Category Archives: What

These are questions about what in relation to colleges and universities

CollegeQandA asks: What’s the problem with For-Profit Colleges, and why shouldn’t I go to one?

What’s the problem with For-Profit Colleges?

Theoretically – nothing.  Realistically – profit above all else.  Not-for-profit institutions are  faced with ethical issues such as: should I recruit student X into my program even though it might not be good for student X, but we need our enrollment numbers to justify or maintain our budget?  Again, that’s a question for people who are just trying to maintain a not-for-profit organization.  Now imagine the motivation of the institution is to make money and provide growth and profit for investors – the for-profit problem. That’s just one of the dilemmas that emerges in the complex life of a higher ed institution.

Big Nickel

Why shouldn’t I go to one?

Because in the hierarchy of institutions that are concerned about your future, for-profits tend to be the worst at preparing you for your desired future.  That’s not to say that just because an institution is not-for-profit that they will keep your best interests as their main goal, but typically, a not-for-profit institution is better focused on your development.

Where then?

So, where should I go?  First off, you need to consider the economics of going to college.  If things are looking financially difficult, then I suggest you start looking at community colleges as a starting point.  They should have lower costs and shorter time spans to graduation.  Also, many community colleges have agreements with larger universities that allow you to spend 2 years and then move for 2 more years in an undergraduate degree.   Also, community colleges have programs that are, typically, focused on practical work in the community so there are more direct paths to a job at the end.  These are great places to start your higher education with less financial risk.

As you may be hearing, there is an ever increasing demand for technical and trade based careers.  For some reason, our societies seem to have put this type of work into a lesser career path, and many people seem to believe that they need to go to college to prove their worth.  All my degrees make me no better (and probably worse) than those people who can actually fix and build many of the things I use in daily life and our overall infrastructure.  Because of the skew in our societies, where not enough people are joining the trades and technical careers, there is great opportunity for many of you along this path.

Why the discussion?

The ideas in this post are discussed in my book, but John Grisham’s latest book (Amazon) is in relation to for-profit institutions, which revived my interest in spreading what I think is an important warning – just beware of promises.

Credits: Photo titled: Big Nickel, by Bruce Guenter

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CollegeQandA asks: What questions challenge your advisors/mentors?

What questions challenge your advisors/mentors?

The reality is the questions here are the big questions we all have.  In university, your mentors are great for asking simple questions to such as: “which course should I do next?” or “what are some good career options to look in to?”.  More complex questions, which are usually individual and deep personal searches, are hard for all of us.

Does that mean you shouldn’t have those discussions with your advisors and mentors?  No, but expect them to be long conversations that you will need to reflect on more than you possibly thought going in.

Person in meditation by water

So, what are these questions?

“What should I do with my life/career/major?”

Those are big questions.  Flavors of that question are hidden in others such as, “should I do this major or this major?” or “will I like this job?”

There are two certainties to deep questions of your future.  One, it’s a personal decision.  Two, the decision can be an educated decision, but is impossible to make as right or wrong – it is just a chosen path.

Find office hour times to have this discussion – quiet times are best

Your mentors and advisors can provide suggestions on how to help explore these questions, but they can not solve them for you.  For even something as simple as picking a major and what career will I have once I complete this major, all an advisor can tell you is where people have gone previously with certain paths, and provide insight on their own experiences and paths.

The bigger task is for you to determine which path you want to take now.  And here is the problem.  Not all paths can be taken.  Only one can be pursued.  At some point, you just have to make a decision and take a path.  Once on that path, observe opportunities and, potentially, take other paths.  A little bit of reflection and thought along the path will guide you in, hopefully, better directions for you, but the unpredictable is, well, unpredictable.

Credits: photo titled: Wisdom; by Moyan Brenn

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CollegeQandA asks: On the college tours, what should I ask?

What are some good questions to ask on the college tours?

It is college tour season.  I participated in my first faculty panel this month.  These panels have professors representing different parts of the school sitting and answering questions from prospective students and families.  This is one small piece of the college tour.  I sit on these panels fascinated by the questions that are asked.  I wonder if the questions I hear are the important questions to ask.

Tour guide pointing to statue

What is the goal of the tour?

