Preparing for College

College: The Good, Not So Good, And Otherwise

I was talking this past week with some recent high school graduates who are headed to college. They were asking me what the "true" scoop on college is. By that, I mean since they have no experience in the halls of ivy, they know only what others have told them about higher education and campus life, plus what they may have experienced on their relatively brief visits.

I guess they wanted to get the perspective of this crusty veteran of college wars, so to speak. In thinking about how to answer them, I remembered that I made several blog posts here about my opinions on college. I thought this might be helpful for them, so I printed out the posts and gave them my insights, for what they are worth.


Doing that led me to here, today. For the benefit of any of you who are wondering about the good, not so good, and other aspects about the college experience, at least from this guy's point of view, I thought I would re-post those opinions, in case you missed them. So, without further ado, here they are:

 

Seven Things I Loved About College

Okay, I’m older than dirt, but I do have very vivid memories about my college daze, as I like to refer to them. My experience was in two parts. The first was the classical “go to college straight from high school” experience, which gave me a nice but unfocused year at Lycoming College, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Then my three-year “Vietnam period” delayed my final years at Penn State University, which dwelt at the other end of the intimacy spectrum from Lycoming. Both provided some remarkable memories.

I’ll talk about seven things I loved this time and will get to the things I didn’t love (“hate” is too strong a word for most) next time. Remember, even if you think I’m ancient (I’m 61 at this writing and was Class of ’72 at Penn State), my list here should be relatively timeless and universal, even if you’re still in high school. If I’m fortunate enough to have readers closer to my age, then maybe they can add some illumination and possible additions to my list. Here goes:

1. The thrill of independence. It has its pluses and minuses, but it’s a rush, nonetheless. No mother telling you to clean up your room (or to do your laundry for you). Stay up as late as you want to. Explore wherever and whenever the spirit moves. Eat generally what you want, according to your appetite, not because it’s suppertime. Find out who you are through self-sufficiency and without having Mom or Dad there to back you up.

2. Access to all kinds of resources. Perhaps my primary collegiate passion was classical music (still is). One of my happiest moments came when I discovered the music library, an entire floor of a huge building devoted to nothing but books and recordings chronicling the greatest music ever written. My big challenge was trying to limit the time I spent there. I had other demands on my time, other classes, other friends, other interests, but the sheer ocean of sensual and intellectual material inside those walls mesmerized me. I can only imagine what it’s like today.

3. Finding new passions. As a somewhat cocky freshman, I thought I knew just about all that I needed to know for my needs in life. Ha! What kind of fool was I? Then I encountered the infinitely expanding universe of knowledge. I recall Religious Studies 3. I groaned when I realized that I needed the course to satisfy my Humanities electives requirement, but I learned so much about other cultures’ approach to spirituality. I still review the notes I took in that class and they lead me to deeper research on the Web. Perhaps the most practical gem that I gleaned from RelStu3 was how to design a Zen garden. That has been quite helpful with my landscaping ventures.

4. Books. I still have my college texts and many of them reside on the bookshelves in my study. They’re not only a source of curious nostalgia (“Did I ever call ‘Carol’ at the number scribbled in the margin of page 145 in Janson’s History of Art?”) but also great information (“Louis Spohr called Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, along with the rest of Beethoven's late works, an "indecipherable, uncorrected horror." Great stuff!). I would never have purchased these books had I not been required to buy them. I love them all.

5. Opposing points of view. Don’t grow old without engaging others who think differently than you do. College provides a tremendous dose of varied viewpoints on just about anything, although the dominant political orientation on today’s campuses is left leaning, sometimes absurdly so. Nevertheless, the students and faculty you’ll encounter will stretch your mindsets. Although I still maintain many of the positions on issues that I had as a late teen and early twenty-something, I’ve come to see the value in trying to see things from the other person’s perspective.

6. Autumn on campus. In my opinion, few experiences in life can compare to walking across a manicured college campus (perhaps hand-in-hand with a special someone) on a crisp, sunny, fall day with brilliantly colored leaves raining down to paint the landscape. College campuses are special enclaves, set apart from the mundane streetscapes of cities and the ravages of retail shopping strips. Special things happen there and the sheer beauty of collegiate autumns adds a sensuousness to events as simple as walking from one class to another. Maybe that’s part of what we pay for.

7. All-nighters. How could I love all-nighters? Because they proved that I could do them. In the decades since my last all-nighter, I’ve had some seemingly impossibly onerous tasks put before me, some with equally oppressive deadlines. As I approached each, I always recalled my college all-nighters and how I mustered the focus and determination to see the work through. Those lessons learned back then came forward and helped me rise to the occasions at hand. To paraphrase Nietzsche, all-nighters didn’t kill me; they made me stronger.

Well, I could ramble on, but seven is the number of completion. Check it out. Anyway, these perhaps not-so-magnificent seven things I loved about college may inspire you to look forward to them or reflect upon them. Feel free to comment on yours.

