Awhile back, I had the parent of one of my students call me. The student had run away from home, had done some rather clever things with shared family finances to cover their little get away, and, oh by the way, the student was in all sorts of trouble at school. There were MIPs, weeks of missed classes, failing grades, you name it.
The parent, rightly frustrated, was hoping that I could offer some advice and intervention on how to keep their child in school.
Not too many days preceding this phone call, that very student had turned up three weeks late for an advising appointment. In the twenty minutes they spent in my office, they'd talked about a week long trip they'd taken to New York City (in the middle of the term) and about how they were going to Cancun the following week (this would be finals week). So you can imagine that this knowledge combined with the parent's details about their precious filled me with all sorts of joy. For all sorts of reasons - I'm not a trained counselor, there are substantial privacy issues with talking about the progress of a 20 year old to another adult without their consent, etc - I couldn't actually offer the parent much advice.
But the real problem was that, even if I were legally allowed, what I wanted to say is simply unutterable in the current climate: some children aren't cut out for college.
It's interesting that there's a sort of theme to this in this week's Chronicle. There's an article by a former faculty member, discussing her experiences with teaching and the need for a variety of opportunities beyond just college. But there's also an article from a student addressing the formulaic nature of college application and what a prospective student should really be prepared to think about.
What both are speaking implicitly to is the place that higher education has come to occupy in American society. Effectively, a college degree has become the equivalent of a high school diploma - we expect that everyone can and should have one. This view of higher education as a right (rather than the opportunity of higher education as a right) has resulted in all sorts of problems for the modern institution and its employees. Tied to this is the idea that college is a right of passage that follows hot on the heels of high school.
When I think about that student and her parent, what I think someone should have been able to say - without fear of lawsuit or recrimination from parents or institution - is simply that maybe that student hadn't yet formed the discipline that higher education requires and, so, perhaps they simply shouldn't be here. This isn't the same thing as saying they never should, since many faculty will tell you (and this has by and large been my experience) that the "non-traditional student" - those who have returned later in life or who are working while they're in school or juggling a family - tend to be the students who get the most out of it.
The reason, I would argue, is that they're the ones prepared to put the most into it.
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