Writer’s Workshop: Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here (Registering For Classes)

Ah, this prompt again:

Share a college memory.

I’ve talked about my years at Northwestern University before (here and here). I think I’ll dip into that well again.

At the end of Freshman Orientation Week comes the day that all us newly-minted students find out, after a week of being told that we’re special and that the university really cares about us, just what a bitch college life can be. Of course, I’m talking about registering for classes.

In my case, I knew I was cursed from the start, because the sheet the university gave us with the schedule for registration told me that I would be among the last group of freshmen that would be registering. My faculty advisor, Brother Juniper, told me when I was setting up my schedule that I should plan on at least three alternatives for each of the classes I was to take, because I could count on not getting many of the classes I had selected. Accordingly, I chose four classes I wanted to take and a dozen alternates that I could live with. Thus prepared, I toddled off to get them.

Everything started out smoothly, and soon I had two of the four classes I wanted. Psychology was full, but they still had plenty of seats in Sociology, so I was down one alternate class. I was thinking, hey, this shit’s easy and walked over to the table for Intro Studies, a set of classes of which every freshman was required to take two. Needless to say, I didn’t get the class I wanted, or any of the Intro Studies classes, all of which had been snapped up by my fellow classmates. No problem, I thought; I still had eleven alternatives I hadn’t used yet.

Fifteen minutes later, I had exhausted all of those alternatives and was reduced to stopping at tables to see if they had anything at all. If they had a class, it conflicted with my schedule, but in most cases, the answer was “sorry.” Finally, I found an Art Appreciation class, the last opening in that class, added that card to my stack, and handed my cards in.

I went home and read the description of the class, and recoiled in horror when I saw that the only requirement for the class was “sophomore status.” I had inadvertently signed up for a class I shouldn’t have. What was I going to do? This was in the days when I thought registration was final, carved in stone, and once everything was set, it would take an act of Congress, or at least the intervention of the Board of Trustees, to change. I was stuck with it. I just knew the Prerequisite Police were going to find me and drag me off to the gas chamber.

I learned later that about ten percent of the people taking the class were freshmen (I knew this because they had registered with me), and there was no such thing as the Prerequisite Police. The class ended up being unintentionally funny: the professor who taught it was a magnificent painter, but had been breathing turpentine fumes a little too long, and her teaching technique was to turn on a slide projector and spend fifty minutes talking to the screen, blissfully unaware of anything else going on in the lecture hall. One day a large collie with approximately 650 tags on her collar wandered in and spent most of the period walking around the room, collar jingling loudly, until her owner came and got her. The professor droned on through all of it. I got a C in the class, not the best grade, but it was enough to pass.

An Unpleasant College Memory

Here’s the prompt: A college memory.

I spent my first two years of college at a school I knew from the outset I didn’t want to attend, but did because my mother, who wanted me to be an engineer, insisted on it. See, engineering requires physics, and although I passed it in high school, I didn’t have the aptitude for it, and didn’t especially like it. She still insisted on the school, no doubt hoping I’d see the light and change my mind about engineering. I entered with the intention of being a math major, because my grandfather was a math professor at another university, and it was the only thing I saw in the catalog that I was interested in.

Toward the end of my first year, I saw a flyer for a program where, if accepted, I could earn my bachelor’s and master’s in math in four years. By this time, I was starting to think that maybe math wasn’t the major for me, but I applied for the program anyway. When it came time to register for my second year, I took the classes that they said I would have to take for the combined degree, including — you guessed it — physics. When I learned in July that I hadn’t been accepted into the program, I could have, and should have, made up my mind to revamp my schedule at my earliest opportunity and replace physics and at least one of the math classes (maybe both) with classes toward my requirements, with the idea that I’d start looking for another major.

Could have, should have… but didn’t. I was stubborn: even if I hadn’t gotten into the BS/MS program, I was going to take the classes just to spite them. I spent the better part of the quarter totally confused by the math classes, and after the first exam in physics (on which I got the worst grade in the class), I stopped going to class altogether. Didn’t drop the class, just stopped going. Out of sight, out of mind.

