Cal State System Fail: Who Is to Blame?

California's educational system is a mess. And as an official Cal State student, I can offer anecdotal evidence that nobody is experiencing the hurt caused by our budget crisis more than college students. "No classes!" students cry. "They are cutting all the classes!" and "I won't get federal aid if I don't have 12 units!" Last week at Cal State Northridge, Chancellor Reed, head of the Cal State system, sent out a letter telling teachers that they were unable to add students to classes, regardless of space.

This rule stood even if 10 students happened to drop the class after that first day, which happens frequently. Chancellor Reed made it clear that the current add code fiasco was due to an over-enrollment issue that had taken place earlier in the school year. Teachers and students were furious, banded together, sent out some strongly worded letters, and Dwammo! This week, mostly all is well in the Cal State system and a kid can add a class if the teacher approves. As my gender and women's studies professor would say, "Everyone affected came to the table and voiced an opinion." Therefore, opinions were heard.

But after some contemplation, I find myself wondering what kind of question is at this table, aside from the financial debacle regarding classes. Yes, the California education system needs more money. That much is clear. Yes, kids need classes so that they may graduate in a reasonable amount of time. But what about those 10 students that dropped after the first day? Why aren't we sitting around the metaphorical table talking about them? It's safe to assume that most of them knew they'd be dropping, so why were they sitting in that class in the first place? They were taking up space another student wanted -- and needed. Maybe the question on the table needs further development.

While I hesitate to downplay the wide variety of students in college, the majority of them can be classified into three categories. One: the serious, dedicated and motivated student who knows what she wants and what she has to do to accomplish her goals. Two: the student who kind of thinks she knows what she wants, but will probably change course halfway through. And three: the student who is enrolled because if she is not in college, mom and dad will no longer pay rent/car payment/insurance/etc. I imagine that these three types of students have correlating grades. At one point in my academic life, I qualified as the second type of student while pursing a business degree, and though I began my college career with a high 3.6 grade point average, by the time I realized I didn't care about business, it had plummeted to 2.7. Fortunately, I now qualify as the first type of student, and have the grades to prove it.

Something very important happened during the seven year gap in my college attendance sheet. I had to provide for myself, and learn the value of the dollar. Now, in returning to school, though the federal government has so graciously awarded me grant money with which to pay tuition, I am making sure to get in and out of the Cal State system as quickly as possible. Because both time and money are precious. So back to the table for a new discussion.

Maybe it isn't that there are too few classes. Maybe the real issue is that there are too many directionless students. Maybe if those 10 students who dropped a course had some foresight, other students, who do have the drive to plan out a four or five year course, wouldn't have been left out in the rain. Maybe, we need to overhaul the system entirely, as there are some obvious flaws. If a student doesn't care about school enough to enroll in a course that he or she actually needs, he or she should not go.That's not to say that they shouldn't ever go to college. Just not when they don't care.

So here are my two solutions, one's a pipe dream, and one is a bit more realistic.

Solution One: No student will be allowed to officially enroll in college until they have proven that they can provide for themselves for at least one year before enrolling. We can let our teenagers apply in high school, and they may only attend the college that accepts them once they have lived in the real world, paid their own bills, have mastered the concept of a dollar, and the importance of time. I will now suggest that as an experiment in gaining perspective, the first year of federal aid be used to purchase an airplane ticket to one part of the world and purchase a returning flight from another part of the world for the soon to be adult, and allow at least three months between sending them and bringing them back -- summer perhaps? We give them 2,000 bucks, and send them into the world. Literally kick them out of the nest. Fly or fall. When they come back, they will be grateful and wise, and understand that receiving an education is not like receiving information. Where information is now free, thanks to the Internet, a good education is still a privilege, and not something to be taken for granted.

Solution Two: Start educating students about college beginning freshman year in high school. Make them aware of the community in which they will one day exist, and remind them (ever so gently) that if they sign up for a class they don't need simply to fill units and continue receiving federal aid, it is taking from another student. Let them know that if they don't know what they want from their college education, it really is OK to take a year off and explore the world of possibilities before them. Yes, some kids may not end up attending college if they don't go straight out of high school, but maybe they will end up learning a trade instead. Maybe they will go to nursing school. Maybe they will realize that the kind of awesome conversations that are possible in school are not really possible out of school, and college will become less about ensuring a high paying job and more about ensuring the betterment of one's mind and soul.

My decision to forbid 18 year-olds entrance into college is obviously not the best. If I had my druthers, kids wouldn't be allowed into college until their prefrontal cortex had finished developing and they had the scans to prove it, but that's super unrealistic. All I'm saying is that while there are some big problems with the umbrella that is the Cal State system, there are a bunch of little kids standing under that umbrella, poking giant holes in it. Before we protest and demand more money, let's sit down at the table, get our act together and be grown ups. Like Ghandi said, we have to be the change we want to see.

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