Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The New College Grind Isn't the Classes

College, in the minds of those who may have been fortunate enough to graduate 20-30 years ago when the American dream was in full flower, is a time of facts, fun and nose-to-the-grindstone courses and exams. It was pledging for sororities or fraternities, going to dances, Spring break and first loves. All of it is such a bit of gossamer fluff that it might have been the stuff of a Hollywood movie or one of those "let's put on a play in the barn" types that made household names of teen stars. It ain't so today if it ever was then.

Nostalgia must come to terms with what our current crop of college students face and the picture isn't a very pleasant or bucolic one. Today, I came face to face with one of those realities of which I had been ignorant because I was always an evening student, one of those odd birds with one foot in a full-time day job and evenings spent as a college student. I didn't go away to school, never lived in a dorm (except when I taught graduate students during several summers) and had no idea about food plans. I ate at home, made my own meals and, like so many, took out a few loans to get by.

While waiting to have my hair cut today, I passed some time with an older patron as we began first talking about the ravages of Super Storm Sandy and the grief it brought into the lives of so many families, the cost of flood insurance and the new requirements for any home in the redrawn flood plane. Then the subject turned to college and her godchild who was told, now that she had completed her sophomore year, that she had to move out of the dorm, find her own apartment and was no longer eligible for the meal plan. "She's a good kid who works at Starbucks and does the best she can. Her parents don't have the money to pay for school."

I had never heard about this Remove Yourself From the Dorms rule and the woman told me that, yes it was something that many colleges did. "Don't they want her to finish college," she asked. It was going to be even more difficult now that she would have to find at least three roommates, pay more money for meals and still work while trying to pay her increased rent in addition to other incidentals. This young woman had been barely scraping by and now they were making it harder. What could be the reason. I couldn't think of one. Was this the college administration's version of "tough love" or something?

It sounded like something seemingly benevolent dads did when they wanted to teach their kids to swim; they threw them out of the boat. It was sink or swim time for this young woman and I wondered what it would do. Her grandparents had offered her a room in their home, but it wasn't in the state where her college was. She'd have to transfer, but then she'd have to pay out-of-state tuition for at least two years and, if all went well, that would be just when she would be graduating, if she would be graduating.

Recent grads are swimming in a tsunami of student loan debt that will hit this country as it crests ever higher and students can no longer pay because they cannot find jobs that will enable them to pay OR they can't find jobs at all. College was supposed to be the way to "make something of yourself." The illusion appears to be becoming yet more unpalatable as college tuition goes up and job prospects go down. Why take out loans for a life of unpayable debt and an ineligibility to gain relief through bankruptcy? What's more, why even go to college if technical skills and not an education are what the marketplace wants from young workers?

I gave it some thought and then I recalled a similar conversation I had about college with someone in the media. His children had graduated from Ivy League colleges and now one son was headed, upon graduation, to a job on Wall Street and would be sharing a million-dollar condo with a few friends. How different the circumstances were between this young woman and that man's son. Could she have contributed to a Wall Street firm's corporate earnings or world advancement? Perhaps, but she would never get the chance because she didn't have the parents who were wealthy graduates of prestigious colleges and family friends in places where she could benefit from these connections. It was more than unfair but she needn't know about this scenario. She had enough to juggle right now just trying to get her degree.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that she's been on the dean's list every single term and that she chose to go to a brick-and-mortar school where she'd have real interactions with her professors? She isn't going to take a degree from a diploma mill, buy her term papers (even if she had the money) or try to pass herself off as something she's not. But there are those who will and they'll get jobs where they lie on their resumes (some in the most outrageous fashions) and become well-heeled consultants. And, yes, I did hear of one spectacularly successful person who engaged in all of these unseemly activities and managed to cage top positions on college boards and corporations. Amazing what a little chutzpah and no background checks will do for a larcenous career.

Let's hope she never founds out the truth about any of this because she's been disappointed enough by the whole college experience.

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