Two weeks before the end of the quarter, I realized I would still have to take a physics exam. As you might expect, I did even worse on this one. The professor, God love him, asked to see me, and the first thing he said was “I thought you dropped the class. Why didn’t you?”

Of course! Drop the class! That would have made everything better. Problem was, I had missed the deadline to drop the class without repercussions. So I was stuck. He told me that, if I did very well on the final, I could maybe get a D. Not the best, but I had gotten a few D’s already; one more wouldn’t kill me.

On the long walk back to the student center, I took inventory of where I was and realized that I might flunk everything that quarter. The only class I was doing well enough was a philosophy class that I had switched to pass/fail because I had gotten an F on my first paper. That prof had warned us all that he considered a D average a fail, but I had just brought it up to a C minus, so I figured I’d be all right.

Now I was mad at everyone, mostly myself, and fed up with going to school, and decided I’d go home and tell my mother I was dropping out. That’s when I ran into Judy, a classmate, and told her what I was thinking of doing. She said, “John, before you do that, why not go talk to one of the counselors? There are a bunch of them, and they’re really nice and probably can help you sort things out.” After the obligatory hemming and hawing, I decided that was a good idea. I thanked Judy, who kissed me on the cheek, gave me a hug, and said “Everything will be all right, John.”

After meeting with Helen, one of the counselors, I knew how I’d tell my mother that I was on the verge of flunking out of school. Mom chewed me out when I told her, but it could have been worse. I studied and took the exams, and when the quarter report cards came out, I had two C’s in the math classes, a D in physics (I think he took pity on me), and a Pass in the philosophy class. Not great, but I hadn’t done that well in previous quarters, either, so that was par. Helen continued to help me figure out what I wanted to do in college, and wasn’t too terribly upset when I realized I couldn’t get the degree I wanted where I was and would have to transfer.

I transferred to the second university at the end of the year, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In case you’re wondering, I had a class with Judy the next quarter. It might have turned into a full-blown relationship, but we were both involved with other people, and I never saw her again. That’s life at a big university.

The Problem of Student Loans

Source: acuns.org

Got some good answers to last week’s question about student debt.

My brother Kip delivered a thorough analysis, comparing the price of college to the price of practically everything else, and pointing out that what seems to be an excessive amount of debt when compared with forty years ago is not really out of line with the cost of everything else. For example: I spent my first two years of college at Northwestern University. The tuition my first year was $3,480, and I took out a student loan of $1,000. The tuition at NU is now $48,624, almost fourteen times what it was in 1974, so an equivalent loan amount would be about $14,000. Over four years, that’s $56,000. As for that fourteen times the cost over 41 years, it represents a rate of increase of six to seven percent per year. That’s roughly twice the rate of inflation, about what we’ve come to expect for college tuition.

Remember, this all started with the story of an enterprising young woman who attempted to auction off her BA in Theater to pay off the loans she was granted to get that degree. She was working as a personal assistant, doing the same thing and making as much, as she put it, as people who had dropped out midway through their freshman year. Kip pointed out that, while it’s in theater, at least she has a Bachelor’s degree. Other people who got their degrees in the liberal arts have managed to get jobs that pay well enough that they can stay current on their student loan debt and manage to live a pretty comfortable life. Maybe without the cable TV, new car, apartment in a preferred location, or other trappings that come with being young, single, and a college graduate, but not living in a box in the alley and Dumpster-diving for their meals, either.

I saw an article on the “Hello Giggles” site called “20 things I learned in my 20’s.” One of those twenty things was “Your major in college probably won’t matter in your future career”:

[I]f your college major has nothing to do with your job now, that doesn’t mean it was a waste. The fact that you went to (most) all of those classes, wrote the papers, and finished the degree is what’s important. You’d be shocked at how things you learned in a completely unrelated field will help you out later.

