January 17, 2014

Growing college degree pressure?

DSC officials considering less choices for students

By Christopher Smith

— “We’re humans, not worker bees,” says Dalton State College student J.D. Garcia.

That’s the pathos some students feel after learning about Complete College Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal’s education initiative to get 250,000 graduates by 2020, part of a larger trend across the nation.

Part of the state education push, which began in 2011, has charged college leaders to come up with solutions to get students graduating faster. Why? To fill looming vacancies in the workforce, particularly in tech-heavy industries that, even now, don’t always have candidates when job openings exist.

State lawmakers have also been discussing tying college funding to benchmarks like on-time graduation rates as an incentive to spur more education reform. A similar funding system is also being discussed for primary schools where a new law this year requires all eighth-graders to pick one of 17 career pathways formulated by state leaders before entering high school.

These moves have Dalton State administrators considering limiting how often students can change their major, withdrawal from classes or retake classes. The idea is to keep students “focused” on the endgame of graduation, said Sandra Stone, vice president for academic affairs for the college.

To some students, this is counter to the notion of college being a time of self-exploration and growth when many begin to develop their identities outside of their families for the first time.

“I think placing these limitations on students limits their personal growth,” said Mary Suggs, a student who started at the college in 2012. “In my first two years, I’ve changed my major a handful of times, and I still don’t know what I want. If they place a limit to how many times we can change our majors, then eventually we will get stuck with one that we may not like. And then we have our lives roughly mapped out for us.”

Time to grow? Or time to ‘grow up’?

Stone, who has worked in higher education since 1996, said she “agrees” with students’ desire to find themselves, “to some extent,” adding that if any limits are put into place they will be “reasonable.”

“I don’t really think those (proposed) policies are contradictory to exploration,” she said. “We do encourage people to explore. The core curriculum offers a lot of different choices. Students try different kinds of things.”

But at a certain point, Stone said, students have to “grow up.”

“There has to be a time that they say, ‘OK,’ and make a commitment,” she said. “I understand the need to find yourself and all that. We all did that to some extent or another. We’re just being a little bit more pragmatic about this. Someone has to pay for it.

“Ninety percent of students are on needs-based financial aid. This is tax money. So I think there is a balance. I don’t think were trying to push people out. And I think there a lot of ways to explore (like student activities and clubs) without dragging things on and on and on.”

Sometimes, Stone said, four-year degrees take six years to complete, while two-year degrees can take four.

Stone said the college has been improving academic advising as one way to cut down on the number of students who are changing their majors and staying in school longer.

“People have had a lot of issues around advising,” she said. “We reorganized a couple of years ago. Professional advisers were in a central unit, in their own office. So we dispersed them in each of the academic schools. It was getting increasingly difficult for them to be on top of every degree. It’s hard to know everything about everything ... so we specialized it.”

Stone said advisers are also using new software called Ellucian Degree Works. The program audits how much time is added, if any, to a student’s college career if he or she changes majors.

Advisers are also investing in a program that estimates how successful a student will be in a certain class by crunching 10 years of demographic and academic data, Stone said. The program creates a student’s “likelihood to complete a program,” she said, allowing advisers to counsel students away from classes they are likely to fail because it would be a waste of time and money.

‘Data out of the human soul’

Suggs said she doesn’t like the idea of getting college and career advice based, at least partly, on computer algorithms.

“That seems crazy to me,” she said. “Some students love things they’re not naturally gifted in, but that doesn’t mean they won’t succeed if they’re passionate. If you just tell someone they’re (not going to be) good at a subject (based on data) so they won’t waste time taking it, they may never be able to find their niche, so to speak. It’d be great for business, but bad for students.”

Garcia agrees.

“You can’t create data out of the human soul,” he said. “Probabilities and computers go only so far. ... I think if advisers start giving suggestions based on a numbers game as a way to save money, some students are going to miss out on discovery. That’s what’s at risk: discovery. We all got to watch money these days, but you can’t program people.”

Taylor Moore of Chatsworth says he “actually really likes the idea” of computer-driven advising.

