Some Thoughts on College From A College Professor

I was having a conversation on readiness and college this morning, where some friends were discussing GPA in relation to college readiness. I think that we are becoming/have become quite myopic regarding academic numbers, in such a way that we are creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

Just a little personal background: I told my father that I would never be good at science when I was in high school. I started to look into becoming a theater major. I earned my B.A. in molecular biology. I still wasn’t sure if it was for me. I studied neuroscience at Georgetown. I floundered my first year. My last year, I won the Excellence in Research Award. I ended my dissertation with 3 first author publications in major research journals.

I had powerful “Why’s”. I did not have a stellar GPA. I did stellar work, because I wanted to find something. I was curious enough to excel despite beginning my graduate career woefully unprepared through every fault of my own. I knew how to work hard, but I needed a why.

Not every kid is the same, and I would hate for college ranks to be filled only with kids who dot every i and cross every t. They are fine. But I also want our ranks filled with kids who stumble in the dark. I want students that need deep purpose, who are not just looking to fill requirements. Ask my students at Hampton University how many former straight A students have struggled in my physio class, where the subject matter demands critical thinking and consideration of abstract concepts.

Students that always do well, always excel, often do not know how to question themselves or deal with adversity. Some do. I am not painting with a broad brush. What I am saying is that a 3.9 GPA and all the activities is no guarantee of brilliance. The brilliant don’t always start off with great transcripts. Sometimes, they begin as explorers, those who are searching. If we create this climate where you are considered a worthless candidate for college if you don’t have an excellent GPA, you lose me and many others.

My dime as a professional who has worked in every sector (except military), a current college professor, a college recruiter, husband of a teacher, someone who became many things he didn’t think he was, the son of educators, the son of a college president, etc.

The “readiness” of your child for college, or any other endeavor, is multifactorial. It is built on interest, curiosity, motivation, experience, and skill — not primarily intelligence or statistics.

I have seen students with the best stats and resume items crash and burn. I have seen others fly through college, then lead “meh” lives. I have seen some start off “shaky” and then take off like rockets.

The thing that matters the most is the WHY. If the why is there, and the resources are there, we can do a lot. Even if the why is found late, it might take extra work and remediation, but they can fly. Trust me on this. I know this for many, many reasons.

Also, sometimes the wrong “why” can produce achievement with sickness. Know this, also. Achievement, to be sustainable and healthy, needs to come from depth. Perfectionism can lead to depression, anxiety, and suicide.

Allow your kids to explore, to give effort, to attain depth. Allow and try to facilitate variety of experience. Let them apprentice. Let them fail. Teach them how to change. My adult students, regardless of past performance, tend to perform better. Because they have a clear why, and they have life experiences.

Also, not everyone needs to go to college at 18. We need more apprenticeship and internship opportunities for young people. I would love to see a national program for just that, that we all pay into. We need students prepared for life in multiple ways, not just in a classroom. They need experience solving real problems, creating real products, and working on teams. I think we are making some progress on that in schools across the nation, but not enough.

One final point: Our obsession with numbers is one of the main reasons for what some call the “dumbing down” of high school. Once we made numbers everything, instead of concentrating on being collaborative and integrative across sectors to solve the multiple factors affecting education — we created a system of exclusion that needed corrections. I will write more on this later, but suffice it to say — numbers are only the way in a system obsessed with numbers. Academic statistical achievement is not “the” path to learning, skill, perspective, or success. The sooner we stop thinking it is, the sooner we can create a better system and raise more boats in the tide.