The goal is to find out if this is the place that will be a good environment for your next 4 years of learning.  This means you are looking for a welcoming, challenging, engaging, and interesting environment.  So, why then is place X better than place Y?

What would be a good question?

The good questions will have answers that will help you differentiate between different places.  This means the questions should be open ended.  The questions should be related to the learning environment.  The questions should be about personal experiences (the bad and the good).

For example, a question such as: “How big are your classes?” will have many nuanced answers from place to place.  Based on the size of the university (student enrollment) and the type of classrooms (how many large lecture rooms) you can easily guess to this answer.  They start bigger and progress to smaller, but this answer doesn’t give you any idea of the experience.

A better question might be: “How does your college make bigger lecture classes into good learning environments?”  That’s a very tricky question for a professor, and if they aren’t aware that there are different ways of improving learning, then maybe that university isn’t particularly interested in undergraduate education.  “How did you like your lecture with 100+ students?”, will get to a students perspective on the large lectures.

Similarly, “Can you describe a situation where you did a research project with a student/faculty member?”  This is another question that looks into the idea that undergraduates are doing research-like activities at this university.  What is actually being learned and what are undergraduates actually doing?

Follow these questions up with, “Can I get their email to find out more about their experience?” and “Can you name professors/students in your department who have done things like this?”

Questions that delve into personal experiences at a university will go deeper into the experience at said university instead of generalities.  Also, try and talk to people who are not directly involved in the college tours.  What do the non-groomed faces of the institution have to say?

What questions are bad?

The bad questions tend to include superficial questions (how big is the dorm rooms?), mechanical questions (are there internships available?), or too focused on a particular path (how hard is it to switch from major X to major Y?).

The first two questions can be asked via email or a web search and tell you very little about this particular university.  All universities have very similar offerings, will offer similar good rankings, will show how past students have been successful, and will have all sorts of statistics that are in favour of the school.  Therefore, asking these types of questions allows for the toured presentation to talk about things that don’t really matter in respect to what is the university offering to you and how it differs from your other potential options.

The last question is too specific to an upcoming experience (undergraduate degree) that is very difficult to plan out from day one to day 1200.

Credits: photo titled: Guided Tour; by Mads Bødker

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CollegeQandA asks: What will be on the test?

What will be on the test?

This question can also be phrased, “will this be on the test?”

For students, this is an important question.  For teachers, this is a frustrating question to hear more than once.  How do you figure out what’s on the test, but also, turn yourself into a good learner and not just a test gamer?

FRustrated man screaming

Student perspective of tests

Tests are pretty common in courses.  Tests can be one of the main assessments that then are converted into your overall grade in a course.  Students need to get good grades, and therefore, knowing and understanding what is on a test is fundamental to getting those good grades.

Teacher perspective of tests

Learning the material is common in all courses.  Tests can be a good and easier than others assessment that shows if students have learned the course material.  An overall grade shows how well students have learned the material (though I don’t really agree with this).  Testing helps determine a students grade in the course.

Some of education’s bigger perspective

The goal is to learn.  Real understanding can not be easily tested, and the learning process takes a significant amount of time for both teacher and student to achieve and assess.  How can we teach and learn important skills, understanding, and complexities with tests?  We probably can’t, and equally, grades are a poor signal in terms of how each of us will perform in the real world with complexity.

The reality perspective

So, you are going to have tests as a student, and many of us professors will use tests as time-reasonable assessments for what you understand in our courses.  Coming from a perspective of wanting to learn and understand and willingness to work on learning, be curious, and understand the world better will serve you well.

If you need to figure out what is, likely, on the test, then pay attention to your professor in lectures, do the class work (readings, assignments, and projects), and find more senior students to understand past testing trends.  In lecture, emphasis of ideas, points, and skills are strong indicators that the material will appear on a test.  Does the professor underline writing?  Is there a significant number of problems dedicated to a particular idea?  Many professors (myself included) plain and simple say, “and this would be an excellent question on an exam”.  Those signals are strong indicators that the material will be tested in the future.

Also, the past can be a strong predictor of the future.  Students who have previously taken the course will have a feel for what professors will ask on their exams.  Make friends with other students and ask about their experiences.  However, understand that we all have biases and you are the one who does or doesn’t benefit from learning.

