But How Will It Look On My Resume?

Statistics show people don’t tend to read any particular blog for very long. I’m not jumping from blog to blog, I’m reading fewer, which begs the question, why read this or any other blog? One common thread in the few blogs I read regularly is the authors link to interesting and insightful writing that I wouldn’t otherwise come across.

The best bloggers are connoisseurs of some specialized content and curators who provide an invaluable service in the Age of Information Overload—they help focus people’s attention.I try to do that, but my statistics reveal that few readers follow my links meaning posts like this probably don’t work that well. If I knew how to change that I would.

Starting for real now. An email arrives from an ace college roommate, a successful psychotherapist specializing in adolescent development. His 12th grade daughter has been admitted to two highly selective colleges and is conflicted about which will look better on her resume. Dad’s equally torn about where she should go. What does the college professor think?

The college professor can’t get past the fact that the daughter is worried about her resume. I wrote back that the schools’ respective prestige was within the margin of error and that the only thing that matters is whether she builds lasting relationships and develops interpersonal and intellectual skills that cannot be easily automated.

Her family enjoys far greater economic security than 90-95% of people. I don’t understand her thinking, but I know that if she is pre-occupied with her economic future, it’s no surprise that anxiety disorders among adolescents are at an all-time high.

I suspect something deeper is at work in this college decision-making case study. Something spiritual. Cue David Brooks, who wrote this essay in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s Brooks at his best. Lots of self-righteous readers savage him, for in essence, not being a Democrat. How dare a Republican reflect on what’s most meaningful in life. I wonder what it’s like to have one’s politics and daily life in permanent, perfect alignment.

Brooks is scheduled to discuss his new book, The Road to Character, on the Diane Rehm show Thursday, April 16th at 11et.

Tight-Knit Extended Families Require Vision

There are only three types of families: 1) physically distant ones; 2) physically close, but emotionally distant ones; and 3) physically and emotionally close ones.

I realized this while sitting next to a man my age from Egan, Minnesota at a college swim meet recently. He was watching his son—along with his wife, brother, daughter, parents, and in-laws—a good freestyler at the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse. We talked swimming, college decision making, and Gopher football. The state cross-country meet was taking place on campus at the same time, so the GalPal and I had to take a shuttle bus to the pool from an overflow parking lot on the periphery of campus. The bus was filled with three generations of family cheerleaders too.

Physically distant families have to drive or fly for several hours to see one another. According to one writer I’ve recently read, in the U.S. at least, this family type predominates in urban centers on both the East and West coasts. My family is this type—mother and in-laws in two different states, aunt and uncle in a third, siblings in a fourth and fifth, cousins and nephews in a couple of others. Physically distant families may enjoy one another’s company, but they don’t see one another with enough regularity to truly know one another which compromises closeness.

Physically close, but emotionally distant families live within a few minutes or hours of each other, but they don’t get together with any regularity due to unresolved conflicts and/or prioritizing work and material pursuits. Despite their proximity, everyone mostly prioritizes their own nuclear families in the same manner as physically distant ones.

Physically and emotionally close families not only live within a few minutes or hours of each other, but they prioritize getting together weekly or monthly. Minnesota may have a disproportionate number of tight-knit extended families.

Modern Family, the outstanding sitcom about a physically and emotionally close family is atypical because most families today are spread out over long distances. Which probably explains the show’s appeal. Viewers enjoy inserting themselves into that physically and emotionally close family not just because the writers make them funnier than our own family members, but because they’re an affectionate and loving community of mutual amusement and support.

My dad, like most post WWII execs, always took the promotions he received even when they required him to criss-cross the country. I wouldn’t have traded for anyone’s dad, but by choosing successively better jobs that paid more money, he sacrificed a physically and therefore emotionally close family because my siblings and I followed suit, deciding where to live based upon work opportunities, personal preferences, and other things besides physically proximity to one another.

Another variable in some physically distant families is eighteen year olds going away to college. Second Born, next in line in our fam, wants to go “out of state”. When asked why recently, she initially Rick Perryed (couldn’t answer), and then finally said, “The weather.” What are the odds of me having the first teen in the history of the world to base a life decision on weather patterns? Our family, like every other one, is a subculture. She’s simply following the lead of her parents, her cousins, and her older sissy. What would be surprising is if she wanted to stay close to home.

I plan on being more intentional than my dad about prioritizing family closeness. I can’t control where my daughters go to college, take jobs, or end up living, and I can’t control the fact that twenty percent of Americans move every year, but I’m hoping that living in one community for a record-length of time increases the odds of them settling down somewhere close. This is the only home they know. We are Pacific Northwesterners.

If all goes well, ten or twenty years from now, I’ll be just one of an extended family of crazies cheering wildly for a grandchild at a pool or piano recital somewhere nearby.

