Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Defining Student Success

It's easy to say that being successful in school is a measure of grades. This definition is a measurable, quantifiable description on how a student performs. It can be used to compare individual students, groups of students or institutions as a whole. Grades are the first step in getting into college. they're the first hurdle to get over in obtaining non-need based financial aid. Ok, but are they a true measure of your success?

The good news is that as soon as you are enrolled in college, your prior academic background is wiped clean. From that moment on, you get to define what success means to you. Yes, you have to achieve adequate academic progress and meet minimum GPA requirements, but that's not what I mean. Success can take many forms. Success can mean you identified your end goal and, at least in part, the path you take to get there. It could mean that during pursuit of a goal you stumbled onto something completely different that ignited a new passion. Success can also be found in the failure of not achieving a goal.

Let's take a couple of examples:

Student #1: You set your target (goal) as a degree in Marketing. You know that you have to take general education classes and, taking you're own strengths and weaknesses into account, you choose the ones that schedule around your business classes. The schedule allows you to focus larger blocks of time on what you are most interested in. You define your success in the business classes as devouring as much content as possible. You read every article, do every assignment, and engage your professors in positive discussions about their work experience. 

This practice will likely get you A's, but it may not. It will get you further toward your goal (degree) and may also yield some untangible benefits like internship opportunities or after class peer groups. In the gen ed courses, you define your success as learning as much as you can, knowing and accepting up front that you will likely get a C's. Your cumulative GPA on your transcript, the traditional measure of success, will likely be 2.5-3 out of 4. Not very successful quantitatively, but when you leverage your acquired business experience and connections you end up getting your dream job with a former classmate at a company run by a former colleague of your advisor.  

Example #2: You have the same goal as the previous example. You work just as hard in your business classes but instead of excelling you fall flat on your face in failure. No matter how much you study or network or plant yourself in your professors office it is just not clicking for you. You end up taking a semester off from business classes to get the gen eds out of the way (maybe at a community college). Turns out that one of the gen eds you take, let's say English 101, sparks your interest because of a great instructor or the opportunity to write a narrative about your experiences. 

You decide to fuel the spark by taking more courses in creative writing. That spark ignites into a full blown passionate fire for writing that you then use to constructively blog/review/critique the business community that didn't make sense to you (and likely others). You may even get the opportunity to help businesses communicate to others who share your perspective. Again in this example the traditional view of success would say that this student failed out of a career track and missed their goal. In reality this student is probably far happier and successful than a student who "stuck it out" in business school. 

The moral of the story is this: you define your success. Success may not come right away, but your ability to redifine what success means to you over time will always get you there.  

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Are Universities the Right Choice?

Why would you choose to go to a 4-year university?  Wait.....everyone knows that once you graduate high school you move on to a 4-year school. That's a given. No, actually it's not. I wrote earlier about how going to a community college can be a huge cost savings while you take general education requirements or figure out what you want to do. So it's worth continuing that discussion to see whether there are instances where going to a 4-year school would be advantageous. 

One such scenario would be if you already know what you want to study and there is a clearly defined path of courses you need to start right away. This level of specificity is typical of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. Courses in these programs tend to have increasing levels of complexity, so if you miss taking Intro to Geology 101 your first year you won't be able to take the Geology 301 class on Volcanoes and Associated Disasters (sexy science!). 

Another less quantifiable reason for going straight to a university is the life experiences you will get. You will likely be on your own for the first time, you will get to determine how you spend your time and you will have opportunities you've never had before.You may meet friends you will have for a lifetime or join a club that allows you to develop socially. It may be as chance as you taking a course outside of your program and being inspired to change everything and pursue that path. The point is that you will have more opportunities and the time to focus on them because campus living will likely be all you do. 

You know what's coming here......the downside of attending a 4-year school right away is the cost. You will likely incur 5-10 times the fees at a 4-year school (yes, that much). Much of that cost will likely be in the form of loans that will stay with you after school (degree or no). Another downside is that students often get lost in the enormity of a university. I personally knew several classmates that "video-gamed" themselves out or became socially isolated. These students simply weren't ready to be on their own and can end up getting themselves in a lot of trouble real quick. 

That sets things up well for our discussion next time, how do students define success?  How do you define success for yourself and measure against others. Success may not be as easy as a letter grade

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Thoughts on Community College

I've seen several articles recently about President Obama's proposal to provide 2 years of community college at no cost to the student. Without getting into the politics of the proposal on either side, I think this is a good opportunity to have a discussion about the role of community college and the perception of attending these schools. 

I remember when I graduated high school the only question people asked you was "where are you going to college?".  Most were well prepared with a stump-speech style answer about how great the school they were going to is. Every once in a while you'd catch someone who didn't know or didn't care and they'd drag on for a while before eventually giving the name of the local community college. It was the school of last resort. The place to go for those who didn't know what they wanted to do and whose parents didn't want to pay for their kid to get a degree in I don't know. 

