College Advising, Educational Consulting

What to Know Before You Start at a Large University

The start of the Fall 2019 semester is just around the corner, which means that literally tens of thousands of students are getting ready to start college at one of the many large universities around the United States. If you’re getting ready to attend a large university for the first time — a university with enrollment in the tens of thousands — here are a few things you need to know.

First, think of this transition like moving to a new city. I don’t mean only that you’re leaving your home town and moving to a new college town, but that moving onto a large campus is like moving to a new city in itself. The campus itself is like a small city, and sometimes like a medium-sized city — if you already live in Columbus and are starting at OSU, or if you already live in Orlando and are starting at UCF, that transition into college is still like moving to a new city. So you need to get the lay of the land.

First and most importantly, go to orientation. Don’t blow it off. Listen to every word and take notes. Three years down the line you’ll wish you paid more attention at orientation, so just tell yourself you already regret not paying attention, and then pay attention.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions at orientation. Most people will have the same questions. But, there are smart ways to ask questions and less smart to ask them. The smart way to ask questions is to listen first to the information being presented, process it, and then ask questions about the information just presented. If you have questions about something that hasn’t been covered, wait until the end. It will probably be covered.

Getting the lay of the land means the campus map is your friend. You should get one at orientation, but also download the school app. There should be a great campus map on the app too, and it should be connected to the map program on your phone. Remember, you’ve just moved to a new city, so you need to know how to get around.

You already know that your dorm building and classroom buildings are important to find, and you know you’ll need to know where to go to eat. You know you’ll need the library, but some libraries will be more important than others — most big schools have multiple libraries. Also mark all of the administrative buildings you’ll need. Find the parking lots too. Drop pins everywhere and tag them appropriately.

Campus policies matter, so learn them. Read the Student Handbook. Work within the school’s policies. Learn how the system works, and if you have questions, get help.

Getting help means connecting with your advisor. Use your advisor for help. Know this person. It’s very easy to get lost, be ignored, and not get the help that you need, so it’s up to you to find the right people and ask the right questions.

If you’ve declared a major, connect with your department as soon as you can. Get to know professors and students in the department. Ask their advice for scheduling too, especially the order in which you should take your classes. Some classes will have specific prerequisites, but even the ones that don’t might best be taken in a certain order.

What I’m going to say about your advisor will be true about every single constituent on campus: they are very busy because they have to work with a lot of people. That means:

  • Don’t think your problems are unique.
  • Don’t think your problems are more important than everyone else’s.
  • Don’t think you’re an exception to the rule, but if you truly have exceptional circumstances, let people know.
  • Don’t be a jerk. Be patient, wait in line, when your turn comes up, get all of the information you need. Think about what information you need ahead of time.
  • In fact, be kind to the people behind the desk. They will appreciate it. But, don’t waste their time. Get to the point. There are people waiting.
  • Look for the answers to your questions in the Handbook first. Check the school website for material that you might need to bring with you to any given administrative office for any given reason.
  • Things will take time because everyone is processing a lot of people. That means don’t wait until the last minute for anything. That’s the source of almost all of the problems in my points above.

Do you have any more questions? Contact us. We can help.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Understanding the Market

Understanding College Advising

If you’re a student, you probably have a number of people advising you: teachers, guidance counselors, college admissions people, your parents… the list could go on. I’d like to help students understand what advising — and educational consulting — can and can’t do for you.

All advisors should listen to the student’s own long and short term goals, and they should ask leading questions to help the student clarify them. They should recommend a variety of paths to the student to reach those goals, but be honest, informed, and realistic about these different paths. Advisors should also provide materials to the student to help the student make better informed decisions, and they should engage in advising with the student’s best interests in mind.

But a good advisor won’t feel obligated to validate all of the student’s goals or ideas. If a student is really committed to humanities Ph.D. study or law school, for example, the advisor should still inform the student of the realities of these programs of study, not tell the student what he or she wants to hear. Being honest about the realities of a path may be discouraging to the student, but the student still needs that information to make an informed decision.

A good advisor will also be honest about the student’s demonstrated abilities so far in their educational careers. If a student’s grades are weak in math, science, or English, a good advisor will be honest with the student about the barriers those grades might present. However, a good advisor will also know that a student’s grades do not define the student as a person or necessarily summarize their potential. In other words, good advisors know that not all barriers are insurmountable.

