Most, if not all, of my previous posts have a focus on the value of a college education and/or the purpose of that college education. This overarching theme has been on the deliverables of colleges and universities. This post will focus on the recipient of that education, the student. While many authors address the modern student both in a positive and negative light, I build the theme of this post with the following quote (with my slight paraphrasing) in mind.
The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise. …
Children began to be the tyrants, not the slaves. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table, and committed various offences against good tastes. They tyrannized over the pedagogy and schoolmasters. (Freeman 1912)
While the common attribution in this quote is from Socrates, it is not quite that old. This early 20th century author is providing their interpretation of the writings from the ancient Greek philosophers about children and students. So while the quote is not thousands of years old, the quote is over 100 years old and suggests complaints about the younger generation have substantially remained unchanged over time. Hopefully, I do not descend into generalizations about generations and instead use some specific examples to explain the need for student responsibility.
Unlike previous posts, in this writing, I will share specific examples from over 15 years of teaching at the university level. I also will not cite a large number of outside statistics but instead express impressions from my experience at three different types of institutions. Finally, my perceptions of the correct direction for both student and institution are mine and are not reflective of any institutional preference.
I will start with a great example of a student assuming responsibility and provide a compelling argument to his peers. It concerns attendance in class. Attendance at the university level is not a trivial matter so first let me explain the value of attendance. The positive story will follow this explanation of attendance.
Twice in 30 semesters of university teaching, I have made attendance optional in the sense that I did not assign any component of the final grade to attendance. Instead, I made it clear that I considered my lecture and in class assignments, the expansion and learning a student should expect beyond what they gain from just reading the textbook. In other words, the value received from paying tuition rather than just reading the material. I strongly encouraged students to attend as I felt it would improve their learning but left the ultimate decision to attend as their responsibility.
In the first instance of the non-mandatory attendance policy, the pass rate was under 60% and the average grade was a D+. I waited many years before the next attempt at letting students have full responsibility for attending class. Again, this means attendance has no direct impact on their final grade. Perhaps my explanation of why to attend was more compelling (I had the previous class example to share and I did) or perhaps the students were better. The final grade outcomes were better but again significantly below my expectations and experience with other classes. The average final grade was 72% and 10% failed the course. It is critical to note that as a department head, I am aware my example crosses the boundaries of disciplines and professors. Attendance is a systemic problem at most universities with most mandating that syllabi address the specific attendance policy in detail rather than allowing a simple but obvious statement such as “students are expected to attend all classes.” As shown in the next story, the situation does not have to be this way.
With that context in mind, I relate a discussion I overhead before an 8:00 AM class. One student that had car trouble was explaining to a group of other students why he made such an effort to be in class on time. In fact, he had gone around his apartment complex and asked several strangers if they were on their way to the University and if he could get a ride. The students in class were incredulous and pointed out that he could miss up to three classes without grade penalty according to my syllabus. The other students were correct about my syllabus policy. The industrious student explained that early in his college career he had calculate the cost per class and decided it was a huge waste of money to miss any class. It was like burning that cash as far as he was concerned. This story and reasoning is from a student that readily admits his parents pay for all of his college. To me, the point of this story is that some students are taking responsibility for gaining the value of their college education.
The next series of examples, however, show a different view of responsibility as expressed by students. The first is again from that most revealing of times, the minutes before class starts when various conversations are taking place. This time a student and I are talking about the latest job interview she completed. She is explaining the interview ended with a job offer and that she was now weighing her three job offers. As the student and I began discussing the pros and cons of the various offers another student, who had been eavesdropping, interrupted with the comment he wished he had those kinds of problems. I mentioned to the young man that if he had done the legwork that the female student had done he might indeed have multiple offers to consider. I did not make that statement flippantly. I had set up two networking opportunities for this young man. He had not followed up on either. As I continue to reflect on this incident over the years, I continue to return to the point that the opportunities are there but the personal responsibility is missing.
The last vignette I share is on a systematic effort by my institution to offer clear career opportunities to students. In this instance, my current institution is fortunate to have two great departments that offer complementary but different majors. Students with a creative bent or desire should chose a major in a department different from mine while students with business acumen and analytical outlooks should chose a major in my current department. As we tell students, you can achieve career aspirations with many different majors. However, in today’s employment environment, the employers seek specific skill sets and it is easier if you are in the major expected by the employers.
This career outlook situation has existed for many years and starting four years ago a systematic and extensive campaign was instituted to make sure all prospective students and current students were aware of the situation and the need to take personal responsibility for their choice of major. The university and departments train every advisor on the different career options for these alternative majors. Every student receives information on the career paths associated with the various majors through written, verbal, and social media communications. Finally, each student when choosing these majors meet individually with the department head of their respective major and again have a conversation about the career options associated with the prospective major. This is an intentional and extensive effort to help students chose a major that advances their career aspirations. However, during all of this process, it is stressed that the choice of a major is the student’s responsibility.
This year, as part of the senior exit survey, students had an open-ended question; “What one thing would you like to share with the department?” Fourteen out of 80 responses or 17.5% expressed a lack of awareness about the career distinctions between the two departments and the alignment with career goals. I certainly can and do look at this as an opportunity to improve messaging to all students. However, I also wonder at what point does the student’s personal responsibility to pay attention to the advice and guidance begin.
One nonfinancial goal and benefit of the college education is developing the individual’s awareness of their personal responsibility. It seems as if the institutions are providing the students with many opportunities in a variety of learning and growth settings but the full engagement in the learning process about personal responsibility is lacking by large percentages of students. I argue this large percentage statement because my exemplar examples which are by no means unique to me and are only a small portion of the many personal examples I could share boil down to the following. I found that between 10 and 40% of my students have failed courses that do not have a mandated attendance policy, meaning that students must be compelled to attend. Close to twenty percent of students are unaware of the systematic messaging about critical paths and decisions related to their major and career. A number of students, though I have no percentage, do not avail themselves of the personal and institutional resources provided to help them in their first career search.
It appears that personal responsibility can exist. See the example of the student that knew the cost per class. Perhaps it is time for the universities to let the pendulum shift over to increasing the personal responsibility of the student in gaining the value of the education and learning. Universities may need to believe in their own value proposition, provide the opportunity, and let the student execute attainment of the value. The implication is obvious that the university should prepare for those students that fall short. The costs of the college education are high and the consequences of failure are challenging. However, not providing consequences seems to diminish a core learning, students are responsible for their value of their collegiate education. It is possible that by mitigating these consequences during college, that the benefits of a true understanding of personal responsibility through a lifetime may be severely diminished.