I ended up at a community college for a year after I went broke. I hated it. I saw all those high school classmates who had no idea what they were doing and knew that I would become one if I didn't start hustling. The only positive I saw at the time was that I could pay tuition from my paycheck rather than taking out more student loans. Fast forward to the present and I have a much different perspective. 

Teaching at a community college has allowed me to get to know many students and their reasons for attending. Most are working full time (as I did) and have families or other responsibilities that don't allow them to participate in a 4-year school. A lot of them are taking a second (maybe third?) try at school as a means to better themselves and finally get that (associates) degree. I never understood how important a two year degree could be to people. It's a major milestone and can be the catalyst for new jobs with higher incomes. More importantly for some, that degree is the culmination of a journey they started long ago and then life happened along the way.  

That's what is great about community colleges, they provide opportunity at relatively low cost with potentially life altering benefit. You can literally go from working a fast food/big box retail job to a much better paying technical career through a vocational training program in a year or two. Alternatively, you can knock out boilerplate general education classes that will likely be less rigorous at the community college level. Don't get me wrong, there's still a downside to going this route. I've seen many come into community college trying to figure out what they want to do when they grow up and they never figure it out. They take a semester or two of classes, leave uninspired, and drop out. They may not have a lot of loan debt but they have a pile of worthless credits and nothing real to show for their time and money. 

The truth is that no matter where you attend school you have to do it with purpose. The way to make community college work for you is to stay focused on your end goal. Are you looking to better your career through a technical/vocational program or are you going to transfer to a 4-year university? What are the requirements of that program? I am confident if you walk into the registrar's office without a clue what you want you will find yourself taking list after list of classes you will not enjoy to satisfy requirements you do not need to meet. If you are focused and can meet your goals while taking advantage of the lower cost at a community college then this path may be for you. 

If your goal doesn't allow for a delay in starting a sequence of courses for you major or you are willing to pay for the 4-year university experience right away, community college may not be for you. We'll discuss that in more detail in the next post. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why this matters....My Story

I alluded in my last post about hiring an independent academic advisor to help you navigate a path through selecting the right classes. Before that I posted about financial aid. I talked about taking responsibility for knowing what college costs and how you are going to pay for it. It struck me that you may be asking "ok, I need to look at all of these things but how do I do it?". More importantly (this may be parents talking) "how do I put it all together so it makes sense?".That's where an independent advisor comes in. I'll give you an example of the value of this in my own story.

I only applied to one college. I briefly looked at the brochures other colleges sent to my house but that was the extent of my search. I made two trips to visit schools. One with a friend to a school I hadn't thought of much and knew fairly quickly that I wasn't interested in. The other I visited with my then girlfriend who knew someone going there. We visited for a day in a car with 5 other random people (pretty sure someone was riding on a lap now that I think about it) and drove 3 hours there and back the same day. The campus was beautiful and so was the drive. I had good grades and extra curricular activities so I was bound to get in (it just made sense).

Turns out I did get in. I barely looked at the financial aid statement because I knew my family didn't have any money (so they have to give lots of aid right?). I went up to take a placement exam (maybe there was two) and ended up missing them entirely because I didn't account for the time zone change. I ended up registering for classes the next day after a campus tour with my parents and other freshman. I was the last one to leave the giant computer lab because I had to have the perfect schedule. I had heard in one of those college seminars they make you go to in high school that class schedule (including a discussion of nap timeframes, seriously) was critical to success in college. 

Freshman year goes by fast but uneventful. I recall spending long hours at the end of the year waiting in line for the best housing option with my new found friends. I spent a lot of time preparing for finals and did well. It's what I didn't do that sealed my demise. I neglected to follow up on my financial aid and a key scholarship was canceled. My mom then informed me that she was not able to take out another 401k loan to cover our expected family contribution. I was convinced it was over. Telling my new roommates that I wasn't going to be there after all was mortifying. They ended up getting a new roommate in a "housing lottery". I'm still friends with my former roommates but the "lottery replacement" ended up being a disaster that I still hear about. 

When I moved back home the light switch flipped in my mind. I knew it was my fault. I blew it big time because I was stupid and didn't pay attention. I didn't even know what I did wrong at the time but I knew it was me. I resolved to never let that happen ever again. I spent the next year in community college plotting my return. I planned every class. I only took courses that would transfer back to my school and that satisfied requirements for my major. I worked full time during school and two full time jobs over the summer. I ended up coming back to the 4-year school where I started and never looked back. I graduated in four years, went on to graduate school for a Masters (on full tuition waiver) and have been successfully working in my major career field for 8 years. What's better? I've had the privilege to teach the course that changed my life as a freshman for the last year and a half at a local community college. I'm humbled by it honestly. 

Here's the point. I've been through the ups and downs of the entire process. I've gotten aid, gone broke, made money, been an academic success/failure and seen others do the same. I've been fortunate to get back into the field through teaching and I see people struggling the way I did. I can help. Contact me at and let's have a conversation about how I can help you. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Academic Advising to Achieve Your Goals

Are you taking the right classes to enable you to work in the career field you want?  Most of the time we talk about graduating with a degree in ________(insert major here). What we seem to lose focus on is the career that major sets us up for. Ask yourself: Does this major give me the ability to pursue a career that incorporates my skill set (all those classes you just took) and do work that I find meaningful? Let's discuss some of the things you can do to get a better understanding of your academic path. 