Choosing a College 4

In his “Choosing a College 3” comment, Dean was spot on in playing up the “real world” juice that’s often present at community colleges.

My teaching career has evolved to where I mostly teach at the graduate level. I like it a lot in large part because the students—many of whom are parents, retired military, former business people—bring so much to the table. The lack of “nontraditional” students is definitely an opportunity cost of attending a highly selective liberal arts college.

In simplest terms, Dean was describing the value of “age diversity,” and by extension, “life experience diversity.”

In my experience, even the most happy undergraduate students sometimes grow weary of spending nearly all of their time with people their age.

Of course there are ways for traditional undergrads to break out of their narrow age/life experience band. One simple inexpensive way to broaden one’s worldview is to read a daily newspaper. I could be wrong, but my sense is VERY few undergrads do that. Watching Jon Stewart doesn’t count.

Here are three other ways to broaden and deepen one’s college experience.

• do an internship or two in the community

• instead of joining a campus-based religious group, commit to a religious community off-campus

• study abroad

Choosing a College 3

Thanks to one of my college roommates and my wife for their “Choosing a College 2” comments which inspired this post.  

My roommate wrote, “. . . my sense is that right from the beginning, that a small private school is more personal and less bureaucratic. You feel more looked after, e.g., you meet with your academic advisor and discuss what classes and teacher would be good for you to take and its done, and the effort to speak to a teacher is a lot easier when you have a freshman class of 25 rather than of 250. It (connecting with profs) can be done, but it takes more work inititative.”

My wife wrote, “I would like to remind people of the community college choice. For some, even public institutions mean getting into debt, while some community colleges offer a fine start to a four year education at a lower price and are often overlooked.”

I agree that students receive a lot more personal attention at small, private liberal arts colleges; however, sometimes personal attention compromises self initiative and personal responsibility. I think I was better off finding my way without any hand holding. And I developed what I think of as “bureaucracy literacy” or the ability to successfully negotiate a large, relatively impersonal institution. As just one example, in order to save time and energy, I learned to buy my books at the end of each term before leaving town instead of at the beginning after returning. 

Instead of having a conversation about different possibilities, too many of my advisees expect me to tell them what to take. In part, I suspect that’s the result of parents doing far too many things for their children for far too long (also known as helicopter parenting). Case in point. I had a call the other day from the parent of a prospective masters student. She was calling on behalf of her daughter. She was worried her grade point average might not be high enough. Here’s what I wanted to say, but didn’t, “Her g.p.a. is less problematic than the fact that you made this call on her behalf.” 

Granted I’m a sample of one, but at my large public I grew up quicker than I otherwise would have. It wasn’t easy, but that’s my point, the obstacles forced me to find my way and mature. My first quarter was especially tough because I didn’t get on campus housing. I lived in a university apartment building five miles from campus. One night during dead week, the shuttle didn’t run late enough for me to attend a review session so I rode my bike. The SoCal skies opened and I got literally drenched. I was proud of myself for gutting it out. It would have been easy to skip the review session, but truth be told, I was afraid of failing and knew I needed every edge possible.

Therein lies another insight, choose a college where initially you might be in over your head. Then spend the first year cycling through rainstorms to catch up to your peers.

Onto the community college suggestion. No doubt they are about to be inundated with students who are unable to afford four year colleges and universities. Here’s a quote from a recent Chronicle of Higher Education study of enrollment trends, “Mirroring trends in retail sales, students are trading down. Those who might have attended pricey private colleges are looking more seriously at public universities. Those who might have attended state universities or regional public universities are now going to community colleges.” Community college enrollment is up 8% in 2008. 

I wonder though whether the least expensive option is the best. Conventional wisdom suggests teacher quality is the key variable in educational excellence and I agree in part. What’s always overlooked though is student motivation and what might be referred to as “classroom juice or energy.”  Classrooms are organic and the more curious, engaged, and ambitious the students, the easier it is for the teacher to create positive intellectual momentum.

Put differently, the best teachers are orchestra conductors who create the conditions for students to thoughtfully interact so that they learn from one another and the sum equals more than individual parts. My college bound daughter just received a packet of information from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I don’t know about her, but after reading it, I want to enroll. Smallish school with students from all 50 states and 92 countries. 

Cynics will say that stat is just a part of an ongoing, giant, selective liberal arts college public relations competition with little bearing on campus life. I’d beg to differ. What better way to infuse global perspectives throughout the curriculum than attract students from all over the world. Even better if you can attract enough to avoid the pitfalls of tokenism.

Some curious, engaged, and ambitious students choose community colleges with a plan to transfer to a four year college or university, and they follow through, and they should be applauded. I just don’t know what percentage. Also, those students commute, so the opportunity cost is the substantive learning that continues well after class in four year schools with vibrant extracurricular programs. 

