Why Johnny Can’t Adult

The world is definitely going to hell in a handcart. Civilization has reached the breaking point. I’m talking about multiple stories in the NY Times this past week that suggest the relationships between colleges, their students, and students’ families have become completely dysfunctional. Today, the discussion about the 50% increase in traffic on Facebook pages for student parents was the last straw. Here’s my suggestion. Chill Out. Remain aloof. Just say, “I don’t know exactly what goes on at college these days.” Leave it at that.

Colleges Are Not Summer Camps

Apparently, more than 200,000 people joined university parent groups last year, which means such social media participants number in the millions by now. Typical posts discuss whether there are fire alarms going off, where parents can buy mattress toppers, what’s going on during sorority/fraternity rush week, and how to arrange to have cupcakes delivered. Yes, you read that right. A parent wanted to know how to have cupcakes delivered to her nearly-adult son for his birthday. As she might have done, maybe, every year when he was in elementary school. Do you suppose she had cupcakes delivered when he was in high school? Was her son mortified? Did he try to throw them in the trash before anyone outside the office saw them? Or disavow them? Or sell them to friends for extra cash? I have so many questions about this behavior…

Fun Memoir Fact. When my high school son was getting a ride to somewhere, like high school or a skate park, (which was often because he didn’t have a car), he wanted to be dropped off at least 50 yards away. And liked to get out of the car when it was still moving.

I did join the University of Pacific Parents group when my daughter was a freshman, but quickly turned off the notifications because I found this infantilization of children frightening. I can understand questions like “Did anybody make a video of tonight’s performance?” Sharing a photo or a video makes sense. But I was so confused by questions sent like, ” Is it true that UoP’s History Dept will no longer have classes on modern European history, like the holocaust? Why?? “

Why indeed? Why is that really the parents’ issue to grapple with? Why would there be an expectation that the university, or the university through its Facebook and social media interface, would address such a question? Obviously, we can debate whether or not certain subjects should be taught at a university level, and there is a continuing topic of how much critical thinking should occur between professors and students. But, ultimately, if a student thinks what a professor is or is not teaching is inappropriate, they should opt out.

I myself was rather surprised, in 1979 in Todd Gitlin’s Sociology 102 class, to read that the CIA had ousted the leader of Chile and installed a murdering dictator. It didn’t necessarily fit my understanding of what the US was all about. I’m trying to imagine a parents’ group on the UC Berkeley Facebook page of 1979, complaining about what their daughter was having to learn. (It’s anti-Amurican!) Would I expect the university to have done an intervention on the professor? Again, you and I can have an opinion about whether or not European history or the holocaust should be taught (of course it should), but that’s not my point.

Another fun memoir fact. We had fire alarms pulled when I was in the dorms. Always late at night, when everyone was in pjs and bunny slippers. Three times, false alarms; one time, someone was smoking something or using an illegal cooking device. I learned after the first time that you should put on shoes and bring your wallet/purse and room keys. See how useful that was? I didn’t call my mother to discuss it or ask what to do, and I wouldn’t have wanted my mother calling me, “What’s going on?”

Fourth-Graders, Show your College Spirit!

University of Tennessee, now selling freedom from worry about mean girls, only $14.99

Why are parents finding it so hard to let go? This second story, which was intended to be a feel-good, anti-bullying rallying cry, also made me stop and think. A fourth-grader in Florida made his own University of Tennessee T-shirt to wear to school on school colors day. Some girls made fun of him and he cried, and the teacher posted it on social media. This prompted to the university itself to sell the design and to donate some of the proceeds to Stomp Out Bullying. Great story, right? My friends on FB shared it and also asked for donations to stomp out bullying. And, let’s be clear, I’m against bullying.

