Sad Stories of College Students

I am flooded with sad stories this week.  I am not unique: it’s true for every professor I know. It’s the end of the semester.

Over the last 15 weeks, I sent several messages and reports to a young man who came to class less and less often and did poorly on an exam. A young woman  – she  showed occasional flashes of brilliance – never did the computer assignments for her statistics class. One  comes to class once every two weeks and sits quietly in the back; she acts surprised when I express concern.  A bright and talkative one is there every day but, from her comments, it’s clear she either doesn’t read or doesn’t understand the textbook. None of them – in spite of my notes and verbal encouragement – have sought help from me or from the other resources on campus. They’re scared, distracted, or unrealistic.

Now is the time of weeping. This week, I heard from these students; their tales are sadly similar. They boil down to “I intended to change my pattern but I never managed to do it.” One is cutting class because he had the chance to work overtime.  Another is driving a father with addiction problems all over the state so he can receive care – but losing her own future in the process. It was only supposed to happen once…

Each of these students – if they are allowed to return in the fall – will have to pay tuition to take these classes over again. They have taken out student loans and may owe nearly $4000 for the credits they won’t receive for my courses.  They will pay – or borrow – an equal amount when they register again.  None of them are slow-witted; each of them could have passed – even excelled – had they come to class and done the work.

Now it’s the last week, and the email begins to pour in.  One student began her message,  “I know it’s hopeless but …”  A colleague received a request to go over all the failed exams with a student.  Someone asked a professor in another department to give her a B even though she earned a D, saying “I need it to keep my scholarship.”  This is the season of desperate last-minute hopes.

I think about the research findings that I teach in my Family and Society course – about the importance of having two parents throughout childhood, or how rough-and-tumble play with a father – more than with a mother – prepares children to handle the emotional jostles of life. About the reduced academic achievement and emotional struggles of children of divorce. Many of my students – especially these ones who fall by the wayside – are dealing with mangled family situations that include divorced or unmarried parents, homes in which a parent’s partners come and go, and an unimaginable variety of other situations. They don’t have a firm foundation on which to stand as they face the hurdles of college stress on their way to adulthood. Even a small college can’t make up for the lack of microskills and emotional preparedness.  Would better families cure it all? Probably not – but they might make a difference.

We hear a lot of news about student debt and poor job prospects. No one mentions one major reason for this debt: the increased length of time students take to finish a degree. Most colleges have to compute graduation rates out to six years and even eight years after their freshman year to capture most of their students who do eventually graduate.   Failing a few courses or changing majors a few times is enough to add a fifth year – and 25% more debt – to a college degree.  While there is plenty of room for reform in higher education – and I’m in favor of much of it – none of the reforms I hear about will have an impact on these sad stories.  The reform has to come in the home life and childhood, sending students to college ready to face the challenge. Until that happens, faculty will continue to hear the same sad stories every semester.

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One comment

  1. I remember when “outcome-based education” first came along, giving kids as many chances as necessary to get the needed grades. I understood the reasoning behind it–but even as a firearms safety instructor, I saw the results. The kids learned to procrastinate, to put off doing assignments because they figured they’d get another chance to do it. I remember how irate they–and their parents–were when I failed a few. People seem so slow to accept responsibility these days.

    They’re also slow to communicate. I bet if any of those students had talked with you or with someone, they would have received advice, help, options–a variety of things to help them deal with their situations. They’ll do the same thing as adults if, for instance, they can’t pay a bill. They won’t talk with a creditor, set up a payment plan, whatever. They’ll just ignore the bill until they get in trouble.

    Sad stories, Sr. Edith.

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