One of the first things to do would be to make sure you are pursuing the major that gets you where you want to be. There's as old adage out there that if you want to be successful do what successful people have already done. Who is in the marketplace right now doing the work you want to do? Look up their resumes and see what they did. If you're really bold, contact those folks and ask them how they got to where they are. If they're human (no one actually wants to be a Twilight vampire right?) they'll probably want to tell you all about themselves. 

Once you have a direction you need to make sure the academic path you are on is providing what you need. Are you balancing general education requirements with those of your major?  What are the timing implications of the individual classes? Stated a differnt way - will certain classes only be offered at specifi times or are they offered every semester. Is there a specialty sub-discipline within the major that speaks to you or do you want to be a generalist?  

These are tough questions that require more than just a passing answer. If you are signing up for classes and don't have a clear understanding of how this semester fits into your career pursuit then you are wasting your time and money. You should absolutely sit down with an academic advisor at your school, but you should also consider sitting down with an independent academic advisor ( for example).

An independent advisor will discuss your larger goals with you and may even be able to help with technical course material/advising (you should definitely pick me). Individual school advisors tend to focus more on general education requirements because they are one of 5-10 advisors on staff for a student population of thousands. Having someone available to you to help map-out a path to get you to your career can add value to your college years. Hey, they might even be able to help when that career path changes (like that ever happens, like 5 or 6 times). 

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Details are in the FAFSA

The start of 2015 brings with it two things: Resolutions and tax season. We'll leave the resolutions part to others for now, but one of the components of tax season for those in college is the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the next school year. Completion of the FAFSA is the process by which students apply for financial aid from the Federal government and the universities they plan to attend. There's a great deal out there on this process (start here: so what I think might be helpful is to discuss some topics I did not understand when I started the FAFSA process all those years ago. 

College costs a ton of money. We hear reports on the soaring costs of college but it never clicked with me just how serious to take this process until years after I graduated college and the student loan payments prevented me from doing things a lot of my friends were doing. You need to know the Cost of Attendence of all the schools you are applying to. Each school you list on the FAFSA should tell you this number. If they don't, ask. Your education may cost as much as a house. Are you doing the same level of work researching this process as you would buying a home?

You need to know how much you are expected to pay out of pocket. I didn't realize that the government calculates an Epected Family Contribution that students and parents should have saved and ready to pay for college. That's actual cash that you're already expected to have. The aid package that's offered doesn't cover these costs. Worse yet, this contribution amount can change based on the taxable income of students and/or parents annually. The good news is that there's a worksheet available to help you calculate the contribution ( 

You don't need to accept every line item in the financial aid package offered by your school. Your aid package may include money for room and board or living expenses or books. If you don't need that money, simply tell the financial aid office at that school to remove it from your plan. I've seen too many students take out additional money (all loans mind you) after their fees have been paid for and blow it on things only a 19 year old with an "extra" $1,000 will buy. On a typical repayment plan it could take 6-12 months to cover that mistake

Lastly, financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants may need to be renewed. These types of aid are particularly sensitive because this is the free money everyone is trying to get their hands on. Just because they showed up on your plan this year doesn't mean your school will automatically offer them again as a returning student without a separate application process. If you miss the application process the free money you got this years could turn into a loan next year. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Reflect and Prepare

The end of the year seems to be the time we instinctively tend to reflect on the year we've just experienced. On one hand you want to reflect back on the good times and try to forget the bad. For those in high school or college this time of year provides a valuable gift, time. For those in the workplace there's the rare opportunity for some PTO.

Allowing time to reflect and look forward allows you to learn from your mistakes and act quickly before you make them again. What makes this time so precious is that there's enough of it to be able to do both.  The key is to take the time and do it. As you look back on this last semester, what were the factors that lead to your success?  It's not about having the right teacher or set of circumstances. It's about your actions and your choices. Did you do everything you could to get the outcome you wanted?

As an instructor I see examples of missed opportunities with nearly every student work product. Students go through the assignments too quickly or obviously don't understand the material (and won't ask for help or follow up when offered). Even things like missing class or spending the class time on Social media are missed opportunities to engage. Teachers notice how their students are responding and You better believe all of it directly impacts your grades. 

The same is true for those in the working world. Those around you know whether you are in the zone or phoning it in. They know who they can count on for quality work and who they can't. Those who can't be trusted are the first ones let go when the company is looking to trim the fat.

Here's the good news, a new opportunity is a calendar page turn away. How can you learn from your mistakes and deliberately set yourself up to be successful in the new year? Here's some things to think about it: What will your schedule look like? Do you anticipate a heavy workload in a particular class or work group?  What expectations should you have of your teachers/co-workers and what should they expect from you?  Be honest with yourself about your ability to perform and communicate. If you take the time to prepare yourself for the next challenge you may be able to achieve something that didn't seem possible at the end of the fall term.