Two weeks ago I was at a major higher education conference. I was invited by a partner of the Florida Consortium to attend the conference and sit on a panel on employability and nomenclature. It was a huge success. I enjoyed working with my peers to discuss this important topic and to suggest ways business and universities can work together to create more sensible and transferrable terminology for students moving from the classroom to the workplace. But this is not a blog post about that. It is about what I experienced at the conference that now shade my feelings on higher education forever.
First, it should be noted that the conference is expensive. Participants paid over $3,000 each to attend and it was held in a city known for expensive hotel rates, higher than average airline fares, and the food is plenty expensive. I was lucky in that I did not have to pay for a registration because I was an invited speaker. So one would expect the event to be nice. And it was.
The hotel was immaculate, there were great sessions to interact and lots of lounge space and super wifi to keep in touch with the office. The place even smelled good. There was a constant supply of coffee, tea, and soda for all of us to stay caffeinated and hydrated. It was pretty nice. But there were some strange differences form other events of this kind I have attended. There were a number of high profile speakers at the conference. These speakers presented on a number of topics I was interested in and brought value to our organization. But here is where it all went downhill.
So I arrived at one of the events. It was scheduled to be a panel discussion on employability and the workforce of the future and it included lunch. Well, I got there a few minutes before the session and the lobby to the ballroom was packed. Over 2,000 people were clamoring by the door waiting to get in to the event. I was stuck at the back not knowing how many the room seated and if I would even get in. Then the doors opened and participants rushed in with the energy of a black Friday sale after Thanksgiving. Participants rushed to get a seat and save seats for peers and they sat down. Within a few minutes I finally got into the room and the place was packed. It was standing room only and even that was tight.
Then I realized why sitting was so important. If you were at any of the tables your lunch consisted of salmon, asparagus, and rice pilaf. The people at the tables had a great view of the stage. If you did not make the seats you were sent to an observation area and given a lunch box of a ham sandwich, pasta salad cup and bag of chips. Furthermore, you had to sit behind the projection screens and watch the event on television, mostly seated on the floor, criss cross applesauce. It was uncomfortable to sit there in a suit and getting up and down with my back was a challenge. You could only see the panel on a TV which is okay but it was still and annoyance, I like to see the panels I attend. It was kind of a disaster. After a while more and more of the attendees just gave up and left the event.
And that got me thinking about our students. So often we give students access to a university and then don’t even give our students any insight in how all of this works. I am a first generation student. When I started in college I had no idea how any of these processes worked; scholarships, admissions, registration, paying my bill, getting tutoring help, advising, getting involved, even Greek Life. I was always trying to figure it out when it seemed everyone around me knew the way. By time I did figure it out there was another issue I had to unpack and understand. Sure there was orientation but we know how overwhelming this process is for students and quite frankly two days or one day or whatever is never enough.
That lunch is much like the college experience for so many students. The more “in the know” students know to get in line early, know how to get the good seats with the salmon and the clear sightlines. They understand how college works. Look, every student needs to own their experience and work hard. No one is saying that but when you are trying to navigate this world and you don’t even know the rules this can lead to all sorts of roadblocks and speedbumps. Like that conference we need to do a better job in how we acculturate our students into this massive education system. It is critical for so many students for whom the difference between staying and going might be the roadmap we hand them. Furthermore, for many students if they get off track or cannot figure it out, they just leave, much like some of the attendees at the conference. While a number of us stuck it out, it was uncomfortable, and unnecessary.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART. If our students paid for access to certain services then by golly we need to make sure they are there for them to enjoy. What annoyed me most at the conference was not that I needed to know all of the unwritten rules but that the result of not knowing them was a clearly diluted experience. It’s not about being entitled to the salmon, it should have been part of everyone’s registration. For those attending who got the ham sandwich and a spot on the floor they got less value for their fees. And not because we chose to get less value, it was thrusted upon us! Think about this when a student can’t find an advising time, find the library closed after they get off of work, or otherwise if shut out of services they paid for. So let’s try to do better friends. Our students deserve it and our success as universities depend on it.