting president because of the high price of fuel for hir family’s yacht. !?

    My response was to say that if ze was so upset about it, why wasn’t ze advocating for research to build a more efficient boat engine.


  49. My husband and I married very young. He was still in undergrad and went immediately on to grad school. He had some debt from undergrad, some of which I paid off for him by working lots. I didn’t go to college until I was 23. We were married and poor, so we got good financial aid because they didn’t take our parents’ incomes into account.

    We lived frugally. When I decided to go to college, I fortunately lived near the state R1 (cheap). I wanted to go part-time while working full-time because I didn’t see any way we could afford for me to quit work (hubs was in grad school at the same R1). My husband said that was a terrible idea, and showed me the chart of $ per credit hour, and explained all the benefits of full-time enrollment. He encouraged me to do 1 semester of night class just to confirm that I liked it, then quit my job and enroll full-time. He said it would be nearly impossible for me to excel in my studies if I was working any more than a few hours a week, and said I should only consider on-campus jobs.

    It was great advice. I got a job working in a lab on campus (barely any $ but amazing experience), completely rocked my classes, got some scholarships, and did it all in 3 years. We then had a kid, he finished grad school, I started grad school, had another kid, then I finished grad school. We have a ton of loans, but they were necessary to maintain even a modest lifestyle with little kids. We are paying them off easily, and even making additional payments, because we now both have PhDs and the kids are out of daycare. It’s astonishing how much our income:expense ratio has changed in the last couple of years.

    My point is this: we both had excellent college/grad experiences because we knew that it was foolish to try to earn our degrees while working unrelated jobs. Therefore, we lived modestly, invested in loans, and invested in daycare ($$$!). Some people may think we are “paying for it” now, in the negative sense. I see it as a great investment for which we are only starting to reap the rewards. Our expenses are only going down as our kids get older so we’re now obsessed with investing the extra income in our retirement accounts, which is FUN! We’re not tempted to spend it because we are not accustomed to a grand lifestyle. It would have been impossible for us to have done as well in school without the loans/daycare, and I think that our earning potential would have suffered for it. That said, we’re both scientists, so our degrees luckily offer us more remunerative jobs than some others do, which makes the investment more obviously worthy.

    As academics, having kids so young is unpopular and difficult, but I am glad we got it over with when we did. We finished having kids right before we turned 30 solely because we were afraid of infertility and the attendant issues.

    I see people who take on way too many (non-scholastic) work hours, and who try to get by with no paid childcare, all in the effort to save money. They end up paying for it in other ways: their academic performance, their relationships, their health. When loans are an option (as they are in most cases), I wish people who could benefit from them would not see them as such a terrible thing. The loans/daycare may be the only thing that actually enables them to have the resources they need to attend class and learn. But what if we hadn’t known that when we went to school?


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