The missing manual

College is work. Or, at least, college done well is work. An interview with the authors of Getting the Best out of College.

Appears in Fall 2009 Issue: Making the most of college (fourth annual)
September 1 st 2009

College is work. Or, at least, college done well is work. An interview with the authors of Getting the Best out of College.

Going to college can be very unsettling. Few high school graduates were more unprepared than I was when I arrived as a freshman. The son of medical missionaries in South Korea, I had never been on the campus of the college I was to attend—everything I knew about it came from pictures in a brochure. Alone, I boarded a Trailways bus in Dallas, one footlocker in tow, and set off for a small liberal arts college in Sherman, Texas. To compound my profound unease, I was arriving for two-a-day football practice! My only "American" education before then was in the first grade (The Collegiate Boy's School in New York City) and seventh grade (Walker Junior High School in Bradenton, Florida). I remember that fish-out-of-water feeling, illustrated in Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons.

I needed Getting the Best Out of College. It's written by three authors associated with Duke University— political science professor Peter Feaver, Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek and recent alumna Anne Crossman. The book is an honest, no-holds-barred guide to succeeding in college—from roommate conflicts to class selection. I had the privilege of asking the authors some questions.

1. How does this book complement Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons? Would it be helpful to read the two books together?

It is important to keep in mind that Getting the Best Out of College is written by three individuals who have decades of experience in higher education, both inside and outside the classroom. While the book includes a number of examples and stories, it is essentially a compilation of significant topics related to the undergraduate college experience, backed by expert advice.

I Am Charlotte Simmons, on the other hand, is fiction that may have some basis in fact. But for commercial and dramatic effect, it focuses on extremes and paints a picture of college life as being an experience without boundaries.

So, while Getting the Best Out of College and I Am Charlotte Simmons may both be entertaining to read, the first was written with the intent to improve student life while the second was written to sensationalize it. We're not necessarily saying non-fiction is better than fiction—just that they serve different purposes and so reading them together may not be of much benefit.

2. How has college life and student expectations changed in the last twenty years?

College life and student expectations have changed enormously over the years. Overall, student populations are more diverse. In addition, many students and their parents view education with a consumer mentality; they are the customers, and the school is the service provider. College amenities—such as food offerings, recreation centers and student unions—are more important to students today than in the past, and as a result, colleges are far more commodious than even a decade or two ago. Other customer-oriented improvements include a greater variety of housing options, study abroad possibilities, academic majors and programs, course scheduling and extracurricular activities.

In terms of technology, students and their parents expect state-of-the-art offerings, particularly related to communications; both want to be informed of campus happenings in a thorough and almost instantaneous way.

One of the many challenges resulting from these significant changes is that parents are not generally aware of how to advise their students to take full advantage of their college experiences. Parents can listen well, ask relevant questions, and provide important support and encouragement; however, they are often too far removed from campus life to know the ins and outs of the current system. Ideally, parents would encourage their undergraduates to seek advice from the experts— academic, residential, psychological, career and peer advisors—so that they are fully prepared for all that college has to offer.

3. What are the biggest lessons parents can learn from this book?

One of the greatest challenges parents face is knowing how to use the college years as a natural opportunity to develop an adult relationship with their students. Often, we see parents react to this transition in extremes—either cutting emotional ties so completely that students feel a bit abandoned, or hovering so closely that it either prevents a necessary development of independence or fosters resentment in the student.

Striking the right balance is not easy to do, but it can be done. One of the biggest lessons parents can learn from the book is that these next four years are a unique season in their student's life to explore the world, and in doing so, learn more about his or her self. The best way parents can be supportive in this season is to be a patient listener as well as a wise counselor, willing to let them make mistakes and clean up the consequences on their own. Hopefully, parents will find that they have trained their children so well in doing what is right that their students keep to that path even after leaving home. College is the final testing ground for adulthood, and if students haven't learned maturity by now, reality will be a harsh teacher.

Parents should be available as a sounding board and do their utmost to relate to their student as an adult—especially on the first few visits home. It is so easy to slip into the comfortable roles of parent and high school student when a college freshman returns home; lean against it. Most of the time, students return home feeling a little awkward about preferring elements of campus life to home life and are unsure about how to relate to Mom and Dad as adults. The best advice we can give parents here is to be the adult in that moment by opening up the conversation to talk about your student's "new life" and how you both can encourage the transition to adulthood at home.

4. A great deal of the book deals with issues related to non-academic life skills, from relationships with roommates to time management. Are there ways students can prepare for some of these issues before they enter the crucible of college life?

College starts very quickly, and choices accumulate faster than students expect.

Throughout the book—particularly in the chapter on social exploits—we recommend that students go off on their own before moving to campus in order to ponder and write down their priorities, goals for the next four years and lifestyle standards. Students following a certain faith will want to align those goals and choices with their faith precepts.

Furthermore, students should talk to post-college adults they respect and query them about choices they made in college and how they view those choices in retrospect. As with anything, students should sift through what they hear and consider the source—but that's all part of the learning curve.

5. In March 2009, the National Association of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education released a study that found that 68.9% of college freshmen in the United States had drank alcohol (one presumes that these students are largely under 21, the U.S. legal drinking age). Of that number, 49.4% spent more time drinking (10.2 hours per week) than they did studying (8.4 hours). While this study was not conducted at Duke, the University has received plenty of notoriety in this regard (see Janet Reitman's "Sex and Scandal at Duke," Rolling Stone, June 1, 2006). How are the social issues of sex, alcohol and drugs undermining the academic culture of North American colleges and universities?

