Storming the Castle

Imagine a castle with very high ramparts. Ramparts that grow higher every day. In the castle are suburban homes, good schools, doctors for sick children, 401K plans to protect the elderly. On the vast fields surrounding the castle are McDonalds jobs, over priced health clinics, crumbling schools with exhausted and poorly trained teachers.

There’s a siege. Commanders, with good intensions and few resources, are sending their soldiers against the walls. Some march to their doom. Others are flung on catapults or try to scale the walls with ladders. A few make it over the walls, but the majority lay dead on the field.

Right now, the best chance that most kids have to achieve that American Dream is to finish college and earn a BA. The statistics are clear. People with a college degree have greater lifetime earnings and more opportunities for good jobs than those who don’t have that degree. Workers without a college degree have been displaced by technology and global markets.

By now, all know that. So, education leaders and activists have told students that they must attend college. Students have been given sermons and lectures that they can do it. They’ve been empowered and enlightened. But they haven’t been given the weapons and tools to make it through the battle. The dropout rate is huge, particular for low income, poor students.

Because to get through college degree requires years of training. Students need hard skills — math facts, essay composition, knowledge of science and history — but most can’t pass basic standardized tests for math or reading. They need soft skills – how to organize tasks, study independently, plan for the future. They need to understand the complicated bureaucratic structures of colleges and other college hacks — where do you go when you financial aid check doesn’t come in, how do you create a balanced course schedule, what’s a bursor’s office.

Meanwhile, it’s much harder to finish college these days. Standards are higher, particularly for the STEM classes. A student with a simple college prep high school class in biology will sit in a lecture hall next to a student who took honors biology in his Freshman year of high school, took AP biology in his senior year, studied with a tutor for the Biology SATs, and may have attended a STEM camp at the local community college. They will be given the same final exam, and the kid with all that experience will set the curve. The regular student has no chance.

And students are further away from adults – adults with full time positions – than ever before. They are hurded into massive state colleges with tens of thousands of students. They attend lectures with hundreds of students, where the only person who can answer questions is a temporary worker who has no incentive to answer emails and is struggling financially herself.

The bureaucracies at these schools are Kafkaesque, unable to handle glitches in the system. The glitches are kids, who fail out of that biology class, who have trouble paying a bill, who can’t find those majors that shelter the less educated students.

The bodycounts are high. 84 percent of low income kids drop out of college. They stagger away from the schools, depressed and battered. They blame themselves, their families, and their communities for not preparing them. They are saddled with debt and no degree. They come back home and tell others to stay away. We have to wonder whether it was fair to send them to the battle with so little preparation. We have to assume some of the guilt for the wreckage.

And we have to work to change the system. K-12 schools need to prepare al kids for college in all ways from the hard skills to knowledge of the job markets to the basic college hacks. But without a major infusion of cash, that isn’t going to happen. In some states, there is 1 guidance counselor for every 700 kids. [edited] Test scores haven’t budged in decades.

Some say that the solution is for kids to bypass high schools and start sending kids to the local community college for high school classes (a growing trend). Others say that we need to boost community colleges and technical schools that can prepare kids for real jobs that don’t require a BA. Some high school charter schools are now following students into college to support them.

The conversation is starting to go beyond “free college” and “abolish student loans,” because it’s becoming clear that money, or the lack thereof, is only one small problem in this system. Political leaders haven’t caught up yet. It’s the job of writers and thought leaders to get them up to speed and to do something about the walking wounded, the students who have been chewed up by the system.

OPINION: Out of necessity, I taught my son to choose a college for its value, not its prestige or vibe — My latest in The Hechinger Report

Without photoshopping his face onto the body of a water polo athlete, like some of the parents caught up in the recent U.S. college cheating scandal, I could have prepped my older son, Jonah, for college like a prize pumpkin at the county fair.

Starting when he was in middle school, I could have taken a stronger role in overseeing his schoolwork by editing his papers, re-teaching certain subjects and hiring tutors in others. I could have checked his online gradebooks daily. I could have supervised homework and nudged him to schmooze with teachers. In high school, we could have hired one-on-one tutors to prepare him for standardized tests. I could have pushed him to take on leadership positions in clubs he didn’t care about. I could have written his essay and filled out the Common Application for him.

