THE BLOG
11/19/2014 05:55 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

When Does a College's Obligation to Its Students End?

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Note: This commentary refers to an article in Inside Higher Ed, written by President Karen Gross and Director of Diversity and the Mountaineer Scholar Program, Ivan Figueroa.

In our recent piece in Inside Higher Ed, we suggested that institutions serving vulnerable students have an obligation to these individuals that continues after college graduation. Indeed, we observed, colleges need to continue to connect with their graduates, many of whom struggle to adjust in the transition from college to the workplace. Our piece was inspired by Jeff Hobbs' book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. We are not alone in focusing on post-graduation needs of low-income students.

Some of the online comments to our piece motivated us to further explain our views and ask these questions: How comfortable are those of us in higher education with students who are different from us? Do we have the courage to change the paradigms to foster the academic and psycho-social success of the most vulnerable among us? Is what we suggested really mission-creep?

Our piece was primarily focused on first generation, low-income students. Let's be real: these individuals may not have the support systems that other and wealthier college graduates possess. They lack the networks and social safety nets that higher income students are privileged to have--parents who have college and graduate school degrees, parents and family friends who can reach out to employers. These vulnerable students do not have adults who can provide gap funding during workplace transitions or offer a home to live in during searches for and when starting a job or graduate school.

The idea that graduates' collegiate mentors should remain in touch hardly seems shocking; speaking personally, both of us have had mentors who have stayed in touch decades after we first met them. One of us is introducing one of our mentors at an event in April where she is receiving a well-deserved award--more than three decades after our first meeting. Why not encourage this ongoing relationship that may be the first such relationship some students have ever experienced? And, why make the student/graduate ask for that continuity? Why not provide it as a matter of course?

We appreciate the need to build personal responsibility and independence. As parents, we do this with our own children. We want them to be able to thrive in their adult life--develop relationships, build families of their own, succeed in employment settings, contribute to their communities. And yes, they need to do their own retirement planning as one commentator suggested! But, that does not mean we distance ourselves completely from our children. We do not cease engaging with them, sharing our own life experiences. In America, we unfortunately honor "bowling alone," contrary to some cultures where intergenerational engagement is more the norm. As college administrators/educators, we are serving in the role of in loco parentis for many students, and it seems that our students deserve at least some of what we provide to our own children.

Consider this example: our relationship with physicians when we have a major illness. After the acute phase has passed, the doctor-patient relationship does not end. We hope our doctors reach out to us for follow-up visits and added preventative care advice. We'd be shocked if they did not. Some even call our homes post-surgery. These ongoing relationships do not mean we have become hypochondriacs or excessively tied to our physicians; instead it means that "caring" continues.

The comments of some readers also reveal serious antipathy with respect to how Robert Peace responded to the Yale environment. Yes, he hung out with non-students in New Haven; he dealt drugs to his classmates, and he dressed in ways that were common among friends in his Newark world--dreadlocks and a skullcap. We treat these behaviors as "choices" without regard to how and why these behaviors were exhibited.

Hobbs' story reveals how out of place Peace actually felt at Yale. Ironically, as bad as drug dealing is, it was a way he could connect with his classmates who were more than willing to purchase from him. And, the drugs had the added benefit of generating revenue he could give to his mother and use for the typical extras at college he otherwise could not afford. And, Peace's personal use of drugs took away some of the disquiet of being in a totally new environment.

Peace's childhood was rough in every sense; he was traumatized on repeated occasions. He spent his whole life trying to free his father from prison only to lose him to cancer. Yes, he went to Yale but there, he was in a new environment where he was confronted with a new choice architecture. And we assume that once in that new environment, all he had to do was "fit" in. But "frontin" was not for him.

Our experiences on campuses teach us that when students feel out of place on campuses, they reach back to behaviors that brought them comfort and make them feel more "at home." Even bad behaviors. Adults do this too, although often in subtler ways. Self-reliance, quality choices and comfort in a new environment aren't always easy skills to develop.

Would we feel similar disdain about a war Veteran returning to civilian life? Would we assume he or she would respond similarly to decisions pre- and post-war? And, it is hard to fathom that we think helping Veterans transition from military life to civilian life is evidence of their weakness or dependency or immaturity. Marines, for one, would not agree. It's not exactly as if they have to "man-up."

Let's be clear here: we are NOT condoning drug trafficking on America's campuses. We are not saying that "separating" oneself and resorting to old patterns are success-optimizing behaviors. What we are saying is that some individuals are vulnerable and need added supports and guidance to help them transition from their communities to a new and dramatically different community and that extends beyond the four years of undergraduate education. This is not a matter of smarts; Robert Peace had plenty of smarts.

Ask any immigrant how hard it is to adjust to American life. Is it fair to ask these individuals to give up the clothing to which they have been accustomed for decades? Ask any stepchild how hard it is to accept a new parent. Does the child need to give up their love for their biological parent? It's hard to know there really is enough love to go around when one is a child. Ask any person who has lived in an abusive family how hard it is to treat others in ways that defy one's personal experience. There is a reason that children who are abused can abuse their own children.

For us, the negative comments to our piece suggest that some people have a rather narrow view of education, the promise it holds and what it takes to realize that promise. True, a college education should provide a myriad of academic and interpersonal skills that will enable graduates to progress into the workplace and find success in their new position. But, education does not stop at the college gateway. Education is a process that continues, and some college graduates would be well served by linking back to their mentors--like more privileged students link back to their homes and parents and communities--to ease the process of "growing up."

One last thought. We made a suggestion that vulnerable students return to campus--for their own benefit and that of the students they should be urged to mentor. One reason is that education, particularly when others have donated money to make it possible, is all about paying it forward--to the institution and to society. The second is that it is often hard to recognize one's own growth. But, seeing new students who are struggling allows a returning graduate to visualize literally their own progress. That is not a regressive suggestion; it is progressive in the very best sense.

Karen Gross is President of Southern Vermont College
Ivan Figueroa is the College's Director of Diversity and the Mountaineer Scholar Program