Hardworking students? Yes, but

  • Article by: CHUCK CHALBERG
  • Updated: September 29, 2012 - 12:00 PM

We tell high school graduates to go to college. We overpromote and overcharge. Then we bend over backwards overlooking the overextended lives of our overworked students.

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File photo: Normandale Community College.

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With a fresh school year just underway and a still-new chancellor atop the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities hierarchy, can a new slogan/initiative be far behind? In a word, no.

An "extraordinary education" for thousands of Minnesotans is the goal of Chancellor Steven Rosenstone. No doubt the recipient of an extraordinary education at the University of California, Berkeley, Rosenstone has set out to provide the same to MnSCU students. Or at least he has charged those of us in his trenches with accomplishing this.

An extraordinary education! Who could be opposed to that? I'm certainly not. In fact, I'm quite prepared to believe that such an education can be imparted -- and received -- at places of higher learning far removed from Berkeley.

In fact, I'd like to think I obtained such an education at a lowly Minnesota "junior college" years ago. I might even suggest that my colleagues and I are providing the same to current community college students.

Chancellor Rosenstone, once a professor at Yale and the University of Michigan, surely is right. An extraordinary education is not something that should be confined to elite colleges. It shouldn't be the exclusive province of Ivy League institutions or ivy-draped campuses as close to home as Northfield.

In sum, a student at any MnSCU college should be positioned to receive an extraordinary education -- and at a cost a good deal less than the sticker price at Carleton or St. Olaf, not to mention the University of Minnesota, where he was dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

But two dirty little secrets must be told. Such an education was there to be had well before our new chancellor charged us with providing it. Second, most students seem to be telling us that they really don't have time for an extraordinary education, thank you very much.

It's not that students state this in so many words. They don't sit in our classrooms or offices and demand, or so much as imply, that we should give them something less than an extraordinary education. They're much more subtle than that. Nonetheless, students do have ways of getting their point across. And a terribly important point it is.

At the start of every semester I ask my students to provide me with some basic information, including the number of credits they are taking and the number of hours they work for pay per week. During any given semester, upwards of two-thirds of my students are taking 12 to 15 credits and working 30 or more hours per week.

This is a recipe for academic disaster. And yet the tone of their responses ranges from resignation to routine to celebration. In effect, they are saying "this is what I must do" or "this is what I always do" or "this is what I proudly do."

My message to them is to think twice about what they are attempting to accomplish with the hours available to them. While assuring them that it's neither my intent nor my business to tell them how to run their lives, I do encourage them to cut back somewhere: Either take fewer credits or work fewer hours. My sense -- and my concern -- is that they seldom listen.

By plowing ahead anyway, by taking on too much all at once, students are telling Rosenstone and me something that I suspect neither of us wants to hear. They are telling us that they really can't be bothered with this thing called an "extraordinary education." After all, such an education cannot simply be received; it must also be earned.

Most of my undergraduate days are now a complete blur. But I'll never forget a professor telling us that we could get as good an education at a mythical "Swanee Tech" as at Harvard. (I was at neither.) The key variable was the student's willingness to invest in that education. I thought he was right then, and I still think he is right today.

Well, here I am teaching at the equivalent of a "Swanee Tech." I was delighted to be hired years ago and remain delighted to be able to teach American history right where I am. But I have a sense that I'm sitting atop a bubble that has to burst sometime, perhaps even sometime soon. We simply can't go on with the pretense that drives the current system.

Is there a solution -- other than to wait for that bubble-bursting day to come and then pick up the pieces? I don't know.

On the micro level, we can always dumb things down, shuffle students along and hope for the best. On the macro level, the state might finance a free college education for everyone. This would be uneconomical, unnecessary and unwise.

At the other macro extreme, we could restrict access to college through a series of gatekeeping exams. This would be unprecedented, intrusive and un-American. Regimenting and restricting students is the European way; it's not the American way.

Still, something must be done. We tell our high school graduates that they must go to college. We overpromote, overpromise, overbuild and overcharge. And then to top it off, we bend over backwards overlooking the overextended lives of our overworkd students.

For the most part, students do their best to play the game that we have asked them to play. But it's a game that's been rigged against the vast majority of them. Only the superhuman and the well-fixed are likely winners. Others will either be saddled with terrible debt or doomed to spend years acquiring that elusive four-year degree.

Or they will simply disappear. Meanwhile, and possibly worst of all, students shuffle along, shuttle from class to class, race from class to work and vice versa with no time to think about, much less experience, the extraordinary education that is being promised to them.

The only thing extraordinary about the whole process is their willingness to give this crazy business their best imitation of that "old college try."

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Chuck Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College.

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