Knowing Students… Then What?

Three years ago, my newly appointed dean asked if I would take on responsibility for New York City College of Technology’s Associate degree in Liberal Arts and Arts with a primary focus on overseeing advisement. What I have learned about our students since then is astonishing–astonishing, that is, in the ignorance it highlights, in the knowledge that is ignored, and in the plight of way too many students here and at colleges across the nation.

Entering my sixth year of teaching at City Tech, I had thought I knew our City Tech students. After all, I had taught hundreds of them each year and their evaluations of me were positive. We got along, and we even saw some progress. I flattered myself by standing up for our students when others disparaged them for that made me feel solidarity with them. In other words, I was no different from the majority of my colleagues. But I really knew nothing.

Like most professors at contemporary urban non-residential colleges, I saw my students only in the classroom and during office hours–and then only when they were required to visit. There are not very many activities on campus that really bring together a broad range of students and faculty–an annual Literary Arts Festival being one of the few exceptions. To make matters worse, there are not many more activities bringing students together: A club hour on Thursdays has to accommodate most of them. Our students generally work, have families, or both–and it takes, on average (I suspect), at least 45 minutes for them to get to school. The focus of their campus life is the classroom and not much more, and they rarely have either time or opportunity for more.

Many on the faculty and staff try hard to get the students involved in activities on campus but with little success. It’s not that the students aren’t interested but that they really can’t turn away from other responsibilities. Plus, they don’t realize how important those activities can be to their educations. They’ve been led to believe that a college education is an accumulation of credits, nothing more.

They don’t know even that bit of incomplete knowledge, in some cases. We have plenty of students who arrive with so little exposure to college that they don’t know what a credit is, don’t understand what the relationship between student and faculty is expected to be, have no exposure to college nomenclature (they don’t know what a provost is, or a dean, have no conception of “registrar,” and have never encountered a “research librarian”–just for starters), and have no idea what a major is or what the hierarchy of degrees is. Often, students come to me thinking they are majoring in one thing when they have been placed in another at admissions, never realizing that they have to actively seek out a program (if the one selected for them doesn’t happen to be “right”) and learn the requirements. Many of them only learn that they are not taking courses leading to a degree when they are rejected for financial aid–in the middle of the semester, leaving them saddled with tuition they cannot afford.

The concern over “bridging the gap” between high school and college is long-standing. A couple of years ago, I spent an afternoon twice a month one semester as a participant in a program where high-school and college teachers worked together to better understand the academic needs of our incoming students. City Tech has long offered a course meant as an introduction to college life (unfortunately, financial aid refuses to cover it, for it is not a degree requirement). But the solutions offered so far are little more useful than filling the gas tank of a car with no engine and that is sitting on blocks because the wheels are gone.

As a comprehensive college, City Tech offers both Associate and Baccalaureate degrees. Some of the AS degrees are quite specialized and technical, leading to entry in particular fields, but the AA degree I am responsible for is simply a transfer degree, one preparing students to successfully move into Bachelor degree programs. So my students have two gaps to bridge, one as they come in, another as they go out, crossing both without knowing, in many cases, that the gaps are even there. It is a tremendous amount to ask of them, to take classes, to learn how to be a college student, and to plan an academic career–all while working and, in many cases, taking care of families. Yet we do ask it of them.

But we give them way too little support–and, by “we,” I don’t mean just City Tech. I mean the CUNY system we are a part of and colleges across the nation–particularly community colleges and “non-elite” colleges. Most of us who work in academia grew up within families where knowledge of how college works was part of the culture. We never had to learn it specifically, so it is something we see as not too difficult. Certainly, few colleges put adequate resources to the problem. They talk about retention, but are only willing to do things that cost little money–all the while spending huge amounts on technology and other things that we in academia find attractive (but that do little to keep students in school).

There are a number of things we should be doing. First, we need to develop avenues of greater interaction between faculty and students outside of the classroom. One necessary prerequisite for this is conversion of adjunct lines to full-time ones, with the associated increase in “service” expectations. Another is development of dedicated space for student/student and student/faculty activities–not just a room set aside here or there, but space that becomes a magnet for students. A third is discovery of new ways of helping students organize their time, both on campus and off, so that they can participate more fully in school. This is going to require reaching out to employers in new ways, but that can be done. A fourth and related one is to develop meaningful employment possibilities within walking distance of our campuses. A fifth is to bring students, from the very start, into development of programs to enhance their education. A sixth is to train faculty in advisement of a wider sort than simply the picking of classes.

And that’s just a start. We have known for years that we have a problem with retention. Now, we need to start getting to know our students better and begin to craft programs that will lead them to degree completion. We have to stop throwing them in the water and expecting them to swim… all the while patting ourselves on the back for having provided them “opportunity.”


2 thoughts on “Knowing Students… Then What?

  1. The student loan burden on adults who do a little bit of college, even half a semester, can be staggering, all by itself. These days people are talking about the burden carried by graduates. The burden carried by people who don’t earn a degree is far more serious.

  2. One work opportunity we should make available is that of peer mentor. I worked in a Basic Studies program some years ago where we were just beginning to develop that when things fell apart at the university…. Students whose backgrounds haven’t made them college-savvy are trying to cope with overwhelming questions they don’t even know they have–questions we on that faculty labeled “How to go to college.” Rather than try to pretend we could adequately anticipate and answer those questions, we turned to upperclass students who had entered through the same program and had successfully navigated the personal dimension, from knowing there was recourse when their aid packages didn’t arrive on time, to explaining to one’s family why taking ten days off from school to attend a relative’s funeral in another state was unacceptable, to finding a place to study, to using a professor’s office hours, to resolving conflicts with a fellow student or roommate. The peer mentors knew, of course, that faculty (and student-services personnel) were available to assist or support them. In its first year the program was already showing good results. We were ready to make an argument for paying mentors…. I’m sorry we weren’t able to continue, because aside from its promise of actually helping students the mentor program also recognized that our students had knowledge and experience and abilities that were valuable and useful.

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