Lots of parents do these tasks; most aren’t even considered cheating. It’s just how things are done these days among many upper- and middle-class families.

With our backgrounds in higher education, my husband and I have more relevant skills than many other families in our community. We likely could have micromanaged our kid into Harvard. But we didn’t. Between our son’s stubborn resistance to our help, and our own ethics and laziness, we did very little to turn our kid into a tidy package for colleges. Instead, I taught my son how to be a good education consumer.

More here.

Too Few Guidance Counselors, Too Little Information: Why Community College Might Be the Best Path for High School Graduates — But They’ll Never Know It

Natalie Hamilton, left, Northwood High School counselor, gives college advice to senior students Bianca Schteiden, 18, at Northwood High School in Irvine. The University of California is starting waiting lists for its freshman application process. Hamilton feels the students don’t need any more anxiety that the lists will produce. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Sometimes a community college is right for students, for financial or academic or career reasons, but they aren’t getting enough info about community colleges in high school. Here’s my article on the topic:

Despite a stellar high school record with great grades, Advanced Placement classes and leadership positions on the debate team and in marching band, Jennifer Hernandez was completely unprepared during her senior year to choose a college or even comprehend the jargon that surrounds the application process.

“I did not know where to start,” she said. As a first-generation student living in the Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows, Illinois, she didn’t have family who could decipher the terminology or take her to visit college campuses. Nor did she get that help from an adviser. Like many high schools around the country, hers did not have enough guidance counselors, she said. And the counselors the school did have were too busy to support students who needed extra help, like her.

With no one to guide her, Hernandez applied to a number of four-year colleges — some local, some chosen at random — not realizing until she received her acceptance letters that she could not afford them. She then scrambled, on her own, to apply to a community college later in the spring of her senior year. Her school counselors, she said, again didn’t help with her application, or provide much-needed information about how she could eventually transfer to a four-year school. With the stigma associated with community college, Hernandez said, she felt demoralized. “It was pretty rough,” she said.

More here.

Free College and Student Loan Forgiveness in the Democratic Debate

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., talk during in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Last night, education policy was front and center. But only higher education. Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have various proposals that aim at reducing the burden of college students and recent graduates. On the table are free college and student loan forgiveness.

Now, college tuition rates are insane. Some colleges are $73,000 for full cost of attendance. Yes, there are tuition discounts for merit and need, but lots of students pay full freight. That’s their sticker price. And some students do rack up significant amounts of debt, particularly if they tack on masters degrees, take a long time to graduate, and just make bad decisions.

You know that I’m highly sympathetic and have ranted about those issues for a while. But I’m worried about blank checks for college for a number of reasons.

It penalizes people who made hard choices to avoid debt: A school teacher who doesn’t take vacations but puts money in 529 accounts for her kids since birth. A college graduate who takes a boring job, rather than the dream job, to pay off the loans. A student who attends a community college for two years, before transferring to a four year college. The kid who goes to an in-state public college, solely because of cost.

It does nothing for students who can’t finish college, which may be even more of a serious crisis than debt.

It does nothing for students who need a degree from a trade school. Or don’t attend college at all, but still need training and employment support.

It does nothing to stop the cause of the problem – colleges. They are allowed to keep raising tuition, even at in-state public colleges, without any checks. Even, as they do in my state, waste buckets of cash on losing sports teams. And there is no pressure on them to improve quality. They keep replacing full time faculty with adjuncts.

There is no distinction between public and private colleges in their plans. A public college is a right, a private college is not.

As many have pointed out, it benefits the middle class without much trickle down help for working and lower class citizens.

Steve and I attended a grad school program that didn’t provide any funding for its grad students. Not even tuition. (Yes, majorly stupid, but let’s move on.)

I kept my loans manageable by working part-time, sometimes full time, at a policy institute at the same time as taking classes and writing a dissertation. I also taught a few classes. Steve taught a great deal, while doing his classwork. While students at other universities were building their CVs, we were ghost writing papers and teaching 50+ students at the Bronx Community College.

Even with all that, our combined student loan debt when we got married was over $75,000. We paid it off around my 50th birthday. We’re better off than most of our classmates, who were looking at bigger numbers. That debt was awful. It had a big impact on our careers and other life choices (children, homes). Grad school was a MAJOR financial train wreck. (I’m not even going to talk about the impact of beginning to save for retirement in your mid 30’s, rather than your 20’s.)