A good advisor won’t do anything other than advising: good advisors give students facts about the field, the market, and educational options, but they don’t try to make students’ decisions for them. They also don’t give students advice intended to benefit the student’s educational institution above the student. Every B.A. program would love to say 90% of their graduates were accepted for Ph.D. study, but that doesn’t mean that 90% of their graduates should be pursuing Ph.D. study. Good advising, in other words, is never anything other than a supplement to the student’s own decision-making process. It is not supposed to or be able to take the place of the student’s own decision making.

If you’re a student, you should know that your decisions are ultimately your own. You make them and then you live with the consequences. Because these are ultimately your decisions, you should be aggressive in pursuing information that will help you make the most informed decisions possible. Get everything that you can from your advisor and then seek out other information as well. Listen to your advisors, even if you disagree with them, rather than demand to be told certain things. And, listen to a number of advisors. Don’t get your information only from one source.

You should also think generally about what you most want. Do you mainly want to make a living? Or do you mainly want to perform fulfilling work? Are you willing to make a bit less money to be more fulfilled in the kind of work that you do?

There are no right answers to these questions. Some people pursue work in high-paying fields and then burn out and make expensive mid-career shifts to more fulfilling fields. Some people pursue fulfillment but have a hard time making a decent living. Ideally, of course, we would all work in fulfilling jobs that pay well, whether we work as employees, own our own businesses, or do creative, freelance work.

We all also need to understand that the ability to do work that is both fulfilling and very profitable is dependent upon many arbitrary factors. At the least, it is dependent upon the random intersections of what this society chooses to reward financially, your own abilities, and your own interests. Just don’t mistake profitability for inherent value: scientific or engineering work generates patents and/or high end products (like bridges, tanks, and computers), so produces a lot of money, and there aren’t enough people around with math skills at that high a level, so the employee pool is small.

Someone who produces something that can be packaged and sold at high volume can also make a lot of money: one hit single can pay a lot. But while small employee pools, high end products, and mass produced products drive up the profitability of a line of work, an engineer or singer is not inherently more valuable, socially, than a middle school math or music teacher. You can’t have engineers and singers without math and music teachers. If we lost every pro basketball player in the world, the world wouldn’t be that bad off–maybe it’d even be better off in some ways. But if we lost all of our music and math teachers, that would be a long term disaster for the human race.

What might that ideal spot of wage earning and job fulfillment look like for you? No advisor can answer that question. No one can tell you what you want. Advising can only point you in a direction that leads you to your goals, so no advising will be better than your own knowledge of your own goals. Bright Futures Educational Consulting is here to help you define your goals first, and once you’ve done that, it will show you the best paths to help you meet them. Contact us for more information.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment

New Video Added

I’ve added a new video explaining our services and how they differ from other consulting services. We’re not just interested in college admissions, but in how college can help you attain the life that you want. We’re not just experienced in admissions, but in financial aid, instruction, course and curriculum design, and student advising. Watch the video to learn more.

Majors and Areas of Study

What’s the Point of College Literature Classes?

If you’re going to college for a vocationally-oriented degree, you might wonder why you have to waste your time with a bunch of humanities classes. I’m going to answer that question here.

Big picture first: college degrees can very generally be divided into two types. Some degrees prepare students for a vocation, and other degrees develop student capacities, skills, or knowledge in a broader sense. The latter kind of degree falls under the designation of a “liberal arts degree.” Liberal arts study was developed in the current university system when all university education was designed to train priests or lawyers. But, it was still seen as valuable to people who did not wish to be ordained. Liberal arts study — originally grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy — was then pursued to give free (liberalis) men the training they needed to conduct business in the world. Liberal arts study, therefore, was the original business degree.

An Associate of Science in Nursing is a vocational degree — it trains students to do a job. Paralegal degrees, other medical science degrees, criminal justice degrees, and other similar AS degrees do the same thing. They provide narrow, focused courses of study that provide job training in a specific field. Bachelor degrees, on the other hand, seek to produce more broadly developed graduates: people who have developed certain skills and attained more advanced levels of knowledge both within and outside of their vocational training.

Vocational degrees are great. In the right fields, they lead to decently paying jobs with a minimal of student debt or time to degree. They are limited, though. Because they aren’t portable to other fields, what happens if you hate your job? Or what happens if the tech changes, or your job goes away? Suddenly, your education is useless because it’s been so narrow, and you need to go back for retraining.

In a very broad sense, college classes designed to produce more advanced students tend to do two things: impart knowledge and develop skills. Almost all classes do at least a little of both, but some classes are very heavily weighted toward skills development (like writing, drawing, or painting classes), while other classes are very heavily weighted toward imparting knowledge, like a chemistry or anatomy class.

