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.

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Parents and Privilege

Jonah is in the midst of high misery and despair that is Finals Week. He’s a smart kid with bad study skills, a cellphone of distractions, and a mediocre public school education. Sometimes just being smart is good enough for him. Sometimes those other issues bring him down.

This semester, he’s been trying out a new major, political science. He took Introduction to International Relations last semester and got a good grade without any help from me, so we were playing around with the idea of combining his interest with science with political science. So, he signed up for two more pol sci classes this semester. Turns out that I’ve taught both of those classes before.

As I’ve said, political sciences classes are pretty much the same from school to school, and haven’t changed much since my dad started teaching those classes back in the mid-1960s. Plato is always Plato. The powers of the presidency have been the same since FDR. So, when he called to share his review guide for the American final, I looked at it and told him what to study. I told him what the final essay question was probably going to be.

I spent some time worrying about whether I should be counseling him on his classes or how much I should edit his essays for political theory. In the end, I gave him as much as help as I would any student coming into a professor’s office hours. I wouldn’t write his introduction to his paper on MLK for him, but I did make the sentences clearer and told him when he had misunderstood the essay prompt. I certainly couldn’t go into the exam room and take his final exam for him. He had to do all the readings. He had to do all the memorization. His essays had to be his own work.

Still, I helped. And I worried that it might be wrong. What about all those kids in his classes who didn’t have parents with PhDs? Did he have an unfair advantage?

One of the concepts that he has to tackle in his theory exam tomorrow is the notion of fairness. The idea that all humans should start at the same place on the starting block and that the person who crosses the finish line first is the person with most talents and who put in the most effort. But it doesn’t really work that way, does it? My kid is starting a race about 200 yards ahead of the other students.

Ian has been doing really well with math. In the past couple of years, he’s gone from the lowest level of special ed math class to the medium level to a regular class. This never happens, and the public school doesn’t quite know what to do with him.

He’s in Algebra I right now, but he’s so far advanced that we hired a tutor to teach him Algebra II at our dining room table on Saturday mornings. I’m sure the school won’t let him skip a grade, so he’ll have to study Algebra II with the other kids next year, and I guess his tutor will keep going onto Trig or Calculus.

Again, Ian is advancing because of us. Yes, he has a talent and an incredible work ethic, but he’s getting this opportunity and bypassing the regular hoops that other kids have to deal with, because we can afford to make our rules.

It’s impossible to equalize parenting. Even if every child in the country attended the exact same school with the exact same curriculum and resources, the secret sauce of education — parents with time, money, and education — can never be equalized. I can’t stop helping my kids with their homework or showing up at their band concerts or reminding them that a paragraph can’t have twelve sentences. I stop myself from crossing a line that I’ve set for myself, and my kids certainly tell me to back off when I go too far, but I’m still there.

The elite high schools in New York City are in the midst of a rebellion, because only seven African-American kids were admitted to elite science schools for next fall. School admissions are based on the results of one standardized exam. Kids with parents who get them to the test prep classes are doing better than everyone else.

NYC schools are trying to figure out how to make the system more fair. Do they get rid of the test altogether? Do they create quota-system? Do they dismantle the whole system of elite high schools? And it’s all because of the parents and the test prep classes.

I don’t know the answer. But I do know that it’s impossible to tell a parent not to help. While I worry about equity, at the same time, I’m going to drill Jonah on the social contract in Rousseau, and I’m going to get Ian extra math help.

Many Families Aren’t Sending Their Kids to Small Liberal Arts Colleges Anymore. Mine Isn’t, Either. Here’s Why

college with clocktower

In January, two small liberal arts colleges, Green Mountain College in Vermont and Hampshire College in Massachusetts, announced that they were going to close or merge with other schools. They joined the ranks of other small schools that have closed in recent years, such as Mount Ida College in Massachusetts, St. Gregory’s University in Oklahoma, and Marygrove College in Detroit. Sweet Briar College in Virginia was flatlining in 2015 before being resuscitated from certain death, thanks to extreme fundraising efforts by alumnae.

Small private schools suffer from a multitude of problems, including endowments that are tangled in strings, a declining interest in liberal arts, a decreasing pool of college-age kids, competition from online education, and growing administrative expenses. But most importantly, they can’t get families like mine to send their kids to their schools. They don’t have enough students who can pay full freight and are interested in the slower pace of a small liberal arts campus.

More here

Dreary January

January always sucks here in the Northeast. It’s grey and cold. We’ve all had the same virus for the past three weeks, trading germs back and forth. I need to give the entire house a Clorox bath to get rid of these lingering evil bugs. Faded Christmas trees lay sad and lonely waiting for pick up by the garbage truck.

A story that I did in December was just published. I posted it here. Happy to talk about it in the comment section. I’m working on something totally different right now. It’s an upbeat story about a school in the South Bronx for emotionally disturbed children. (Yes, it’s a happy story.) I’m also editing a document right now for a long term project. So, there’s a lot of work to do.

I was at that South Bronx school earlier this week and had a great time, except for the horrible drive through the Bronx. With streets full of pot holes, sudden turns, unmarked roads, and drivers who don’t obey normal traffic rules, I was having anxiety attacks as I navigated my way there. But I did it. Yay me.

