Monday, July 15, 2013

What Constitutes "Satisfactory Academic Progress" in the 21st Century?

I often receive email from students who've learned of my interest in the contemporary college experience and want to provide a window into their own.  Recently I heard from a man who initially enrolled at UW-Madison in 2007 and subsequently took an educational pathway that is increasingly normal.  His efforts to find ways to learn new things and make college affordable are notable, and he challenges us to think about the ways in which traditional forms of higher education align with today's students.  With his permission I'm sharing a letter he wrote, and at his request, I am identifying the author.  The following essay is by James Kasombo, who will be re-entering Madison this fall. 

            Upon graduating from high school in the top five percent of my class, being ushered into the university's honors program, and finding a wholeheartedly welcoming dormitory community off the shores of Lake Mendota, in many respects it felt as though I had made the rightful transition for my life. Granted, no guidance counselors had openly foretold the high costs of a college degree versus the varying returns on investment different majors would create. There was an intense barrier of advanced math and science within the initial semesters of post secondary education if one were to pursue careers in medicine or engineering, stymieing the aspirations of many gifted students having streaked through their K-12 schooling. Convening each night in the communal bathroom to brush our teeth, the floor community would reflect on the day's lectures, discussion groups, and assignments with strikingly different opinions of how this task at hand, that of earning a bachelors degree, was making an impact on our development into adulthood.

            And so it was halfway through the fall semester of 2007, shortly after TED had started an ameliorative experiment of freely posting talks from its conferences on the internet, that I stumbled upon Sir Ken Robinson's now transformative argument for how we look upon education to prepare adults for an unknown future. At that same time, I had successfully tutored a cohort of students through a philosophy midterm, yet failed a calculus exam, and watched as more and more fellow teenagers began the process of withdrawing from their studies altogether.  

            “Students must successfully complete a cumulative 2/3 (67%) of all credits for which they enroll.” Over the course of my three years living in Madison, I would not meet this standard. Instead, I became the youngest person on a team of New Student Leaders for the university's summer orientation program after my freshman year, receiving high marks for engaging with incoming students and relating with the parents who would be sending children their children away. Instead, I produced the Marcia Légère Student Play Festival during my sophomore year. Organizing amateur playwrights, directors, and actors, who would collaborate with drama & literature faculty to create a student driven performance, lead to my reception of the Union Trustee Leadership Award from the Memorial Union Building Association. Instead, I attained an internship with the nation's eleventh largest library system by way of ISIP. Instead, I served as a resident assistant at Highlander House for Steve Brown Apartment's Campus Connect program during my junior year, and also happened to help the UW Model United Nations team win an award at AMUN.

            During those years I would enroll in classes and later withdraw because I did not or could not see a clear connection between my then liberal arts program of study and tangible, substantial opportunities in the labor market. This symptom is seen across the board of postsecondary education as the idea of 'college for all' has collided head first with the reality of costs increasing by sixty percent just over the last decade. Meanwhile, our parents have made zero gains in their income. State institutions of higher learning have watched their funding reduced (such asUW-Madison losing almost ten percent of its budget by way of state taxes, in the space of five years) for the sake of propping up quite arguably the end products of disjointed education,health care and incarceration. Sure, our access to credit was [inappropriately] increased, but in my gut the idea of student debt becoming the new normal was a recipe for disaster: too many college students of today needing to cover growing gaps in their funds by both working and borrowing.

            By the summer of 2010 I had fully withdrawn from the university, personifying yet another data point of those failing to gradate within six years. But as I explained to my parents, it was an opportunity to experience for myself the visceral chasm between my skill set, what I really needed from a college education, and the careers needed to traverse the gap between low skill/low pay work and the upper middle class of the contemporary American economy. Of course, that very summer I would fracture my jaw, requiring surgery covered by my parent's health insurance, and spend several months recovering. This became an all too vital introduction into the treacherous alliance of employment and health we must accept when determining survival, in every sense of the word. Later that year I worked for a luxury hotel in downtown Madison, experiencing significantly higher wages than hotel employees across the capitol square. Being so young and green with employment, it took detailed explanation from the union's representative for me to understand the power of organized labor in service jobs. Yet, I would still fall behind on paying rent, and in lieu of eviction, would move back home to Milwaukee in the spring of 2011.