Classes that are weighted toward imparting knowledge teach students information they expect students to believe. An anatomy class, for example, expects students to name many (many) different parts of the human body, and students are expected to treat these names as facts. Sunday School classes or sermons are similar — we’re taught things there because we’re expected to believe them, because they are presented as truth.

Classes that are weighted toward skills could be seen as developing different kinds skills and, beyond that, literacy: drawing and painting classes increase your visual literacy, or in other words, not just your ability to see in more detail, but to critically interpret what you see. Classes that are reading intensive, such as history, English, and philosophy, develop a variety of cognitive skills, all of them involving the ability to process a lot of incoming and outgoing text quickly and to think in very different ways, to process different kinds of concepts. History tends to focus on concrete objects of study, philosophy on abstract, while the study of literature tends to combine the two: it teaches us to analyze concrete, creative products using abstract conceptual structures.

Based on this understanding of what a literature class does, I’d like to encourage students, and everyone else, really, not to think of literature classes as classes that teach students information they ought to believe. It’s misguided to think a literature class is there to brainwash students into being “liberals.” Literature classes aren’t anatomy classes, and they aren’t Sunday School classes. Literature classes are somewhat off the map in terms of either kind of thinking as they are usually designed to combine these two purposes. Literary study imparts knowledge for the purpose of developing skills.

The skills imparted by literary studies are partly cognitive, partly relational, and partly academic. For example, reading and writing skills are enhanced through literary study, and they are foundational cognitive skills that contribute to the development of more advanced ones. Literature classes regularly ask students to learn to think in very different ways by reading complex texts. Yes, that’s hard. Students who struggle and have to reread often aren’t at a disadvantage, though. Going through that process is a sign of student learning.

On the relational side, literature classes ask questions like, “How do other people think, what do other people think, why do they think that way, and why is it important, especially to them?” These “other people” may be fictional, real, or mythological, but the literature class doesn’t care: readers have to exercise their judgment, or interpretive skills, equally on all three without ever knowing what the right answer is.

That is one of the biggest benefits of a literature class: each work of literature is like a real life case study in that it presents characters whose words and actions must be interpreted without anyone ever being able to tell us that we got it right. The act of literary interpretation in this way mimics the kind of real life reasoning that we do on a daily basis as we try to understand other people. Literary interpretation just slows down the process and makes it more explicit and deliberate rather than on the spot.

In one narrow sense, literature classes do teach facts they expect students to believe, such as the approximate date of composition of a work, the geographic location in which it was composed, its authorship, etc. Even if we don’t know who the author of a literary work is, we might regard it as a fact that we don’t know who the author is. All of these facts fall under the category of “literary history” and make up the known facts about a literary work with the caveat that, as is the case with all historical artifacts, what we think we know now can change later with a new discovery, as in many of the sciences.

But most literature classes only pay minor attention to literary history. It’s background information. For the most part, literature classes do not teach anything they expect students to believe. They present interpretable material and ask students to interpret it, and to do so coherently, but they never claim that any one justified or coherent interpretation is the right one. Note my caveats, though: justified or coherent. In other words, any valid interpretation according to the range of possible meanings of the work is a right one, but there’s not just one. Meaning in complex literary works is of course not completely subjective, nor is it at all arbitrary: it is limited to the range of meanings made possible by the words on the page.

For example, the word “green” might refer to a color, to someone who is envious or ill, to someone who is new, or to someone who is pro-environment, which means that the word “green” can produce a number of different meanings in a single context, sometimes even more than one at the same time. This idea of a literary work, or even a single word, meaning multiple things at the same time is “polysemy.” It’s an idea found in Plato’s works and very strongly emphasized by the Medievals in Biblical interpretation from the time of Origen, continuing to the present in the current Catholic catechism. Despite the long-known polysemous quality of language, the word “green” can never be a direct lexical substitute for “tall,” so while literary interpretation isn’t fixed, simple, or singular, like the names of our different bones, it isn’t arbitrary. Learning to negotiate a field of information that is neither completely subjective, completely arbitrary, nor completely fixed is one of the several important cognitive skills developed by literary study, because that is most like real life. There are no easy answers.

So I’d like us all to avoid approaching literary works assigned in a class with the mindset that the class is trying to get us to believe something. I’d like us to approach these literary works with the mindset that the class is trying to get us to understand how other people think — people in different cultures or people who lived in past versions of our own culture. I developed a medical humanities-focused world literature class that uses world literature to seek to understand how people thought about their bodies, about health and sickness, and about caregiving in past cultures around the world. This study does involve a seeking after fact, but these facts are at least in part the product of interpretation. They aren’t just presented in a simple and straightforward way on the page, just waiting to be consumed and regurgitated.