Credits: photo titled: frustration; by Rakesh Rocky

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CollegeQandA asks: What is career fair and why should I go?

What is career fair?

What is a university career fair?  This isn’t that interesting a question, and as you can imagine, career fair has employers come the university to talk to students about careers at their respective companies/institutions.  A university can have a university wide career fair, but there can also be smaller career fairs that are focusing on a particular area or degree.  Most people think that career fairs should be attended in your graduating year where you dress up, and finally, look for a job post graduation.  The wiser among you should go early and often to learn and prepare for your career.  Nobody else will.

University career fairWhy should I go to career fair?

Well, yes, fourth year is a good time to go to career fair and try and find your future employer, but to be prepared for this culminating experience I suggest you go in your first, second, and third year too.  You want to go to learn how the career fair is done, and how you need to be prepared for the event.   For example, at Miami during career fair almost everyone is dressed in a business suit/attire, and students will line up to do short interviews with their prepared resumes that might be followed up with a post fair longer interview.  If you walk into the fair without the proper attire, then unless you’re looking to be recognized for your uniqueness, you stand out as unprepared.  Just knowing your basic career fair flow stops you from making these simple errors.

Also, just like doing integration, playing an instrument, or writing an essay, networking and interviewing are skills that need to be practiced.  Where can you get this practice beyond the mock interviews your career center might provide?  Career fair in your first and second year is great time to practice without any major consequences.  Also, you might find an internship early that will lead to your future career.

Keep in mind, university will help you develop some skills, but getting a job and the skills need to both get said job and perform well at it are your responsibility.  Career fair is a small piece of this, but one you should not ignore.

Credits: photo titled: SNRE Career Fair; by University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment 

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CollegeQandA asks: What should I do to get into graduate school?

What should I do to get into graduate school?

For a four year undergraduate program, asking this question in the fourth year is almost too late.  Getting in to a good graduate program (if that is the path you want to take) takes some planning.  Here are some basic ideas on grades, early, research and recommendation letters that may differentiate you for  graduate school admission.

Desk with person and many papers

Where to go is first

The reality is you need your reasons to go to graduate school.  In engineering, the typical Ph.D. reason is “I want to be a professor”.  In other fields, there might be other reasons, but you are going to want to go to the best school possible since the trickle down of academic pedigree will likely impact your future career options.

Grades aren’t the whole game, but they matter

Now that you have picked a top school to attend, you need to get accepted there.  The base bar to being admitted to the school is your grades and how you perform on any admittance tests.  For most US universities this test is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).  You need to do well on the test and have a high GPA.  However, this is only the base bar that you must meet.   The reality is that students across the country and throughout the world are meeting this base requirement.  How are you going to separate yourself from this large group?

Undergraduate research helps

If you can get an academic paper, presentation experience, and research training in your undergraduate time, then you are in a better spot than most.  This is why the fourth year is not a great time to get into research since the time it takes to complete research and submit work is not a short period such as a semester.  It can take a year or more to complete a worthy research project or even participate in a large research team.  However, the experience of performing research will not only improve your chances, but will show you some idea of what graduate school might be like.

Letter of recommendations

Probably, the biggest step to get into certain programs is the relationships between your recommending professors and your target schools.  If one of your recommendation letters comes from a tight relationship with your target school and the professor writing the letter, then there is a significantly greater chance of you being put to the top of the pile.

The reason for this is that all professors write letters of recommendation for their students.  If I know the person who is writing the letter when looking through graduate applications, then I know I can trust their opinion, and a strongly recommended student carries more weight from someone I know than a letter from a random professor.

In this light, I highly recommend looking at where your professors came from (in their graduate and post-graduate work) as this may help guide you on where to apply for your graduate future.

Credits: photo titled: E.D Morel, ca. 1900-1915 (IMP-CSCNWW33-OS10-23); by Ashley Van Haeften

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CollegeQandA asks: What should I do the weekend before classes start?

What should I do the weekend before classes start?

Your family has dropped you off at college or you arrived at campus by yourself, and you have a few days before classes start – that first weekend.  Is there anything you should do before classes start to pave the way for a good semester?  At Miami the excitement of the new semester has started, and the streets are alive with youthful vigor.