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Seven Things I Didn't Like About College

I’ve already vented my love fest about college in a previous post. Now the flip side—what I didn’t like. As I mentioned, I attended college from 1965 through 1972, a period that included my military service. When I returned to college after the military, I was in no mood to take any guff from authority figures, mainly due to having to obey the chicken regulations and seemingly illogical bureaucracy of my armed forces superiors.

However, in thinking back across my college years, which included one pre-military year, straight from high school, I have to admit that some of the things I didn’t like had nothing to do with backlash from the Navy. I would have disliked them even if I had remained a civilian all the way through higher education. So, here are my Not-So-Magnificent Seven.

1. Elitist, leftist professors. Anti-war sentiment was strong in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, stronger than it is today, in my opinion. The tinge of anti-Americanism was there, too, but perhaps not as strong as it is now. This affected me directly due to my military service. When I would try to advocate a pro-America, pro-military point of view, some of my professors (and even TAs) would brand me as a redneck, jingoist killer of innocent women and children or some variation thereof. Although I can’t prove it, I honestly believe that their attitudes negatively affected my grades in some courses. The situation is far worse today, unfortunately.

2. Short-deadline tuition bills. Colleges know how much you need to pay them well in advance of their billings. Students know that they need to have their money ready but often get sidetracked with annoying little distractions such as working to make the money they need to pay for college. Consequently, those tuition, room, and board invoices have a way of sneaking into our mailboxes at what always seems to be the worst possible times. The kicker, though, is not so much the amount due (because we’re semi-braced for that), but, rather, the due date. In years past, I’ve seen tuition bills due as soon as two weeks after receiving them. That’s no big deal for an electric bill, but when the amount is in the five-figure range, that’s a significant pain. Anyway, I say that there should be a consumer protection law that requires colleges to give students and parents at least 30 days to pay their invoices. Cash flow: the name of the game.

3. Long term breaks. Obviously, we all need reasonable breaks from the grind of incessant academics, but the length of some of these breaks creates negative issues for both students and parents. I recall that my daughter had five weeks off between her fall and spring semesters at a small liberal arts college. This worked out well for her and us, since she had secured a profitable part-time job, which she worked across the five weeks. However, some other parents I knew were having a hard time with their kids living a dorm-style life at home, coming in at all hours of the early morning and disrupting the routine of a calm home. Semester breaks should be no longer than two weeks, maximum.

4. Textbook prices. This is the flip side of my love of college texts. I realize that publishing costs today are steep, but in my heart of hearts, I can’t help but think students and parents are being taken for an expensive ride. Of course, there are ways to buffer the hit: used books, online purchases, and (for the truly creative) taking courses without the books. Other nasty sidebars to textbooks include the copy packets that professors create, which contain excerpted pages and passages from various sources. These are expensive, too, and may be required in addition to hardbound books. Literature, math, engineering, and computer-oriented texts can become exceedingly expensive. E-books have been proposed as one solution, but nothing beats a bound book to semi-eternalize the knowledge of a particular discipline. I have to wonder just how thoroughly even half of the required college texts are used. There has to be a more economical solution to this problem.

5. Perfunctory Teaching Assistants. Please note that I didn’t cite “teaching assistants,” in general. The perfunctory ones really bothered me. They seemed to be merely putting in their time to earn their assistantship money. They were distant, hard to locate, and tended to look down on us lowly undergraduates, forgetting that they, too, were once in our shoes. Granted, many TAs have to do the grunt work of the stellar professors, adding to the stress of their graduate workloads, but, since many aspire to become professors, themselves, one expects a better desk-side manner. I had quite a few TAs at Penn State and the odd thing is that after a lot of reflection, I can’t recall any single one clearly. I wonder what that tells me.

6. Massive, impersonal lecture classes. I had introductory psychology and art history (among other) courses at Penn State in a building called Forum. In those classes, I felt more like a spectator at Beaver Stadium watching the Nittany Lions than I did as a student trying to learn something. Those of us who sat near the back of a Forum “classroom” had the honor of watching the professor or lecturer on a TV monitor, thoughtfully provided so that we could feel more at home and, I guess, included in the proceedings. It was a great way to get to know a few of my 450-600 closest classmates. Talk about mass production.

7. The unfortunate, traditional timing of a college education. How much more could we learn in college if we didn’t have to go immediately after high school? I know; I know. There’s the ol’ Gap Year strategy, but I’m talking about what is now commonly known as the “Returning Adult” approach, going into the classroom with some Real Life 101 under our belts. I have often found myself wishing that I could go back, knowing what I know now, and retake any number of the courses that I just squeaked by so many years ago—German 1, 2, 3, and 4, “Art in the Dark,” Humanities 101, etc. Real Life tweaks our appetite for knowledge and sparks passion to replace the academic numbness that sets in after 12+ years of school prior to college. Maybe we need a Gap Decade (or two).

So, what do/did you dislike about college? Don’t be shy.

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Update: More Things I Think about College

Way back at the end of 2008, I wrote a couple of blog posts about what I loved and didn’t like about my college experience. Things have changed a lot during the ensuing half-dozen years. So, I thought that it might be appropriate to issue an update about my collegiate thoughts. Of course, if you don't really care what I think about college these day, feel free to surf on over to Facebook now and see what all your friends are up to, or you could check Twitter to find out what they're having for lunch and where they're eating it.

