“You got no time to lose. You are young men, you must be living”

So I realize there hasn’t been anything new in a while.  This is mostly due to a killer finals week coupled with my motivation dropping oh so very low after finding out last week I got accepted to an Ecuador volunteer program with Pangea World Service Team.  Yesterday’s news that I was accepted to a study abroad program at St Peter’s College of Oxford University may well be the last blow to any chance I had of being able to focus and pay attention in the rest of this year’s classes.  Seriously, try sitting in an anthropology class that references the Ecuadorian Galapagos Island finches or some Oxford Research Journal and tell me that your mind doesnt wander past the point of learning.  But seeing as how I am sitting in my room, bored waiting for Spring Break to start, I thought this would be a good time to sit back and type something new.

A few weeks ago in my Ecological Issues class (which is taught by the most delightfully liberal British man you will ever meet), I had a term introduced to me that I had never really thought of before: Social Capital.  Wikipedia says it is a”sociological concept which refers to the value of social relations and the role of cooperation and confidence to get collective or economic results“.  Ignoring all that technical wording, I took it to basically mean it is the belief that it is more important to invest in the welfare of society as a whole than trying to acquire things just for yourself.  And my professor didn’t think that Americans do this enough.  We don’t watch out for each other like we should, at least in terms of finance and wealth.  I am sure most people are well aware of this notion by now, what with the whole “Occupy” movement that has spent the past months sweeping the country and even the world.

I thought it was an interesting idea, but didn’t think much more about it until today when I spent a solid 3 hours fighting with the “Federal Application for Financial Student Aid” (or something like that, everyone calls it the FAFSA because we hate it so much we don’t care if we call it by its proper name.)  It took me nearly half an hour just to convince them I was a real person.  Then at the end I find out that even though I live dangerously close to the poverty line and basically support myself by paying my own tuition and housing, I will be eligible for less aid this year because the government has redefined what it means to be living in poverty and in need of financial aid.  But the funny thing is – I don’t feel richer because I technically am now farther away from some arbitrary wealth status.  Things havent gotten cheaper and indeed to go along with less financial aid, tuition is going UP.  This made me start thinking about that whole social capital thing again…

At this point in my life, I feel like I can do whatever I want – I want to bust out into the world and make a difference and live a crazy awesome life and learn all I can about the world we live in.  But college costs money and I end up getting burdened with things like student loans as a result of ridiculous tuition rates (or even more ridiculous book prices!) that pretty much guarantee most of us will start our careers and adult lives in debt and struggling to get ahead.  I don’t get the most out of my college education if I am working two jobs to support it, and even international volunteering costs money I don’t have (yeah, i know, i said i was going to Oxford – like i said, two jobs bitches).

It’s not fair that as youth, when we feel we can do the most good in the world, we are burdened with ridiculous prices for college.
And yet people complain America is falling behind in educational standards – well, ever wonder why? It’s because most other countries don’t bankrupt their students with college costs and anyone of ability can attend a university.  I know this is going to sound crazy, but I for one wouldn’t mind paying higher taxes when I’m older if that means the government will help me a lot more as a student – it balences out doesn’t it?  Invest in us as youth and as future contributors to our nation, help us get through college with less debt and more sanity, and we will repay the government later.  Sounds good to me.  I know it wouldn’t be a perfect system – but nothing in the government is a perfect system.  Our current system sure isn’t perfect either – USA Today says 2/3 of our 20-something kids are in debt, mostly all of it due to student loans.  Just pay a little more attention to the social capital of America and maybe we can start doing better as a country.

Quoting the USA Today article Young People Struggle to Deal with the Kiss of Debt  “It’s the single greatest problem facing this generation

I’m the first to admit I’m not sure the best way to remedy this debt situation is, I don’t like or understand politics and economics.  I’m just sayin’ get your shit together America – stop cutting student aid, stop increasing tuition, and stop expecting so much [money] out of kids trying to get their lives going. *Or at least stop expecting us to settle down right out of college, that’s just when we get a chance to start living! (but that is a whole different issue I guess.)

“Experience is the teacher of all things”

So I recently read an article about academic fraud from the Global Post (Read it here for interested folks). It was concerned with cheating and forgery in higher education systems, especially for international students. The article suggested that up to 90% of recommendation letters are faked, 70% of admissions essays were written by someone other than the applicant, and 50% of transcripts are at least partly altered. Writing an essay for someone is so common in this situation, that it has its own term: ghost writing. What’s worse is that some colleges may be at least partly aware of such fraud, but the article suggests bribes and international student tuition fees may help to keep everything quiet. For just a moment, compare international student annual tuition of $50,000 to in-state tuition of $25,000 at the University of Michigan. Yeah … there is a slight incentive for Universities to ignore some fraud. And let us not forget that all of this undercover alteration of information is not exactly cheap for the students themselves.

Lying about credentials or recommendation letters is basically admitting that you do not believe you are good enough for the program you are applying to and you need to fake your way in. Furthermore, this implies that you feel you deserve a leg up on someone else who actually may be qualified. And if you cannot get into the school or job that you want without cheating, what makes you think that you can succeed in it?

To be clear, I am not writing this because I want to complain about a broken education system or preach about cheating and lying. What really concerns me is that students feel the need to take such drastic measures to access a higher education. Why must this sort of thing be necessary to achieve college entry?

Everyone knows that gaining college admittance or prestigious internships boils down to that perfect GPA or standardized test score. To be competitive, students must market themselves in such a way as to exemplify how good of a worker, student, and person they are. But GPA isn’t exactly a good show of this at all now is it? As a student at a Big 10 School with ridiculously competitive students who aspire to Michigan Medical School or Harvard Law School, I have seen lots of competition among students, to the point where students purposely sabotage each other to lower class averages or pull all-nighters with the aid of Red Bull and Adderall.

Competition defeats the whole purpose of large schools with diverse populations- collaboration and mixing ideas for the betterment of student understanding and experience. GPA matters, but not as much as some people think. Experience, attitude, willpower, and confidence are far more important. In all honesty, I believe real-life ability to do things and the knowledge of how things really work will get you farther in life than memorizing a bunch of facts out of a book. What is the point of being able to recite the whole freakin microbiology book in lecture class, but then setting yourself on fire in every single laboratory class? (Yes, this happened.) Experience is a far better teacher anyway, and this is what should matter more in determining our abilities and intelligence than an arbitrary number that each college or professor interprets differently.

But, sadly, students have to be competitive and try to show their intelligence and ability in anyway possible to get ahead. And the easiest, most quantifiable way is scores, grades, and such tedious things. So students become competitive and focus too narrowly on getting ahead of the crowd. And in doing so, they forget a few things along the way. Like why they wanted an education. And no the answer is not simply “to get a high-paying job”. Yes, the perks of not working in a fast food restaurant the rest of your life are definitely an incentive … but, you should be in college for the experience and opportunities, the chance to do something you never thought you could, and to try new things.

And so what if along the way your GPA isn’t the greatest … I feel much better about my abilities and experience than how smart the University has deemed me based on grading done by dozens of different instructors working with different scales and expectations. It matters much more than it should. Nevertheless, I, like most everyone else in any higher education institute, still wish my GPA were higher. And I hope to do exceptionally well on the GRE. Because in the end, that is what will help me successfully get into Graduate School more than any real world experience. And the system is ridiculous, and we all have to play along.