So, I am highly, HIGHLY sympathetic to anybody who wants to ease that burden on others. Yet, I’m not entirely happy with the current proposals, because they don’t check the colleges themselves, don’t distinguish between public and private colleges, penalize good behavior, and don’t help people who choose alternatives to college.

Disruptive Technology: Can the computer and tech crowd disrupt higher education?

ABCs in ordinary objects in a school

Last summer, I got a desperate email from the guidance counselor at Ian’s high school. The elective that he signed up for was cancelled, so she needed to find another elective for him pronto. The only opening was an Advanced Photography class.

I wasn’t totally pleased. He had never shown an interest in photography and hadn’t taken the Beginning Photography class. But I wanted to be a good sport, so I said okay.

And then I totally forgot about that class. I would ask him about it from time to time and he would say great, but I didn’t hear anything more, and I didn’t ask anymore questions.

Then a couple of weeks ago, we visited the school to see his percussion ensemble and was surprised to see his artwork pasted up on the hallway to the band room. There was one project where he combined three faces into one composite fictional face. And another one where he made a mock-up of a magazine cover. It looked fabulous.

And then on Wednesday, his photography teacher sent us an email saying that Ian was spectacular at Photoshop, the best in the class. He suggested that he take a video effects class next where he would learn to do Game of Thrones types of special effects. Burning castles in the background and dragons in the sky. He wants to write Ian’s college recommendation. Nice, right?

Ian can spend 18 hours a day working on his projects at home. And has endless patience for manipulating pixels and music notes. Some of his electronic songs on YouTube have gotten tens of thousands of hits, but he hasn’t posted anything online in years, because of weirdos on the Internet.

I know nothing about special effects and art technology, so I spent hours googling information over the past few days. What local colleges offer degrees in that program? What skills do employers look for? Are there jobs on the East Coast? Are there places that employ people with poor social skills? (Yes.)

The gossip on places like Reddit is that these skills are so new that colleges haven’t really set up degree programs yet. And the geeks that run these companies don’t trust college classes anyway. They said that portfolios that come from college programs are often group projects, so it’s unclear which students really completed the work. They prefer self-taught workers who have a solid portfolio of projects that they create themselves. They will even hire people who have taught themselves these skills through YouTube videos.

We were talking about alternatives to college a few days ago in the comment section. Has credentialism gone too far? Do people have to get degrees in fields that are totally unnecessary, which end up filtering out people with irrelevant learning disabilities or financial difficulties? Well, it seems that at least in computer/tech fields, at this moment in time, a college degree is unnecessary.

I wonder if that ethos will carry over into other fields. Do accountants really need a full liberal arts education with Introduction to Sociology and Philosophy 101? Don’t they really just need to add up columns of numbers and manipulate formulas on Excel? Does a stock broker need those classes? I mean it’s probably a good thing for all people to take those classes and broaden their horizons, but should it be mandatory?

The computer and tech crowd has tried to disrupt higher education before (hello MOOCs!) and hasn’t gotten anywhere, so some doubt is warranted. But, still, it’s interesting.

Counting Blessings and Adversity Scores

After a quick morning run, I’m cleaned up and wearing pink khakis and a white sleeveless htop. It’s spring here in Jersey’s suburbs and it’s fabulous.

Work went well this week. Two articles approved and started. I had an A+ interview yesterday that will made for a great lede in one of the articles. An article from this winter is finally going to pub next week. I’ve put some serious thought into the book project for the summer. (There’s no point writing education articles over the summer, because nobody wants to read about schools on the beach vacation.)

With some solid work under my belt, I’m taking the day off without guilt. I’ll catch the bus into the city to meet a friend from London, who is in town. She picked out a Korean place near Hudson Yards. Then I’ll kill a couple of hours. Writing in the New York Public Library? At the Met? Around 4:30, I’ll take the subway down to Wall Street. Jonah and Ian will take the train into the city and we’ll all meet up outside Steve’s office. We’ll find some place to get beers and snacks along the side of the Hudson and then take the Ferry across the river.