In that context, here’s a paragraph from the website of another college A is interested in. 

The quality of campus discourse at X, formal and informal, is an extension of the academic quality of the students we attract and admit. Conversation here is usually challenging and thought-provoking, invariably civil and well-informed. Every X student is exceptionally strong academically. But nonacademic achievements—from crusading to save a local wetland to making music with a punk-funk band—make for a lively campus, too. That’s why, in selecting each incoming class, we look beyond the stereotypical “well-rounded student.” Instead, we look for those who bring a mix of passions, eccentricities, and ambitions to create a well-rounded campus community. If there is a single characteristic that sets X students apart from other highly talented students, it is their tendency to excel in more than one way.

I suggest A and her friends pick a college where the educative potential of the informal educational opportunities complement the formal. Put differently, look for  late night juice. I remember sitting up late with my college roommate sometimes watching Saturday Night Live, but at other times comparing and contrasting the lives of Jesus and Freud. I was studying the early Christian movement, he was studying psychology and psychohistory. We learned a lot from one another. 

Pick a college where a majority of people are sober, well rounded, intellectually alive both in and outside of class. The first of those three is not that easy and probably deserves a separate post.

Choosing a College 2

In hindsight my “Choosing a College 1” post was among the more ridiculous I’ve written this year.  

Here’s the comment I kept expecting someone to write, “What planet are you living on Byrnes? Do you really think ANY 17-19 year old in the country will choose their college based on the thoughtfulness of the general education program? That’s not even as important as the school’s colors, whether the cafeteria serves frozen yogurt, and whether the dorms get high speed internet and cable television.” 

Thank you for being so apathetic. 

Thanks to that apathy, I’m going to make another maybe even more ridiculous suggestion for choosing a college: choose one you can afford.

I’m going to go even farther and suggest the student and their family start thinking about how they’re going to afford to send their future children/grandchildren to college.

From today’s newspaper the headline reads “Rising Tuition, Credit Crunch Threaten Affordability of Higher Education”. Here are the first two sentences: A new study on American higher education gave all but one state a failing grade on affordability, and warned that college could soon be out of reach for most Americans. The biennial study by the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gave 49 states an F for affordability, up from 43 two years ago. California passed with a C because of its community college system.

The author went on to say if current trends continue, in 25 years, college will be out of reach for most families.

When it comes to college decision making, people seemingly assume you get what you pay for. Sometimes that’s true, but not always. I received an excellent education (some may dispute that) at a large public institution that was one-third the price of most small private ones. 

I work at an expensive, smallish private institution that likes to tell anyone that will listen that we provide a much better education than the larger, less expensive publics. The argument is go to the large public school if you like being thought of as a number in large classes taught by overextended graduate teaching assistants.

Most of my classes were taught by exceptional scholars. I learned early on to take initiative and knock on their doors during office hours. By doing so I made the humungous college much smaller. They’d stop typing (yeah I’m old) their next book and we’d talk about the course content or the paper I was working on. Interestingly, few of my students come to office hours. 

I had some brilliant graduate teaching assistants who were inspiring beginning teachers. I remember one who got pissed at us for not being prepared for a discussion. After ripping us in ways we deserved, he walked out. We were stunned and way more prepared for the next discussion.  The TA’s taught “discussion sections” of 25 students. Yes, the lecture was 400, but there were also 16 sections that met weekly. 

I learned as much outside of class as in because our student body was incredibly diverse and our campus drew a steady stream of fascinating speakers including national and world leaders. Every night, somewhere on campus, there was an interesting documentary or lecture. Then there were the world class libraries where most of my learning took place.

In another recent newspaper article on college affordability, a family said they were going to take out loans to pay their child’s $41,000 college tuition. I’d like to ask them why. I’d suspect they’d say because it’s an investment in his/her future. 

There are at least three problems with this line of thinking.

1) As I’ve tried to illustrate, tuition and the quality of the educational opportunities provided aren’t perfectly correlated.

2) Stretching financially inevitably leads to unnecessary stress.  College expenses are similar to home construction expenses, there are always unanticipated hidden costs. For example, once I assigned an extra book mid-semester. It was available on Amazon.com for $10, but a few students said they couldn’t afford it. I like to think of myself as compassionate, but I had a hard time processing those objections in the context of our $30,000 tuition/room/board.  

3) The principle of compound interest makes building wealth relatively easy if young people start saving early. But increasingly, young people are graduating from their expensive colleges in serious debt, thus sacrificing the compound interest window.

I don’t understand why more people don’t strategize on how to get through college debt free.

I know, I know that’s not the American way, with our negative savings rate. Live in the present, spend freely. Don’t worry about future debt.

In the end, maybe someone will bail you out.