College Material

Rate Your Students has a great little post up right now about how too many students in college today are "not college material."

One of the most overwhelming problems in American academia is the fact that at least 50% of the "students" enrolled in American colleges have absolutely no business being there. This is the result of the counterproductive myth that everyone needs and is entitled to a college education.

I'm sure there will be the standard responses about the democratization of higher education, that it's no longer the exclusive province of privileged rich kids, etc., etc. But if everyone gets a higher education, then what is "higher" about it any more?
There is an assumption breezed past there that I would like to pause on: that rich kids are not the ones unsuited to college, that poor students are the hidden losers being revealed by this harsh dose of truth. I would like to offer some testimony to the contrary.

I have a student this semester I will call "K." K is not unusual; in fact, she's a "type" of student I get a lot of. But she's been in  a class of mine previously, and in a class of Brian's as well, and so I've gotten to know K a little better than the average student. K is poor. She grew up in, and still lives in, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Miami. Every streetcorner in her neighborhood is for selling drugs, she tells me. Her schools were among the "worst" schools -- the teachers "don't want to hassle the students by making them work," according to her, the students get no support from home, the graduation rates are sorry, the academic achievement sorrier. She takes the Tri-rail from Miami, about 50 miles, to go to college -- not every day, she couldn't afford that. She comes up and stays with her aunt. She can't afford her books, so she borrows and gets photocopies from classmates. She can't afford new clothes, and she can't afford to get her hair done, and some days, if the busses and trains don't play ball (the So Fla public transportation system can foul up bigtime and make you hours late -- or make you miss classes entirely), she can't get to school. K has everything working against her, BUT SHE IS COLLEGE MATERIAL. She is intellectually curious, hard-working, and ambitious. She wants to be a school teacher, one who pushes her students and helps them achieve. She is going to make the world a better place, and I am proud to have her as a student.

Now let me tell you about some students I haven't been so proud of. The girl who missed half a semester because she was too busy skiing in various countries to give a shit -- and I was supposed to accommodate that. The guy who spent every class making comments about how BORING classes are and how he couldn't wait for the next football game or student government meeting. The guy who announced on the first day (not just of my class but of his college career), "I'm here to do the minimum, get a degree, and get a job." Not college material, not a one. Maybe they will be someday. Maybe not. But none of them were poor. They just didn't care.

I make this comparison because I agree with the basic idea behind that RYS post: there are some students who have no business being in college, and who should probably go do something else, like out-earn us all as plumbers or in sales, or become really well-connected and influential in real government and local sports or other community organizations. Maybe they need to get all the skiing out of their system and come back to college when they're ready to learn. Or maybe they should just go into business for themselves. But I disagree that the difference between the ones who belong and the ones who don't has anything to do with money.

The two richest people I personally know own their own businesses. One of them didn't even finish high school, the other went to college and studied Japanese poetry -- not quite applicable to his business. I always tell students, if you want to be rich, college is a waste of time -- it costs money. You need to go into business for yourself: all you need to know is how to add and subtract, and how to keep yourself on the positive side of those numbers. 

So who belongs in college? People like "K," above: people less interested in making it rich than using their brains. People who want to better the world. People who aren't in it for themselves, but for their communities, their societies, the whole human race. And that has nothing to do with being rich or poor, and everything to do with the student. And if the students are only in college because "it's what you're supposed to do," or because "it's how you get a good job and make a lot of money," then the students are there for the wrong reasons, and someone should tell them so. 

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