Friday, July 13, 2012

The tension between the goals of families and the goals of colleges

A couple of weeks ago,  30 Latina 15-year olds and their parents came to Westminster for a days-worth of workshops about getting to and succeeding in college. (The event was co-sponsored by El Observador, the spanish-language publication of the Deseret News. Thanks to them for encouraging college attendance.)

It fell to me to welcome the parents, and to say a few words about the value of a college education, particularly a college education at Westminster. I told them about how connection was at the heart of learning, and how Westminster is built to foster those connections.  And I told the stories of my two daughters, both of whom have made some connections at Westminster that have helped them be better students and better people.  I talked about how Amelia had left Pepperdine because, for all its beauty and quality, she didn't fit there, and how she has found something of a place at Westminster with the  women's lacrosse team.  I showed them her picture from Facebook and told them about how she's spending the summer working in an orphanage in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.  And I shared Lucy's picture as well, surrounded by the friends she has made from China while living on campus, and about her dream to create a major that combines Political Science and Cognitive Neuroscience and her hope to become a diplomat.

I could see in the response of the parents in the audience that they hoped for similar experiences for their daughters, because they loved their daughters, and because access to those experiences would improve the prospects for their families.  This point bears making more clearly.  As the demographics of college students changes; as there are more students of color, and more first-generation students, a college degree is more important not just for students but for their families as well.

In telling the stories about my daughters I was torn. As a father I felt proud. As an administrator I felt also the tension between what higher education thinks is important and what we, as parents, think is essential.  The tension is, in fact, built into the idea of connection.  For it is connection that both makes learning possible and makes families work.  But colleges have failed to take advantage of this continuity.  They have preferred instead to try to weaken one connection (to the family) and replace it with another (to a future that grows out of a college education and relies on the connections of the college, not the family, to succeed).

The idea of weakening one connection and strengthening another has, of course, long been part of the purpose of higher ed.  It became particularly strong in the second half of the 20th century, and is thus the main mode of thought among the people who were socialized during that time in those places.  Many of those people lead colleges today. It is behind the effort to build community in residence halls, to talk about campuses as communities, and to suggest to parents (as campuses sometimes do) that their students will do things at college that they don't want to know about.

It is true, though, that the future promised by the connections of colleges is less certain today than in several generations. It is also true that as college costs rise, more parents will be paying for their children's educations for a longer time than ever before. And so the shift from family networks to college networks, that seemed so rational not long ago, seems more suspect to students and parents than it once did.  Colleges have been slow to realize that, and so we have done less well than we ought at keeping families strong while expanding the opportunities available to families because of the education of their children.

As with the subjects of many posts, I don't know how to resolve these tensions.  I suspect that some of the resolution will be natural, as an increasing number of students will live at home while in school (and in the years after), and figure out one by one how to balance family ties and college ties. Some of it will be attitudinal, as colleges change the way they talk about transitions into college.  (It need not be the case that a move to college means a move away from family ties, or that we should be sanguine about the notion that students will behave worse with classmates than they do with families, or that the only phrase in our lexicon about parents is "helicopter parents"). Some of it will be conceptual, as we stop drawing distinctions between family and college networks. And some of it will be opportunistic, as colleges understand that working with families from the time their children are young is the best way to ensure that those children will be able to afford, attend, and graduate from that college.

1 comment: said...

Thank you for this post. You have so clearly articulated the tension that does exist between parents and institutions. As we move from the "let go" attitude of earlier generations, we have not yet defined a new role for families and colleges. In loco parentis is gone, but hasn't been replaced with anything anyone is comfortable with. The work I've been doing with college parents in the past several years has been exactly to help them begin to define their role. I think many parents are understanding this more quickly than colleges. Thank you for this thought provoking discussion.