Uhaul van moving in

Get the basics done

For those of you who are in your first-year or new arrivals to campus, your first weekend is about discovering where things are, how to do the most basic activities, and figuring out who might be your new friends and acquaintances.  In other words, expect to be disoriented for the next few days, but make sure you ask questions to everyone so that you do everything you should to just have the basics down.

Your priorities are:

  • If you don’t have your University ID card, then where and how do you get it.  This thing will do a lot around  campus for you.
  • You need to figure out where and when your classes are.  I would find the rooms ahead of time so you’re not late on class one.
  • How do you get your daily food and pay for it?
  • Where are the people who can help you if you need information or things?

All these basics are also needed for more senior students, but I would expect that those of you in that category almost know all of these.

Connecting with friends new and old

Take some time to socialize and meet old and new friends.  The reality is that this is probably the quietest time in the upcoming semester, so you should spend time with friends to reconnect.  However, don’t overdo the socializing with friends and party too much.  There’s no reason to start off the semester already tired and disorganized.  You can easily balance your reconnect to friends with solid preparation.

Get a jump on course organization

If your upcoming courses have an online accompaniment, then there is no reason you shouldn’t take a peak at what material is already posted (including the syllabus), needed books, and creating a semester calendar (I would suggest google calendars) with your actual next few months (you can tie this into your goals too).

Do you have your notebooks prepared for each of your courses?  If there are slides for the course, then do you have them printed?  What other materials will you need for these courses?

Most important – Set your semester goals

The big thing you need to do the last weekend before the semester is to nail down your goals for the semester (whatever they might be).  This doesn’t mean a general goal statement such as, “do well in my classes this semester”.  Instead, to achieve a goal you need to break it into smaller goals that will help you achieve your bigger picture.

You need to make specific goals both semester long and short term.  So, if I want to “get in shape this semester”, I need to include short term weekly/monthly goals that I can measure to get me to the big goal.  Smaller goals such as: “work out three times a week at the rec center” and “follow a progression workout for the next month” are steps to my bi goal, and if I truly want to achieve the bigger goal I can check in and see if I’m meeting my smaller steps.

Be prepared and have some fun to get you in the right mode for the fall semester.

Credits: Photo titled: Moving Truck; by CJ Sorg

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CollegeQandA asks: What are office hours?

The most underutilized resource at universities

Person sleeping in their office

Some professors have busy office hours filled with students, but most of us schedule office hours and have little to no contact with students unless there is a major exam, assignment, or activity that has an upcoming due date.

But, what are office hours?  The office hour(s) is a scheduled time by the professor where they guarantee that they will be in their office to be available to students and their concerns.  The main purpose is so students can ask questions about things that they either don’t understand or want a deeper understanding as related to a course.  However, most professors are happy to discuss ideas beyond the course including advising, careers, new ideas, etc.

I want to go, how should I prepare?

This depends on the professor, but most professors have a basic expectation if you are coming to ask additional questions or get help for topics in a course.  Note, the title above implies that you prepare for the office hour, and it should not be considered a time to redo a lecture.  You should do some preparation before you walk in and ask questions.  For example, imagine I have given you an assignment on topic X.  You should first try to do work on topic X, you should search out resources (such as textbooks, internet, etc.) to help you on topic X, and then when you are having problems you can bring what you have done working with topic X, and we can look at what you are doing well and what is missing to allow you to make further progress.  Don’t come in and just say, “How do I do this assignment?” or “I don’t get this?” without trying to learn on your own.

The same is true if you are going in for curriculum advice.  You should have some idea what you courses you need to do in the future, and your meeting should be spent on questions that you are unsure of instead of simply saying, “What courses should I take?”

Preparing for a meeting is, likely, part of your future job, and it shows that you respect both the person you are meeting with as well as your own time.

What if I don’t have questions about …?

You should go to office hours even if you don’t have direct questions related to the course or advising.  However, you should still prepare what you want to discuss before hand that is of real interest to you and is, likely, an interest of your professor.  This might be tricky since you are learning an area where the professor is a more experienced person in the topic.  Try open ended questions (the ones that can’t be answered yes/no) related to the course topics or your professors research since they may lead to interesting discussions.

