03/08/2013 05:52 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

Students Must Own Their Education

I've written about the need for continuing support for higher education and, in particular, support for first-generation students. But it is also true that college students must take responsibility for their own education. Every year a majority of entering freshmen across the country indicate they aspire to be medical doctors or lawyers. Yet, one third of all college freshmen never complete a degree. In fact, the success of four-year degree completion is now measured by the percentage of students who complete in six years!

While frosh might say they wish to be a lawyer or a medical doctor, in fact the most popular major is "uncommitted" or "no major declared." Our institutions must take some of the blame for not pushing students to choose, but the students themselves (and their parents) also have responsibility to make a decision. Back in the day, it was acceptable to take time to "find yourself." Going to college was the start of a journey in which students might take courses in many different disciplines and then, at some point, make a choice regarding a career focus. "Finding yourself" was not about job preparation, but about developing a critically thinking individual and citizen in a thoughtful and educated manner.

I started at a community college, first thinking that medical school might be in my future, but my experience as an orderly at our local hospital ( as well as some tough biology courses) convinced me that a career path following in the steps of Clarence Darrow might be less icky and more interesting. But my first semester GPA, while above average, was probably indicative that law school was not in my future. Fortunately for me, I found a professor who took the time to dissect my writing. I took all of his political science and government courses and soon became used to receiving back papers with red ink all over them. He taught me to think and to understand the importance of evidence in argument. If there is a reason I hold a Ph.D., it is that I learned to write effectively -- not necessarily the undergraduate degree I earned. Eventually, I transferred to a large university where I majored in philosophy. But when every attempt I made to contact my advisor failed, (not to mention a course I took in metaphysics where I battled to a successful "C" but never really understood the intent of the course), I transferred again to a smaller university. I changed my major to English with a double major in speech and graduated with a BA and a teaching license four and a half years after entering college. Throughout my journey, I was fortunate to attend public institutions where most of the costs of my education were borne by public subsidy. Tuition was modest, and I believe my loan total for four and a half years was $4,000.

But things have changed. Now students at public higher education institutions pay about two-thirds the cost and graduate (if they do) with a debt load averaging $22,000. Market forces would seem to drive students to focus on a career path and to complete as quickly as possible. (I don't necessarily think that a college education is only about a "job," but that is a topic for another time). At my institution I see some students who figure this out, take full loads, study, and graduate in four years with little debt; but I also see some students who never complete, earn low GPA's, and end up with a debt burden they may never repay. Not all are poorly prepared, but they seem to lack motivation to work hard and focus. I have no answer as to how to solve this problem for these students. There is not a measure of motivation embedded in admission scores. Some low scoring students succeed and thrive in spite of what their ACT or SAT score says; some high school stars don't make a successful transition and never graduate. As a society, we can no longer afford to pay for students to "find themselves."

Anyway I'm still looking -- this quest isn't necessarily completed during the college years.