If I had to construct my own adversity score, it would be very low today. I’m pretty lucky, and I know it. I mean we’ve had our issues. I can’t possible quantify the impact that autism had on all of our lives. But then again, we’re lucky. Lots of people have it MUCH worse. Twenty years ago, we were under the poverty line, in (student loan) debt, and without job prospects. But, we were lucky enough that it was grad school poverty, and we were able to dig our way out of the mess.

I suppose that it’s a worth-while exercise to take a look at our lives and make columns of the privileges and disadvantages. I’m not sure how to make a science of those charts and then use them as a basis for college admission. But the thought process is still important for us as individuals. It’s the old “counting your blessings” notion. And looking around my house where there’s a pale and stinky college kid sleeping off the drama of finals week and a calendar of activities for my family, I’ve got it good.

Why Parents Help Their College Students

At Saturday’s luncheon to celebrate my niece’s Confirmation, my brother-in-law discussed a recent business trip to check out a building in Florida that had been designed by his firm. “Boy, do they do shoddy construction work in Florida,” he said.

“How can you tell that the construction is bad”, I asked. “Don’t you have to look behind the sheet rock to really know if the building is badly built?”

“Nah, I can just walk through the building and see all the problems.”

My brother in law has been an architect at one of the top companies in the world for nearly 35 years. Something like a misaligned electrical socket, which would totally slip by me, speaks volumes to him.

I was a student, a researcher, and a professor in higher ed for 25 years. My husband, my father, and nearly all of my friends are or were in the business for years. I, too, can spot shoddy work a mile away; instead of misaligned electrical sockets, I see adjuncts.

In my last post, commenter “scantee” speculates that UMC parents help out their college-aged children because of economic panic. That is very much true. There are a host of other reasons, too, including better technology. I wrote an article about parent involvement in college for The Atlantic a couple of years ago. Another reason that I didn’t write about in that article and didn’t realize until I sent my kid away to college is that college ain’t what it used to be.

I send my kid to one of those massive, 30,000 undergraduate public colleges. The college is ranked very highly, and it’s nearly 1/3 of the price of the similarly ranked private schools. All good things. But the way that the school keeps that price low is by skimping on workers.

My kid is finishing off his second year of college. He’s had almost no classes yet where he’s had a tenured or tenured track professor who is able to remember the students’ names. Most of his classes have been in large lecture halls with hundreds of students with a big name in the front of the room. The discussion sections are led by rotating grad students and adjuncts who are intellectually and financially insecure. A few of his classes have been small classes led by adjuncts. One was so bad that she was fired in the middle of the semester. Two of his classes have been hybrids, meaning that they mostly happen online.

Most of the classes have been very academically rigorous. I have no complaints with the material that he’s been covered in his classes. Expectations for the students are very high. The problem is mostly the lack of connections between teachers and students. No chit-chat in the hallway about books or the weather. No role models. I hear that those connections happen in one’s senior year when the students take seminars, but that’s a long way away.

Administration is even worse. The first semester, he went to academic advisement to help him register for classes. They put him in the wrong Physics class, so that first week, he had to scramble to add/drop a class and return books.

They’ve set up such a complicated system for gen ed requirements that going to advisement is almost mandatory. So, the next time he needed help with knowing which classes would satisfy the gen ed requirements, I drove down to the school to see what was what. I let him lead the meeting, but I wanted to be there to make sure he asked the right questions and to make sure that mistakes didn’t happen again.

Ugh. The woman was adept at telling my kid which class satisfied which requirements, but she couldn’t go beyond that. Jonah said he was interested in combining his interests in science and politics. What did she suggest? She couldn’t tell him the difference between the majors of public policy, political science, and environmental policy. She told him to talk with three separate advisors in those three different departments in three separate schools within the college.

Setting up times to talk with those advisors was also a hassle, because they were each located on different campuses there. (There are five campuses at his school, which can only be reached with a twenty minute bus ride.) And then each needed an appointment. It could take two weeks for Jonah to get the answer to his very simple question about majors, so I called a buddy in the policy department at his school, and she told me what was what.

I’ve decided that his school has shoddy construction, but we like the price. So, I step in when needed to handle the problems with instruction and advisement. And it’s not only my kid who has had problems. I occasionally am put on the cellphone to answer pol sci questions from his friends and housemates. Only about half of boys at his school graduate in four years. It takes a long time to navigate that system.

Well, this blog post is long enough and I want to get to the gym. More tomorrow.