But, again, I have to ask what seem to me questions that no one is asking. Why is a fourth grader pressured to wear COLLEGE COLORS to school? The elementary school colors, sure. The local professional team, perhaps. But this is a nine-year-old prompted to dress in his favorite college’s colors. Why would a fourth grader have a favorite college? Obviously, because his parents did, right? It’s the parent alma mater. Or, it could be the local college, perhaps. Since this was a Florida school and a Tennessee shirt, it was his parents’ college. Does it seem right to you that we would expect our children to wear to school professionally-made shirts supporting our alma maters?

Not to mention that the university then chose to use this as a marketing opportunity. Oh, but for charity. Yes, but who gets the good press, ultimately? How much bullying will be stopped by this exercise? What is the message here? If some girls are mean to me, then a college will set up a GoFundMe to donate to a cause? The donating to the cause is great. I think the University of Tennessee should just send StompOutBullying a few hundred thousand dollars and let it go at that. The marketing angle sticks in my craw.

What happens now if that child doesn’t want to go to the University of Tennessee when he’s in high school? What if he wants to go, but he doesn’t qualify? The pressure to attend college is bad enough. Do we need to start in the fourth grade? As regular readers may know, I teach part-time helping high school students improve their approach to taking college admissions tests, so I am involved in the admissions-industrial complex. Last week was a first; a student had a complete meltdown while taking a practice test. The purpose of that diagnostic is to give them a feel for what the test is like and where they will need to concentrate their studying. What kind of pressure has this put on our teenagers if they feel that anxious during a practice diagnostic test?

Admitting Students We’d Like to Turn Down

The NY Times–who I must credit with providing all this fodder for my words–had the most insightful story of all. In a chilling analysis of how college admissions work, Paul Tough described how colleges have attempted outreach to broaden the diversity of the student population only to find that they have to crowd out those same, highly-qualified low-income, often minority, students in order to bring in the same old, same old non-diverse because…those students could pay. That is, their parents could pay.

‘Admissions for us is not a matter of turning down students we’d like to admit. It’s a matter of admitting students we’d like to turn down.’

from “What College Admissions Offices Really Want,” NY Times, 9/10/19

Colleges, on the one hand, want to broaden the diversity of their population, for many reasons. It is the right thing to do, it gives them good press, and it actually improves the student population by bringing in broad perspectives and talents. Additionally, while there is a prevailing cultural notion that it’s hard to find low-income qualified students and that diversity admissions reduce the qualify of the academics, what colleges have found is the exact opposite. They don’t have a shortage of academically-qualified low-income students. What they do have is budget deficits.

Enrollment managers know there is no shortage of deserving low-income students applying to good colleges. They know this because they regularly reject them — not because they don’t want to admit these students, but because they can’t afford to.

from “What College Admissions Offices Really Want,” NY Times, 9/10/19

Despite many college’s genuine attempts to broaden their population and development of sophisticated data collection and tools to do so, they’ve been moving in the opposite direction. The rise in influence from ranking reports about colleges, especially by US News, has contributed to the problem by making schools focusing on metrics that exacerbate the need to pull in wealthy, potentially low-achieving students at the expense of those more deserving who can’t pay.

So, colleges are instilling a sense of loyalty to students at a young age to press them to attend a particular school. They’re providing a forum and venue to parents that allows mom and dad to interact with the college as if it were still elementary school, where they need to be given notice if a stranger walks on to campus. (I recently received lengthy email about a non-student who walked into a dormitory.) Then, the college goes to great length to get the parent to pay, whether by offering partial scholarships that lock parents in to pay the rest, or by admitting those from wealthier families who “really want to go” but don’t have the grades.

Here’s a good place to start, at least in helping your college-aged student fend for themselves. Leave them alone. If you get an email that there was someone with tuberculosis on campus, let it be. Don’t ask the school how you can see your offspring’s grades or worry if your son complains that the cafeteria lunch is limited to sandwiches. Let them cope. I don’t know that this will change the dysfunction in admissions or solve the diversity imbalance at the University of Chicago, but it will help your Favorite Child become an adult just a little quicker. Which is really the point of college.

Let. Them. Go.

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