As a result, yours or my own or anyone else’s agreement or disagreement with any of the ideas presented in any literary text are completely irrelevant to the purposes of most literature courses, because these courses are not really designed to get students to believe something in particular — aside from facts related to basic literary history described above. It’s asking students to interpret something that’s different from our usual way of thinking to help us better understand people who think in ways that are different from our own, and to help us in a general sense be more advanced thinkers — which is a skill that students can take with them into any profession.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment

How to Choose a College Major

 I’d like to encourage you to think about your choice of a college major in terms of three central questions:

  1. What are the emotional facets of your decision to choose a specific major?
  2. What are the professional facets of that decision?
  3. What are the economic facets of that decision?

Let’s explore these one at a time.

  1. The emotional content of your decision to pursue a major matters. While not every major will set you on a predetermined career path, your study still defines you and the doors that are either opened or closed for you in the future. Your choice of a major does not mean everything, but it still means a lot, so you want to spend some time thinking about who you are and what you really love before choosing a major. Engineers tend to be the highest paid graduates right out of college: are you that good at math? Do you love it? Are you really able to pursue a vocation that you don’t love just for the money it might make you?  Some people make this decision, find their happiness outside of work, and live fulfilling lives. Other people make expensive and time consuming mid-career shifts from jobs that they hate to courses of study that will lead them to jobs they love. What do you think you can live with? If it’s at all possible, pursue a course of study that you love. You will do better in it, and your skill sets and enthusiasm can open doors in skills-appropriate fields. If that course of study doesn’t lead to a clear career path, minor in something that does, like business or web development. It will make you easier to place in entry-level positions.
  2. The professional content of your decision to pursue a certain course of study should be considered as well. Some degree programs are essentially vocational schools: programs such as law, education, and engineering focus your education on one specific industry. You may be able to switch career paths down the road, but your skill sets will be fairly narrow and limiting. Liberal arts majors such as English, history, art, and philosophy, on the other hand, tend to be trainable across a wide range of fields and find success in many different industries, but they sometimes have a harder time getting initially placed because their degrees aren’t clearly associated with a job function. They have much better soft skills than the hordes of business majors and M.B.A. graduates produced every year, though, so they can distinguish themselves once employed. It’s usually smart to pair liberal arts degrees with something like programming or business minors to help employability right out of college. Remember that a degree does not get you a job. It only makes you eligible to apply for certain jobs, and different degrees make you eligible to apply for different kinds of jobs.
  3. The economic content of your decision to pursue a degree is related to the following factors:
    1. Cost of the degree.
    2. Income potential for the degree.
    3. Age to retirement (related to no. 2) — your income earning potential is limited to your age at graduation.So, obviously, the best financial decision in the degree seeking process, or the best return on your investment for the cost of your degree, is to pick a degree that is pursued cheaply and yields high pay as soon as possible. In the current market, that would be a degree in petroleum or chemical engineering with no debt at graduation. But probably 3-5% of all high school graduates have the math skills to be engineers of any kind, so what do the rest of us do? We try to avoid going into high debt for low paying careers, especially late in life when our income potential is limited. You can save a lot of money by starting in community college and then transferring to a state university, or at least starting at a state university. Keep in mind that the economic value of a course of study is not a measure of its inherent value: that is only a reflection of market conditions at the time, and they can vary. The highest paying fields right now would hit bottom if saturated with more graduates than available jobs. People aren’t paid what they are worth. They’re paid on a supply and demand basis. Pay is only driven up when employers have to compete with each other for employees. Pay bottoms out when graduates are a dime a dozen, and especially when there’s not a lot of money in the industry.

What I’ve just described are the three factors that you should consider when selecting a degree program at any level. However, I can’t tell you which of these are more important to you personally. If you’re independently wealthy and don’t have to worry about lost income or student loan debt in your pursuit of a degree, pursue what you love and forget about everything else. If you have to worry about debt, think about the other two. But no one can tell you how much each of these factors will weigh in your own decision making process. Be careful about using an emotional logic for financial decisions. That doesn’t usually turn out well. Be careful about being purely financially motivated as well, unless that’s who you are.

In other words, if you’re like most people, seek a balance between the three. Your ideal degree program at any level would be where your passions intersect with your best professional identity and your most viable financial position. Most of us have to make compromises, so be careful about compromising any one of these too much. If you’d like personalized advising that can help you think through these factors, consider retaining the services of Bright Futures Educational Consulting. We’re here to help, and we’re experienced at it.