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The Darkness and Brightness of Teaching: Portraits of College Dropouts

By Gregory Scheckler

As states increasingly link public education funding to enrollment, retention, graduation, and job creation rates, the very existence of public colleges and universities may rest on the most simplistic assessments of student success. These measures risk dehumanizing college dropouts, turning them into caricatures of failure. But leaving college can be a wise decision for some students. Based on legitimate financial, health and vocational reasons, it may even aid their future.

To illustrate this I put together a set of portraits, culled and combined from students I advised during a decade of college teaching. These portraits ask us to consider a more comprehensive view of institutional and student success.

In many cases, large general assessments seem to be scrims of inanity. What exactly is measured through enrollment, retention, and graduation trends? What do they tell us, if anything, about the personal path that the student chooses? Too often these measures reveal nothing reliable about the qualities of a college, its courses, or its teachers, and nothing at all about the tough choices faced by students.  Skepticism regarding such measures is in order.

The Context of the Portraits

I teach studio art at a small public college with a liberal arts mission. The region’s dynamic cultural economy and art scene engages the topnotch, already motivated student; interests the middling student; and remains ignored by the failing art student. We try to increase student engagement through internships, apprenticeships, and art shows, getting students out of the classroom and into practical applications of their artistry. Thanks to such engagement, many of our alumni created excellent studies in college and built strong careers as independent artists, teachers, and museum professionals.

Most of our students come from the surrounding region. Roughly half arrive straight out of high school, while the others tend to be non-traditional, commuter students: single mothers, people seeking jobs retraining, or those simply testing whether college is a good idea. Many students work part-time or full-time jobs to pay their way, accruing little to no student loan debt. Many students choose us, in part, because as a state university we are much more affordable than private institutions. Most students expect that their investment in a college degree will pay off in career earnings. Even more importantly, they expect it will help create depth and meaning throughout their lives.

NINE PORTRAITS

Parent Trap 1: She earned an A in every course during her first year. But she was also bitter and sometimes angry. She told me she wanted to attend a big school in a big city and admitted to me that her parents had pushed her to attend our institution. Because they were helping pay for her education, they should have that say, they told her. I encouraged her to be gentle with her parents, who cared enough to help her go to college. At the end of her year of perfect grades, she finally sat down to talk with them. She quit our college, and went her own direction, not theirs.

This was a big surprise to me: outstanding students quit college? But the college simply didn’t meet this student’s life interests, in which case it made no sense to continue paying thousands of dollars. Parent Trap 1 reveals the myth of the dropout caricature, that dropouts just can’t hack it. In fact, it’s possible for a college to do everything right, for a student to succeed at every class, and yet still drop out. Such cases, of course, demonstrate that we cannot conclude from retention rates whether or not teachers or students are doing good work.

Parent Trap 2: Mom and Dad had commanded this student to attend college, she told me, and she chose the art major because she thought it would be easy and expressive. But she found no joy in making art, especially when it was an assignment. She failed five of her six courses during her first semester, and performed poorly in her second. Her parents, upset, refused to help pay for more college and, due to her poor grades, financial aid was discontinued. She did not return.

Parents usually mean well. But I’ve seen enough students like Parent Trap 2 to recognize misdirected parental goodwill as a cause for resentment or lack of motivation. It’s important for this kind of student to drop out of college: it costs them far too much to attend and learn so little. And it costs colleges far too much to drag unmotivated students through curricula.  I don’t know how Parent Trap 2 has been doing since leaving college. But some dropouts who failed courses go on to live decent lives.

Party Girl: Bright, engaging, and witty, she considered becoming an art teacher, but disliked being in college and fell in with a hard-partying crowd. After a little more than a year of studies, she’d done well in some art classes but failed enough non-art courses that she lost her financial aid. At that point, she chose to take some time off to work, recoup, and reconsider.

Since leaving college, she’s been working full-time, first as a waitress, then in computers, and now for a major corporation. Still engaging and witty, she’s happy, employed, and able to do many things that make her life meaningful and interesting. Her success shows us that college isn’t necessary for everyone.

AA: At age 50, AA enrolled to complete a bachelor’s degree, 15 years after earning his associate’s degree. He was gentle and wisecracking, and also a recovering alcoholic who had been clean for nearly a decade, he said. One day he showed up to class tipsy. I warned him away. The next week he showed up completely drunk. I helped take him to rehab. He had to drop out. I see him around town once in a while and we chat. He’s clean for now. He may try to do college courses in the future. He loved painting and drawing.

For AA, dropping out of college led to great success, insofar as he gained treatment that helped him survive. Maybe someday he will return to college. In the meantime, survival is a deeper and more important foundation for learning than any college degree.

Restart: One of my former students had done poorly at a nearby community college, but worked hard to put his life together. He restarted: first by attending college classes as a non-matriculated student; then, after success, as a full-time matriculating student.

He discovered a passion for photography and journalism, and gained professional internships at a local newspaper and then the national press. Today he is a photo editor for internationally renowned mass media.