Jonah’s home still, which is awesome. Sniffling like the rest of us, he’s been looking at the career development website for school and trying to figure out what he’s going to do after graduation. What a bucket of stress!

Other kids in town are using their winter break to do informational interviews with alumna from their schools at various companies around New York City. I’m just hearing about this from other parents. Neither Jonah nor myself got the memo that this is what kids do during winter break now, until it was too late. So, he’s surfing websites about careers, rather than sitting in an office with a suit. Sigh. Parent fail.

There is a RIDICULOUS level on stress on kids about jobs. Here’s an article in Vox describing it. And this stress isn’t totally crazy. Millennials are burning out in their jobs. College graduates aren’t finding work.

I’m moving my family to a bunker in Vermont where we’ll make artisanal goat cheese.

The Tech Backlash

Tech stocks are going down the tubes. Sheryl Sandberg is suddenly a bad guy. There are never ending stories about how bad iPhones are for kids, and how the tech CEOs won’t let their own kids have access to the Internet.

Has Tech jumped the shark?

A couple of weekends, Steve, Ian, and I went down to DC for a quick getaway. Schools in New Jersey were closed, but not the workplaces. So, Steve and I were glued to our phones as we were walking through museums and sitting in restaurants. We knew it was evil, but we couldn’t help it. Steve, who now a director at his bank, had to help put out fires in the office, remotely moving files and soothing stressed out traders. I was getting anxious looking at the stories coming out that I should have written.

Ian was probably better behaved with his phone than we were. which is rather sad. He’s addicted to those stupid “daily rewards” on his video games. He has to check into 18 video games every day or else his characters die or something. It’s the worst possible scenario for a kid with mild OCD and anxiety. He has the situation at a manageable level right now — meaning that it does it so quickly that it doesn’t use up a lot of time or interfere with real life — but it’s really insane.

We all know this situation is stupid, but are we stopping? Are we slowing down? Do we have our addictions at manageable levels? What do you think?

Obsessions and Patterns

It’s no secret that I read a ton of silly books. If I spend most of my week reading twitter and academic-y articles, then I need mindless stuff in the evenings and weekends.

Over this past weekend, I read the Kiss Quotient. The main character in this romance novel has autism. She’s an econometrician with no social skills, so she hires an escort to teach her about relationships. They fall in love and yadda yadda reversed Pretty Woman and all that. The actual story is typical romance fare, but the author, who also has Aspergers, does such a fantastic job describing the autistic brain that I’m looking at my own son differently.

There is a growing consensus that autism isn’t really one thing. It is primarily a social and communicative disorder, but it impacts everyone differently. Some people have bigger language problems. Others have bigger issues with anxiety. Some have cognitive problems along with the language issues.

Also, it is really a collection of various mild disabilities or issues that many of us have, but in a person with autism, it adds up to bigger problems. Families that have a lot of these little issues are more likely to create autistic children.

Some of my family members have issues with loud noises or can’t talk while a radio is going on in the background. Others get very shy in social situations. I actually have very few of those issues. I eat everything. I don’t mind loud concerts. I like parties. I think my autistic-y issue is obsession and pattern recognition. I sort through twitter conversations and newspaper articles and conversations at the supermarket and put them all into little boxes and files in my brain.

Noticing patterns and trends has served me really well professionally. I’m leaning into that skill very heavily at the moment. But at the same time, the project that I’m developing is pushing out my ability to think about everything else. It’s a temporary thing, because I’m not actually autistic and obsessions are always short lived. But it’s fun to throw myself into things this Monday morning.

Pattern recognition is Ian’s primary autistic strength. He constantly decodes information and images. That’s why he learned to read so early and is gifted at computers and music. We spent hours yesterday at a marching band competition shivering the stands of a local college, watching him pound on his snare drum while wearing ear plugs. Balancing his autistic strengths and his weaknesses (he yelled at some kids on the bus for singing Christmas carols out of tune) is a continuing challenge.

What quirks do you have? Are they a bug or a feature?

Work at Home Discipline

Jonah finished his summer class last Thursday. After some debate, he decided to come back home and get a job, rather than taking another class for the second summer term. On Friday, his best friend, who moved to Michigan last year, came and crashed here for four days. They slept late, played hours of Fortnite, and hung out at other friends’ homes until two.

Now the friend is gone. He had a week break from his studies. And my patience with late nights and Fortnite is done. (Though Jonah showed me how to play yesterday, and it was pretty fun.)

I roused him out of bed at 9:30 this morning with a lecture about appropriate activities during the weekday. They include exercising, job hunting, school work organizing, brother entertaining, reading books, pre-studying for classes, and home choring. World Cup watching is okay, too. I gave him the family as an anthill, working together for the common goal speech. He loves that one.

I have a HUGE project that I have to finish in the next week before we take off for the beach. I can’t work if others around me are being slothful.

It’s super hard to get stuff done outside an office, but I’ve done it for years. It requires lists, tricks of the mind, and lots of rules. I’m trying to teach those rules to a teenage boy. hahahahahaha