Note, I suggest that visiting your professor is a good thing, but don’t overdo it.  Just because a professor has scheduled time to meet with students, don’t spend all of that time.  If you don’t have course or advising related questions, then an interesting discussion with a professor once or twice a semester would be good and not considered overbearing.

Credits: photo titled: Office Intern, by: Richard Elzey

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CollegeQandA asks: What to do if you think you’re having mental health problems in school?

What if you think you’re having mental health challenges?

Statue in paris with face in palmI, recently, had the opportunity to do some training in helping/guiding students with potential mental health issues.  For one, I learned that I am not an expert in the area or expected to be one.  Second, both faculty and students do not have great knowledge in this topic, and we should all be trying to both be prepared to help people with mental health problems and lose some of our prejudices to the problems.  So, what to do if you think you’re having mental health problems in school?

What type of mental health issues might impact my schooling?

Depression and anxiety seem to be two of the most common health issues for college students (this website has some details on these), but just like the rest of the population, we are all susceptible to health problems regardless of who you are and how much we don’t think these issues will effect us.  There is a large variety of issues that college students will deal with in combination with entering and living in a challenging and high stress environment.  Health, both physical and mental, are a huge factor in learning effectively, and if you are having health problems, you need to deal with them as soon as possible.

Who can help?

As I said earlier, your faculty may have some training in this domain, but the large majority of us are not experienced in dealing with mental health.  Faculty are not experts in diagnosing, and they shouldn’t be diagnosing you even if you seek their advice.  However, faculty are an excellent front-line of trusted adults who should know where to guide you to find the expert help you need.  So, faculty are an okay resource to seek out.  Similarly, friends and family can help get you the expert help you need, but they again are not the experts.

My recommendation is to find out what your university has for student counseling services.  A quick search in google with your universities’ name and “student counseling” or “mental health” services will provide you with your first point of expert contact.  These centers and people are great starting points to find out what you are dealing with, and typically, some of these services will be free of charge (covered by your student fees).  Schedule an appointment or go visit the center to find out what the next steps are.

It’s not not normal

Finally, our society still does have a stigma around mental health problems though we are making progress.  Research suggests that mental health problems are as normal as other health problems, and if you suspect you are having problems, then you need to deal with them.  Just like a broken arm that you wouldn’t try to fix yourself, mental issues are not just solved by not dealing with them.

Credits: photo titled: Depressed In Paris…. by: Toni Birrer

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CollegeQandA asks: What is the most important class to take in college?

What is the most important class to take in college?

Unique classroomWhat is the most important class to take in college? That’s an opinion question, so the following is my opinion.  Also, picking one aspect of your education as a single most important aspect really is a useless exercise.  However, it is fun so let’s get started.

The point of higher education

The point of it all is… well, that’s also not easy to define either.  Let me say that I would hope that the following goals are met in an undergrad:

  1. Student intellectual develops and progresses in self-authorship along the lines of Perry and Baxter-Magolda
  2. Student gains a better understanding of how the world works
  3. Student gains a deeper understanding of one small branch(es) of human knowledge that then can be used and communicated to others

With those goals in mind

The most important course is… well, it’s still hard to pick.  Based on goal 2 though, I really like Douglas Rushkoff’s view on the importance of understanding how modern technology works and can be used (programming).  The reason I pick “programming” as so important is because it’s the one that opens access computation, and computation is the tool that seems to have changed us so much, and yet, people are still scared of many aspects of that tool.

Conrad Wolfram has suggested computational thinking would help us teach math better.  The web is packed with campaigns and sites that are helping children learn to program.  The maker movement has democratized electronics, programming, aspects of manufacturing, and creativity.  Still, only a small population of us has an understanding of what computation is and how it works, and to satisfy the 2nd goal of higher education people need to at least have opened the hood once or twice to get a feel for the technology, tools, and simplicity of our machines.

Is programming the most important skill?

No, not for everyone.  I would consider communication skills (writing, reading, speaking, and listening) to be the most important skills for almost everyone, and these skills should be a focus skill set for any undergraduate education.  Programming and technology are an extension of these skills in the modern world format.

Credits: Photo titled: Le salon de lecture Jacques Kerchache (musée du Quai Branly) by: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

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