A semester in the life of a college-level educator

The fourth week of the semester is coming to an end. Next month will be the dreaded tradition of college mid-terms. Each semester the classes I teach begin with an average of 20 students. By the end of the semester five of those students will have either officially dropped the course or are no longer attending. Out of the fifteen left I will probably have another three to five that will not be able to pass the course. I’ve been teaching at the college-university level since 2004; however this trend seems to be getting to me more now than it did then. In 2015, I began something new in my classes. On the first day of class I have the student introduce themselves and share their major. I then ask them two questions. Many students tell me I am the first to ask them these kinds of questions.

Why ask the questions now?

My first semester in college was a disaster. In fact, I will admit my entire first year of college was a dismal failure. I had no idea what I wanted out of life or what to expect. I did have a full band scholarship that covered my tuition, board, meal plan, and books. But other than that, I didn’t have a plan. Now that I am in a position where I am teaching at the college level, I have the right and the obligation to ask the questions I never was asked years earlier. Who knows – if I had been confronted with these two questions back in 1988, maybe my life would have taken a different course.

Please do not get me wrong; I am happy where my life is now. But I believe that an important part of our contributions to the next generation is to help them avoid the mistakes we’ve made. In fact, I’ve found myself asking more questions now, being almost 50 years old, than I did when I was 18 and just starting out on my own.

The two questions I ask every semester

Again, these two questions are asked the first day off the semester. I ask them after the copies of the syllabus have been passed around. Older students, the non-traditional students, are normally able to answer these questions with ease. The younger and more traditional college student often find themselves at a loss in answering them. Why? They’ve never thought about the prospect of personal failure. They have been sheltered by a public school system that teaches everyone is a winner instead of the reality that everyone has an opportunity to become a winner.

What’s your backup plan that keeps you off your mother’s couch?

I follow this question with an explanation. What’s going to keep you from being 35 years old and still sleeping on your mother’s couch if your “plan” fails? It is interesting listening to students share their vision of their future. Since I now teach at a two-year community college, I often hear of plans to go to a larger university or the plans to graduate with an associates and enter the workforce. Most students never bother to think that they may not find things so easy to achieve. This is the reason why the college freshman retention rate is reported at a national average of about 75 to 78 percent. There are several studies that consider ways to improve college retention and they do consider many of the factors that lead to students leaving college. 1

Many times, when a student leaves college, there’s already some sort of financial debt owed. While Pell Grants may not require repayment, there are some scholarships and other grants that do. Student loans also create an additional post-college financial burden on the college dropout and graduate alike. Unless the college dropout becomes involved in pursuing a trade, they become a part of the unskilled or low skilled job force. Even as recently as 2016, USA Today reported on the problems faced by those with student debt and no degree. 2

Why are you studying that?

I’ve only asked one student this question since I started teaching at the college/university level in 2004. During a summer semester, a student shared that she was majoring in the performing fine arts with a focus in ancient Greek theater. I asked her what her minor was and she then informed the class with great enthusiasm her minor was in Shakespearian theater. So, being curious, I asked her why – and to my surprise she shared she really didn’t know what to do with her life and it sounded fun. For the most part, she was going to college because it was expected rather than a rational decision made after careful consideration.

Many students have shared they were going to college and did not have a plan of what they were going to do with their life. They also never thought much about what life would be like after college. They simply attended college that semester because it was expected. To make things worse, often a degree is chosen because they either knew someone else who has that degree or they believe it will help them earn more money. Some even believe the degree will give their life some value or justification. In 1988, my major was music theory and composition. In reality, and nearly thirty years of looking back, that would have been a degree with very little worth in the non-academic world.3

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