Can Faculty Advising Help Students Hold Down College Costs?

While the OPOSSEM Blog will typically focus on teaching research methods, I'll also occasionally take a foray into broader questions surrounding the social sciences and the academy more generally. I promise, however, that I draw the line at cat pictures, mainly because I don't have a cat.

With advising season in full swing (at least in my neck of the woods), for many of us it's time to see a steady stream of students as they attempt to piece together the optimal schedule that fits their other commitments. Freelance journalist and former political science professor Laura McKenna suggests that we also take a minute or two with our students to remind them of the financial consequences of dilly-dallying around on campus, although this is only part of the solution to the problem of rising student debt; she concludes:

“I also believe that untraditional students need more guidance about making higher education decisions. Faculty advisors and administrators do provide some guidance to kids like Lisa about finances—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. A few schools have genuinely innovative reforms that should be replicated. However, students need more help than individual faculty can provide.

“Students need administrators, high school counselors, or outside groups to provide them with a cocktail of career, education, and finance advice. They need to understand the penalties that are involved with transferring schools and changing majors. They should meet with the financial aid office, understand the totality of their loans, and know whether or not interest is accruing. Decisions about majors, careers, and universities should be undertaken with care.

“It is not clear what can be done about students who do foolish things like extend their college loans to get access to football tickets, or students who are too immature to think about life beyond the next frat party. Some students will not listen to good advice, even if it is readily available.

“Colleges should provide more thorough, regular, and comprehensive help for students. Though we can't force students to make responsible decisions and other reforms are certainly needed, greater guidance for students is a necessity.”

The article has generated quite a bit of discussion at Laura's popular blog.

To my mind at least, much of the issue derives from a serious disconnect between the professoriate and today's expanding student body; most of us were traditional-aged college students from upper-to-middle class households where education was valued, there was an expectation we would go to college, and when we arrived on campus we found an environment that was consistent with those values—for example, I took it for granted as an undergraduate that there was this thing called a "catalog" that had the graduation requirements in it, and that I should regularly consult it to keep on-track for graduation.

Many first-generation students arrive on campus these days without those basic assumptions in tow, and while many colleges with large nontraditional and first-generation student bodies are adding "boot camp" orientation courses to improve retention rates and first-year student success, affordability and its link to on-time graduation do not seem to have been points of emphasis on many campuses. As Laura suggests, at the institutional level, we need to ensure this message is getting to students. In the meantime, pulling aside the student who's changing their major for the third time for a brief soliloquy on why that might be a bad idea can't hurt, either.

Do you have thoughts on improving college affordability? If so, post a comment or start a discussion in the forums!