My degree is in Production and Operations Management. Except for a couple of miserable years “using my major” as a production supervisor, I’ve worked in IT. (Management Information Systems was a new field, and Loyola didn’t have a major in it yet; it was taught by the Production Management faculty, who also taught Statistics.) It helped having the management background when I was leading training classes in Inventory Management, because I understood the Economic Order Quantity and most of the theory behind why the software did what it did, so the degree wasn’t a waste. And I never had to do a time study or design sampling methods for quality control. (My favorite exercise from those classes was the one where I had to design a slaughterhouse for turkeys.) My brothers have all done well with their majors in English, History, and Criminal Justice, and their jobs have nothing to do with those fields.

What I’m saying is, the only impediment to good employment she has is herself. I’m sure she’s living in Los Angeles and working as a personal assistant because of the flexible schedule and proximity to auditions, but she owes $40,000, and has to repay it. Regardless of the election-year bloviation about “doing something to relieve college graduates of student loan debt,” the fact is, she willingly signed the promissory notes saying she would repay the money she borrowed, and now she has to live up to her commitment.

I wonder if someone actually sits the kids down before they take out the loans and tells them, “Look, you’re only borrowing the money. It’s not a gift from the government or a scholarship. It’s debt, and you’re going to have to pay it back, with interest unless you pay it all at once.” Maybe we need a law like there is for mortgages, telling students exactly what they can expect to pay and how much of it is interest.

Now that I think of it, that wouldn’t do much good, would it? Going to college is an emotional thing with high school seniors. They’ve been indoctrinated to believe told since they started school as kindergarteners that when they finish grade school, junior high, and high school, they’ll be going off to college. By everyone: parents, teachers, counselors, and especially their peers. Getting the kid into a good college is on some parents’ minds even when they’re picking out day care and preschool. Kids just can’t come out and say “I’m skipping college,” even if they would be better off choosing an alternate path.

I’ll break here to hear your reactions. Do you think that telling someone they have to live up to their financial obligations, onerous as they may appear, is cruel and unusual punishment? If you have a college degree, are you or have you ever had a job that matched the degree you received?

What Do We Do About Student Debt?

The whole issue of massive amounts of student loan debt is in the news (election season, don’t you know). Most recently I saw an article about a young woman offering her Bachelor of Arts (cum laude) in Theater from Florida State University for sale on eBay. Price: $50,000.

The young woman in question graduated in 2011 with $40,000 in student loan debt. She now lives in Los Angeles and is a personal assistant, not what she was trained for, but it pays the bills, barely. She says:

I’m doing the exact same things and probably getting paid the exact same amount as people that dropped out halfway through freshman year, except I’m still $40,000 in debt and they’re, well, not.

Of course, I saw this on Facebook, and of course there were lots of people expressing the opinion that she was an idiot for getting her degree in Theater. I was a little kinder. Here’s what I said:

She probably got her degree in theater because she had to get it in something and had to declare a major by the end of sophomore year, when she was twenty and had no idea what to major in. It’s a crappy major, sure, but let’s face it, 95% of majors at any university aren’t worth four years of a young person’s life and years of living with Mom and Dad while trying to pay of thousands of dollars of debt spent getting a diploma that isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. If she had actually wanted to work in theater (which I question), she could have started by applying for jobs in theaters and getting to know the people and jobs from the inside, and spend the four years she would have spent in Jacksonville actually working in theater. She’s young, and if she decided the theater wasn’t for her, she could have examined other options, including going to school. We’ve brainwashed kids into believing they must go to college immediately after high school without taking time to find out what they want to go to school for. And listen, the meme about college graduates making lots more money is demonstrably false, especially in this day and age where it seems that every kid getting out of college can’t get a job. Parents, college counselors, and university marketing departments need to stop telling kids that.

Years ago, people were all up in arms over advertisements on kids’ TV shows, how they had a captive audience and were basically brainwashing kids to tell their parents that they wanted all these sugary snacks and toys, and pressured the broadcasters and sponsors of those shows to stop marketing to kids and be more responsible to the actual needs of children. Today, we see the kids being subjected to the same treatment when it comes to going to college, by the same people who complained about the TV shows. That doesn’t seem right.

What do you think needs to happen? I have my ideas, but I’d like to hear yours first.