“My dad and my mom, they didn’t have all these career choices like we do,” he said. “There’s a lot of degrees out there (Dalton State offers 18 bachelor’s degrees and 20 associate’s degrees) and that’s a hard choice to make. Do I like being limited to changing my major? No. Do I like the idea that I can look at how successful I’ll be in math classes before I waste time and money? Absolutely.”

Suggs said she is worried about a larger national trend. The education push in Georgia is happening all across the nation with different means to the same end: more workers sooner.

State leaders have the federal government pressuring them to get U.S. citizens better educated to compete with the rest of the globe. Suggs said she wonders if free thought is at risk as a result.

“Creativity is extremely important to me and so is doing something I love,” she said. “It worries me that ... outside the box thinking would be stifled. We are told that our objective should be to graduate and to do it quickly. We are not told, except by the few (educators) who genuinely care about students, that it's important, paramount even, to figure out who you are first.

“If the (government) keeps regimenting our schedules and ultimately our lives, we will end up being less of a freethinking society and more of a career assembly line.”

Don’t be discouraged, don’t feel pressured

Tammy West worked at the Murray County Sheriff’s Office for most of her life until her passion for education pushed her to get a teaching position at the Murray County Pre-K Center.

But changing careers, which led her to get a bachelor’s degree in teaching from Dalton State, wasn’t easy.

There were times she wanted “to quit,” she said. And maybe she would have if she hadn’t gotten several college credit hours for her on-the-job training, part of another new program at Dalton State called Prior Learning Assessments.

“Careers are a life choice,” she said. “You want to make sure you do something you want to do; that it’s something you enjoy because it’s something you’re going to do for the rest of time.”

The important choice students should make is “deciding to always continue going to school” regardless of government policies that may reshape college, West said.

“Do not feel discouraged or pushed to finish a degree,” she said.

When it comes to increasing government control over education, West said she can “see both sides.”

“From a fiscal standpoint, you do need something to make sure money isn’t being wasted,” she said. “I don’t know what that looks like. But if anyone tries to control a student’s college path (to fill certain jobs), they’re really doing a disservice.”

West said students should take as much time as they need to “get it right.”

Getting it ‘right’

Then there are students like Jackson David Reynolds, a graduate of Murray County High School who “got it right” his sophomore year in high school when he decided to become a physician. To that end Reynolds dual-enrolled at Dalton State during his senior year and had seven college classes under his belt before getting his high school diploma.

“I’ve never really felt a push,” he said. “Certainty that’s the case for some people ... (but) I want to get out of here as fast as possible. I wanted to get in college as fast as possible, I want to get in medical school as fast as possible. I have a residency and a fellowship. I’m going to be 31 as it is when I get out of this. So, I have no reason to dilly-dally.”

Reynolds isn’t your average student, he said, and admits getting his calling early was, at least partially, “luck.”

“I really have no idea how it happened,” he said. “I was able to find my niche early. And that’s something that, honestly, comes down to probability and brass tacks for most people. I just ended up, you know, throwing the dice and it came up nice for me. I don’t think there’s a formula for that.”

One thing that might help others figure out their careers sooner is “improving student access in high school to what’s out there,”  he said. Deal’s education push includes that, too, asking educators to offer job shadowing as early as middle school.

“My parents were really encouraging,” Reynolds said, when trying to pinpoint what made him find his calling early. “Both parents were educators, so that was helpful. But a lot of people don’t have that. They get out of high school and they don’t know if they want to be a cook or an airline pilot or a surgeon.”

West said people of the older generation didn’t always require college degrees to get a good job when they were entering their 20s. Now, there’s a plethora of degrees through hundreds of universities and colleges.

Stone says there’s maybe “too much choice” when it comes to degrees. Dalton State is also looking at cutting programs that don’t offer high job placement, she said.

One thing Stone said younger students seem to lack is “perseverance.”

“Students seem less able to tolerate any kind of frustration,” she said. “When things get hard they just quit. With withdrawals, it’s all about, ‘This course is hard so I’ll just drop it.’ It used to be, ‘This is hard so I just need to work harder, or find a way to study differently or study better.’”

Stone said she does hope any possible changes to policy don’t stifle exploration.

“We spend a lot of time as adults working,” she said. “It’s important to find something you enjoy doing and something you’re good at.”