As I sit back in my comfortable office chair and ponder the Big Picture of "college" these days, two Mt. Everest-sized issues bubble up to the top:

1. Why does college cost so much?

2. Do you really need a college education to be happy and successful in life?

Speaking of mountains, there are mountains of data written about both of these issues. I won't get into a detailed series of references about what that information says or who's saying it. However, I would like to give you my take, for what it's worth, on these and maybe a few other issues.

A while back, I noted a few additional likes and dislikes to my 2008 lists. To recap those, here a brief summary:

Additional likes:

- Meeting new people. I came from a small, cloistered community dominated by blue-collar workers. Penn State greatly expanded my formerly limited culturally diverse horizons. I met the sons and daughters of wealthy professionals and some wildly talented artistic types ...

- Being part of a varsity sports team. Tennis was my sport. Before transferring to Penn State after my military service, I was a starter for a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. I recall the thrill of providing the winning point in a team match against our prime rival ...

- Homecoming weekends. The one I remember most could have been the model for every homecoming. The weather was perfect: cool autumn temps, a deep blue, sunny sky, and a dream date on my arm ...

Additional dislikes:

- Academic pressure. Yes, Virginia, I realize that we go to college to learn, and part of the leaning process demands academic accountability, ergo testing and project deadlines. Now, believe it or not, I was a responsible student who (mostly) tried to do my best work in (most of) my classes ...

- Questionable food. Believe it or not, the gentleman in charge of food service at my little liberal arts school had a last name of “Bloodgood.” Yuck. Just thinking about that now makes me laugh. The food, though, was no laughing matter. It sucked ...

If you would like to read beyond the ellipses, you may do so here.

Dislikes may well outweigh likes when it comes to reviewing higher education. Naturally, we dislike what seems like a lifetime of debt, thanks to student loans. We may also dislike working as a truck driver after spending a fortune on at least four years of a philosophy major.

As part of my pondering about all things college, I found a cool article entitled 13 Things Students Love to Hate About College. Before I disperse my latest pontifications, let's take a quick look at some of these loved hates, followed by snippet of text.

- College costs too much. [We've heard that before, huh?] "... Consider cheaper alternatives, such as community colleges or, in some cases, summer school ..."

-  My professor is unbelievably boring. "... Drop the course and find another one with a better professor. Every college has its duds ..."

I hate writing papers. "... Think about a paper as simple communication. Can you think up five reasons why the cop shouldn't give you a ticket when you were going 77 mph in a 25 mph zone? ..."

My roommate would make Hannibal Lecter seem like a nice guy. "... See the dorm counselor or resident adviser on your floor as soon as possible ..."

Dorm food sucks. [Seen this one before?] "... See if you can eat some meals at other dorms where the food is more upper class, ethnic, vegetarian, low-calorie, plentiful, or whatever else you'd prefer ..." [Right.]

My dorm room makes the Motel 6 look like the Taj Mahal. "... At many schools, especially state universities, the dorms were built at many different times, and the quality varies significantly. Another thing to consider is living off campus ..."

I have to wonder why the authors of this article say that students "love" to hate these issues. There seems to be a suggestion masochism in most of them.

Anyway, here are some of my updated thoughts about college:

- Don't look for college costs to come down anytime soon. The simple reason why: market forces and supply and demand. As long as there are more applicants than dorm beds, there's no need for colleges to get into the "sale" mode. Granted, there are some colleges whose budgets are in less-than-optimum shape and who are scouring the landscape for enrollments. However, many, if not most, colleges are looking for ways to reject more students, thus making them appear to be more selective. As for the Ivy League and other so-called "elite" colleges, I think they will continue to raise their student budgets year after year. Why? Well, just as Three Days of The Condor hit man, Joubert, observed about his clients, "There's always someone willing to pay."

- Look for the Federal government to become more controlling over higher education. Unless you're on a news blackout, you must have certainly noticed that government regulation is creeping into many new areas of our everyday lives. The latest bureaucratic incursions are happening in the areas of student loans (although under the label of consumer protection) and even sports (the presidential "concussion summit"). I predict that there will be significant admission-related changes invoked as a result of the forthcoming immigration reforms about to happen in Congress. State governments will have their say, too. We've already seen states grant in-state tuition breaks for non-citizens attending their state universities. The red tape is going to get more red.

- Watch classical liberal arts colleges become more vocationally focused. Back to market forces ... The rising need for workers with more highly focused skills will eventually demand that smaller private colleges begin offering more specialized degree programs to make their cost of education more attractive. This will, in my view, cause the pendulum to begin swinging away from such generalized degrees as ethnic and women's studies, and even such traditional majors as classics, philosophy, and psychology, and gravitate more toward programs teaching more specifically applicable skills, such as nursing and STEM-related disciplines.

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Okay, I've had my say. Now, what do you experienced collegians out there think about the good, not so good, and otherwise aspects of  college? That's what the comment box down below is for.

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Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.