Although these percentages are disturbing, carefully analyzing those statistics indicates that the vast majority of students are not spending more time drinking than studying each week. Instead, the vast majority of students conduct their lives in a balanced, productive, responsible way. Unfortunately, the irresponsible minority seems to get most of the press, creating a sensationalized portrayal of college life. As a result, students tend to assume that the vast majority of their peers are engaging in the drinking/drugs/sex scene when the statistics show that just isn't the case. The numbers may be up from years past, but not as high as students or parents would expect.

In spite of the fact that only a minority of students engage in this harmful, irresponsible behaviour, these choices can and do create challenges for the rest of the campus community. As a result, the behaviours of a few students can define and dominate a campus culture, undermining the values which undergird higher education and giving American colleges a bad reputation.

This phenomenon makes it even more important for students to remember who they are and what they value, and to not be tempted or swayed by fictional or exaggerated notions of what other students are doing. Students can still have fun and be fully connected to mainstream college life without taking unnecessary risks or compromising their personal values.

We mentioned a few ways in our book that students can stay safe should they choose to attend parties on campus. One important principle is that there is safety in numbers. Students should travel to these activities in groups, intending to keep tabs on and watch out for each other. It is possible for students to attend these parties without feeling pressure to consume alcohol or use drugs, especially since the majority of students don't engage in such behaviours, but they must recognize that being around such behaviours does increase the temptation to let their standards slide.

6. Your book reads like a whimsical guide for uninformed education consumers. How do you respond to University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson's observations: "Before students arrive, universities ply them with luscious ads, guaranteeing them a cross between summer camp and lotusland. When they get to campus, flattery, entertainment, and preprofessional training are theirs, if that's what they want. The world we present to them is not a world elsewhere, an ivory tower world, but one that's fully continuous with the American entertainment and consumer culture they've been living in. They hardly know they've left home. Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students—steeped in consumer culture before they go off to school; treated as potent customers by the university well before they arrive, then pandered to from day one—are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be enjoyed without effort or languidly cast aside?"

Mr. Edmundson makes a good point about the apathetic view some students take towards their coursework. In fact, some professors have complained that students behave in class as though they are watching TV instead of a live lecture—an approach that leaves everyone dissatisfied. College is radically different from most learning situation students have encountered before prior to arriving on campus, which is why we try to level the playing field by providing a rulebook of sorts before they are expected to play—and win—one of the most life-altering games they will play.

College is work. Or, at least, college done well is work. Hopefully students will take time before becoming an undergraduate (and, once an undergraduate, using summer as a natural reflection point) to evaluate what they want out of college and how to get the best of the experience.

7. Throughout the book, you call on students to take ownership of their educational experience during their college years. You encourage them to find mentors. You write, "Throughout history, the greatest leaders in the world cultivated disciples and mentored protégés by inviting them to be a part of everyday tasks." But doesn't the system of high education work against the possibility of developing such relationships? There are professional risks for professors, and students view their teachers through the eyes of consumers not apprentices.

The incentive structures for both students and professors do cut against these kinds of deep, meaningful, mentoring relationships. Yet we think it is possible to improve on the current mentorship hit rate without fundamentally redesigning higher education. For starters, much of our advice is aimed precisely to help students better understand these incentives, and to work around the ones that work against them.

Moreover, we believe that such mentoring relationships are sufficiently intrinsically rewarding that many professors would welcome them, even if they are not going to go out of their way to establish them. Despite what you read in the cartoons, most professors could make more money doing something else (though perhaps not in the exact subject field they currently occupy). They stay in academia partly for the nonmonetary, non-material benefits—the kind that can accrue with meaningful mentoring relationships.

8. You encourage students to go to class with two things: "an open mind" and "a sifter." Can you explain the importance of each?

These two tools are important for anyone, but especially for the typical reader of this magazine— someone who is intellectually engaged but with a strong, coherent, and systematic faith or worldview that may now be facing its toughest test. Evangelicals need an "open mind," even—or perhaps especially— if they are at secular universities.

An open mind is not a blank slate, thoughtlessly accepting whatever anyone seeks to write upon it. Rather, having an open mind means cultivating a willingness to probe the truth of any claim, including a claim that is new, surprising or even unsettling. Probing the truth requires taking it seriously, especially since someone who has thought about this topic longer than students have (that is, their professors) takes it seriously.

In fact, a student should take it so seriously that he or she doesn't merely accept it at face value; instead, the student "sifts" it, setting aside any bits that do not withstand careful, thoughtful scrutiny and holding onto the bits that do. A student's "sifter" will begin with key understandings (the worldview) that a student brings to college. But it will grow and perhaps even evolve as he or she matures intellectually; the mature student should be able to see ever finer-grains of nuance.

9. Your book calls undergraduates to "pursue their passions studiously." Many students lack passion about anything. How does one become passionate and find his or her passion?

Students who get the absolute best out of college will find an academic field of inquiry that excites them; be involved in curricular and co-curricular activities that expand learning from the classroom to encompass their entire undergraduate experience; and develop meaningful, enduring relationships.

College offers a great opportunity for students to discover a new passion or further develop a current passion, because the horizons at even a small college are likely to be so much wider than what they had in high school. The range of topics is broader, the intensity of the intellectual coverage is deeper, and the freedom to explore new things is greater. If you are listless, force yourself to treat college like the ultimate dim sum buffet, trying bits of this and bits of that to see what you like best.


Dr. John Seel is the former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation. He is currently principal at John Seel Consulting LLC, a cultural impact consulting firm specializing on millennials. He, and his wife Kathryn, attend Cresheim Valley Church and live in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.