Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Learning to Learn

For about a year now, I have been focused on a right of passage for my child and myself. My daughter is graduating from high school, and is heading to college where hopefully she will find a path she is passionate about. From almost 1600 colleges and universities to choose from, the task of preparing for this next step can seem daunting. In an ultra-competitive world where brand names drive decisions, the pressure of making the right choice has been challenging at times.

But, the way the American system is designed, there are filters that allow you to narrow your choices. Once the nationally administered standardized tests are taken the first stage of filtration is put in place. High school grades determine the next. Geographical location, the size of the school and its reputation follow. And then the most important, "the sticker price" becomes a major determining factor. An average four year private school education in this country, without scholarships, grants, discounts and other financial assistance costs about a quarter of a million dollars today. And that number is rising every year, leading many to question whether a college degree is really worth all that it is made out to be.

After weighing in on all of the above, and doing your research and having a vague idea of what your child wants to pursue, you are recommended to short list about a dozen colleges to apply to. The application is made through a centralized system called "common app", where you upload your scores, portfolio, essay and recommendation letters. Then with a click of a button, and punch of your credit card number, all your chosen colleges receive your documents. Now it is time to make plans to visit some of the campuses and fairs to get a better sense of where your child will be spending the next four years of her life.

And so I shortlisted some names of colleges and made appointments and did what all families here do. Take a road trip. Most campus tours are essentially marketing presentations. The college president gives a talk, spitting out statistics on how good his/her institution is and how its alumni are pursuing productive careers across all areas of interest at top places. Then you are handed a bright colorful folder with well designed graphics which spell out everything from tuition, room and board costs and diversity and student teacher ratios and so on. And then you go on the grand tour of the campus where everything from the dormitories, library, dining room, gymnasium and the student center are all displayed in their shiny best. These tours are most often given by a senior student so you get a sense of what it is to be a member of that hallowed institution, which in most cases here are over a hundred years old with established traditions. Much like one exhibits allegiance and devotion to a favorite sports team, sentimental attachment to one's alma mater runs deep and lasts a life time. Then for those who are into sports, the athletic program is marketed with great pomp. In America, the mascot of a university and its colors elicit immense pride. It adds to the whole spirit of being a member of the "tribe" by wearing hoodies and T-shirts that carry the logo. In fact once you decide which college you are going to attend, your first expense is to purchase an overpriced article of clothing or a product that bears the name of your institution from the bookstore.

Once you finish touring campuses, comes the hard part. To decide where you would drop roots. The rejection letters you get from some colleges for not making their cut, narrows some of your choices. Others send you financial aid and scholarship packages, to entice you to join their institution. Most colleges, private and public, once you meet their criteria, offer need based assistance helping you offset some of the expenses. All colleges have comparable education standards and facilities. What  mostly differs, is their approach to imparting education. In addition to feeling like the chosen one, the branded ivy league institutions offer an elite alumni network which to many is a bonus to aspire for. To the status conscious a Harvard or a Yale stamp draws attention, much like a Bentley or a Ferrari would.

Having had my undergraduate education completed in India, I found this process exhausting. When I grew up, you had a hand full of elite national and state institutions which you aimed to get into. And if you did not make the cut, you settled on a couple of colleges your city offered. India is the heartland for standardized testing. Sometimes even being in the 98 percentile is not considered worthy. I was never good at standardized testing, and therefore could not pursue a career in Architecture at an institution of my choice. My fallback was to get an undergraduate degree in math, physics and chemistry at a city college. Today, the wealthy send their children to America or to a private college, spending exorbitant sums of money. And the not so wealthy, settle for the next best option and then later find their way to America at the graduate level to climb the socioeconomic ladder. In India, unless you want to be a doctor, engineer or a software coder, your choices are limited to a handful of disciplines that can offer a career with a good wage.

For the most part an Indian education is not very creative. Rote learning is the preferred method.  So when I came to America for my graduate degree, I had to adapt quickly to a whole different approach to learning. Being a student of social sciences, I had to accelerate my reading and writing skills to a level where it had never been. The first six months were the most challenging as a student.

Now that my time had come to send my child to college, I recalled my time fondly as a student on an American campus. A four year college education is more than just about getting a job, and finding something you are passionate about and acquiring a means to payback the debt you accumulate while there. It is the experience of belonging to a community and learning the ropes of becoming an adult, that is more defining. And nothing offers it better in the world, than the bubble called an American college campus.

Having visited half a dozen campuses, it became apparent, that no matter where our child would go, she would get a decent education. What we were looking for is something that would not only meet a high standard, but an approach that was more in tune with the times. Therefore, we were interested in finding a liberal arts college as we were certain that it would be a better fit than a large university. Liberal arts colleges tend to be smaller and have an open and creative approach to education. While being rigorous they are intimate and far more open to new ideas and initiatives. We found what we were looking for in Goucher College.

What drew me in, were the things that would normally turn me away. The marketing spiel presented by their college president. He was so unconventional that he left a lasting impression on me. Not only did he convince me that this college was unique, but also gave me some words of wisdom to live by.

A jazz musician by training, he was running a major institution, that was in itself unusual and interesting. He had a simple approach and the way he delivered his speech, was more motivational than business as usual. He started by saying, degrees and accolades really don't matter much in today's world. A profession that is lucrative today can become obsolete tomorrow, as technology  rapidly erodes the way we live. All the information you need, is in the palm of your hand in a smart phone. So you really don't have to go to college to acquire knowledge. The problem is, good information is buried under heaps of garbage. And the skill you need today, is to see through the extraneous "stuff" and find that which is important and real. That is the challenge we face today. He said that at Goucher, most importantly they teach their students how to "learn to learn". Therefore strong reading and writing skills are paramount, no matter the discipline of choice. He then went on to mention the three Rs of education that he believes makes a student strong. The first is "relationships". Relationships are fundamental to everyone's growth. The relationship you have with your teacher, colleague, family member and others, dictates whether you are going to succeed. The second is "resilience". It is a forgone conclusion that you will always face failure. On campus and in life. But only a resilient person recovers from failure and does even better. And the third is "reflection". If you do not recover from failure and reflect on what lead you to fail, then you are bound to make the same mistake again.

Only time will tell if Goucher College is the right choice we made. Whether and how the president is able to instill his ideas through the campus is something that remains to be seen. But as ideas, they seem rather inspirational and reformative in a world where rote learning is still the norm. Children are still pushed to pursue math and science and the notion that if you did anything unconventional you would end up on your parent's living room couch without a job, is still a popular mode of thinking.

In the world we live in, there is no question; a college degree necessarily does not provide you instant monetary gratification. But it certainly offers you a way of thinking, which cannot be imbibed any other way. Finding the passion to chase a dream or be comfortable in a career choice, no matter the monetary reward, is a personal metric dictated by an individual's choice, circumstance and aspiration.

An American college education is expensive and is only going to get more so, as it is a business. Colleges and universities are meant to be non-profit institutions. But in a capitalist system, they are as corporate and competitive as any company on Wall Street. Many in the United States are underwritten by gigantic endowments, some generated from the slave trade eons ago, as discovered recently in the case of Georgetown University. In response to escalating costs, in the present election, Democratic candidates are floating the idea of offering a total or partial free four year public education to all. On the other hand the Republican nominee Donald Trump is dealing with allegations of starting a for profit unscrupulous failed business venture called Trump University, which is now mired in law suits. It is clear that it is in the universities and colleges is where America's true power lies. As it is from its institutions are created the presidents and the power elite that shape our world. But it is only those who learn to learn, as the world rapidly changes around them, who succeed. It is what it is.