            Over the following two years I would obtain six different jobs, four of which being full time, with transitions in between being of my own volition. I'd witness the leveling effects the world of retail has on human capabilities. The often direction-less management had detrimental impacts on workers who'd show up day in and day out for the sole task of feeding their kids, and paying interest on loans taken in pursuit of a lifestyle they couldn't afford in the first place. Whether it be a warehouse, bookstore, or banquet hall, I have seen with my own two eyes middle skill laborers becoming prisoners of circumstances, chiefly byway of technology+globalization's effect on productivity. And so, when I was given an opportunity to leap from the role of an hourly worker to that of a manager, I knew my journey into the mindset of real world workplace dynamics was about to become complete. Therefore, in the spring of 2012, I was hired as an assistant manager for a children's museum in downtown Milwaukee, and within a few months was promoted to manager of the visitor services department. This professional experience would finally validate a core reason I stepped out of college and answer the question: Minus the credential of a B.A., did I possess qualifications and life skills necessary to build a fulfilling career?

            At the age of twenty four, I had a job nearly any college graduate of our time would figuratively kill for, management in the non-profit sector. Indeed, I savored every ounce of responsibility placed in my hands, from carrying keys to open the facility, being in a select group of people with safe access, overseeing all front desk operations, handling inventory of the gift shop, to supervising a staff of part time employees and being on the forefront of children's safety & wellbeing. Acting as a hiring manager, looking over the resumes of those jockeying for a job that paid minimum wage yet required significant skills, bringing on those flexible enough to work mornings and weekends, then getting to know the lives of those who would be reporting to me, was an extremely humbling endeavor. Working alongside adults ten, twenty, thirty years my senior with strengths and flaws more seasoned than mine, yet being treated as an equal peer, was wholly invigorating. Yet, after almost a year of sixty hour work weeks, treating injured toddlers, consoling distraught parents, and stressing over six figure budgets, it became apparent that while the answer to the preceding question may have been yes, the real question I had come to answer was how consequential the vehicle of a college degree is in attaining positions of power, influence, and sensible compensation.

            The College Board has made remarkable statements regarding the relaxation of a high school-to-university model many [academically gifted] students assume is the lock step pathway into adulthood. They've advocated creating admission policies for delayed entry after high school, making withdrawal & re-entry policies as clear as possible, and fostering an environment that understands for some students there comes a time when it is appropriate to take a break in their education, when their talents could better flourish in alternative venues. Sadly, these revelations come from a report written over thirty years ago in 1981, and it's safe to say their recommendations have not become mainstream. Ask any Millennial, and we will tell you that when coming of age, preparation for college and preparation for a vocation are indeed mutually exclusive.  In the space of just one generation, the gap between annual wages for a college degree versus a high school degree has increased from fifteen thousand to twenty-five thousand dollars, mainly because the high school graduate has seen negligible gains. Yet, the chance of someone from the top income fifth staying up there without a college degree is higher than someone from the bottom income fifth reaching the top with a college degree. The overarching fact is for those of us in the middle, a bachelor's degree evenly exchanges the probability of winding up in poverty with that of reaching the top, but odds are you stay in the middle depending on your field of study. In other words, placing a magnificent amount of faith in debt which cannot be discharged for the sake of a credential which inherently doesn't acknowledge the wide variance of human capital, has been the harbinger against completion of my degree ever since discovering voices of educational revolution.

            You know that the college degree is not affordable. Two-thirds of college presidents believe a degree is not affordable for those who need it most.  Unfortunately, federal student aid programs have performed poorly, trying desperately to fund accordingly with merit and income, juggling the balance between institutional subsidies and individual aid. Such struggles are why I have wound up appealing for my aid package. Though, it should be made clear, this is a process I support. Public monies should not be loaned nor spent on causes to which there will be no significant return. But I do hope it is inferred from my writings that my time in school was an incredibly formative portion of my life. Lessons learned inside the classroom transferred directly towards my life as an employee. Leadership positions attained at the university were the linchpin towards my success within stressful situations of the workplace, especially in management. And now, I look to return to Madison with aspirations to graduate in the winter of 2015 with degrees in Computer Science and Philosophy. I've spoken with my advisor as how to organize my classes over the coming semesters. I've gained skills in self discipline and persistence to assure academic achievement. Most importantly, I've gained the real world experience necessary to assure my studies not only relate to career goals, but towards my aspirations of leveling the playing field for those residing within the downside of advantage.

            Rising tides of the American economy do not lift all boats. The college degree has become less a sail, more the life jacket in terms of being buoyed by gains of our free market. My time away from the university was an exercise in coming to terms with this well researched conclusion, thanks to tangible successes and mistakes in real life. Once the goals I have set for myself come to fruition, the resulting tributes will acknowledge a proud alumnus, proponent, and advocate of UW-Madison.

 On Wisconsin!

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