Restart’s poignant survival demonstrates a very serious problem with outcomes assessments: are teachers, administrators, and legislators taking a long enough view? In the short run, Parent Trap 2, AA, and Restart all would count against retention and graduation rates, adding to statistics that could be used to demonstrate a college’s so-called failure. But in the long run, Restart graduated successfully and became a noted expert in his field. Shouldn’t administrators and legislators take the long-term view?

And, indeed, prefer it to short-term snapshots?

The Phantom: I never met this advisee. One of her teachers contacted me when the student submitted a 10-page research paper, of which nine were blank. It began: “There is really no reason why writing 10 pages about art it won’t help me understand it [sic]. I don’t want to understand it. So I’m going to write 10 pages on nothing. The pages are going to represent how I feel about this assignment. Silence is stronger than any word that could compare to it.” Not only did the essay miss the point of studying history, but it also, in conjunction with her absenteeism, caused her to earn a failing grade for the course. Her concerned teachers and I attempted to contact the student but only college services managed to speak with her. Before the semester’s end, she withdrew. I would say that she “disappeared” but having never met her it seemed that she had never appeared enough to be able to disappear.

The Phantom’s experience brings up another problem with broad assessments: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In other words, if you have no evidence, you cannot draw any clear conclusions. I have no idea why the Phantom left, and thus cannot draw any conclusions about her program, courses, teachers, or even her abilities or motivations. Thus, her contributions to enrollment, retention, and graduation rates are meaningless. Sometimes college drop-outs provide no clues about their experiences. And sometimes they provide too many.

The Holy Painter: This part-time student had multiple sclerosis and psychiatric problems. When she first started classes with us, she earned moderate results. But over the next two years, her condition worsened. She had trouble writing complete sentences and declared that research and writing, “are not my thing.” During our meetings she told me she dreamed of finding Prince Charming, while also gaining a wildly successful career as an artist or maybe a museum curator—a job that would require a great deal of writing. It seemed like she believed that an art degree was a magic that would solve everything. I referred her to college services; indeed she was already well-known at the local mental health center. But she told me that she refused medical care in favor of faith-healing.

The Holy Painter had such serious maladies that she simply couldn’t complete college. Eventually, her poor grades led to the loss of her financial aid and her withdrawal. Nevertheless overall student retention rates usually fail to take illness into account as a valid cause for disengagement. And just as the student isn’t to be faulted for her illness, clearly the illnesses have nothing at all to do with the veracity and cost-effectiveness of any college program. Two more portraits are similarly tragic.

Hiding in Plain Sight: A young man struggling to make ends meet and working multiple part-time jobs to pay for college. He had a job helping a painting crew on a house that happened to be on my walk to and from work, so I sometimes stopped to say hi and talk art. He was a friend to many students and congenial in general, but also, at times, depressed. With his permission I’d called the student health center on his behalf. I learned that other teachers and a few concerned students had done the same. Within a month he committed suicide. His parents were inconsolable, however brave they appeared during his memorial.

Runaway: This student grew up in an abusive home full of yelling. In a bold move, he actually succeeded at running away and proceeded to live in foster homes. This proved difficult but he survived and then attended college, with interests in arts and writing. Disabled by bouts of severe depression, he strayed to the darker corners of the art scene and became a meth addict. Many of us in the community tried to help, and so he was provided work at some local organizations. He verbally abused his friends and coworkers. Over time they abandoned him. Although he was doing fairly well in my class, he declared he had “no talent for art,” stopped producing work, and soon dropped out of college.

Conversely, I have also known many students, in contrast to the Holy Painter and her peers, who despite serious illness, accident or unexpected unemployment, have succeeded in college. Teachers and assessors should assess on the basis of what students do accomplish; not on disability, but ability.    

Celebrating Successes Wherever They Occur

It’s not unreasonable for voters, students, administrators, and legislators to seek assurances that public education is effective, economic, and high quality. They are paying for it, after all. Who could imagine arguing that education should be wasteful, expensive, and dopey? The problem is: how do we measure what teaching is effective, what is quality, and what is worthwhile?

How do we really know whether educators are improving lives? To gain such knowledge, I submit you must know your students as individuals—and I’d bet that this is something that can be best accomplished when classes are small, when teachers have the time to meet and advise students, and when students can take classes from the same teacher across a few semesters.

You have met my students in this essay and they have told you that some assessments just don’t work. Setting aside the worst tragedies, the simple fact that some students drop out and then succeed in their lives is proof that enrollment, graduation, and retention rates are poor measures of a college’s worth, and no measure at all of a student’s abilities. It may actually be that if any of these rates are too high that we might suspect courses and degrees too easy to earn, or college admissions too primed to select conformists who fit academic models too easily.

In understanding public education and its funding, we need to uncover the human side of education. We are quick and right to celebrate the Nobel Prize winners, the Olympians, and the summa cum laude graduates. But perhaps sometimes we also ought to celebrate the college dropout whose disengagement has enabled a strengthened focus on other aspects of life and successes outside of academe. Some of these successes are real triumphs of the human spirit.

Gregory Scheckler serves as associate professor of visual art and coordinator of visual art at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, a member of the Massachusetts State University system. He may be reached at Gregory.Scheckler@mcla.edu.