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David Labaree, Stanford’s eminent sociologist of higher education, didn’t much like school. As he communicates in a recent blog posting, he found school, especially elementary school, agonizing: stressful, nerve-wracking and anxiety-inducing.

He’s not alone. According to a recent study by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Yale Child Study Center, nearly three-quarters of the students surveyed reported negative feelings toward school.

Labaree’s piece serves as a valuable reminder that all too many students experience school in profoundly negative ways.

For many young people, school is anything but a warm, supportive, nurturing environment. Rather, it’s a highly stratified place characterized by intense competition, arbitrary authority and boredom. It is children’s first encounter with bureaucracy: with rigid rules, impersonal structures and an imposed course of study that doesn’t reflect their interests.

For many students, school is a source of unhappiness and bitterness, a place where they feel bullied and find their self-esteem battered and where invidious comparisons—to those who are bigger, more attractive, more popular, more athletic, more extroverted and smarter—abound.

That wasn’t my experience, for two reasons that Labaree helps explain. For one thing, my K-12 education took place at a time when school was far less pressured than it is today, as much a social as an academic experience. It really was more joyful, pleasurable and fun. Then, because I did well academically, I received a level of attention and encouragement that those who were less successful didn’t.

Labaree’s point is that those of us who have pursued teaching as a profession need to understand what school looks like to those find it judgmental, hierarchical and unaccommodating.

No wonder a lot of kids disengage academically or act out in hostile and antagonistic ways.

Labaree’s piece is a useful reminder not to generalize from one’s personal experience. But he also makes a weightier point: that school is much more than a mechanism to convey content or build skills. At our peril we ignore school’s hidden curriculum: how it seeks to prepare kids for the “real world” in ways families don’t (or, at least in the past, didn’t).

On the positive side, schools teach valuable social skills: getting along with peers, negotiating conflict and becoming part of a social universe that doesn’t include parents.

More negatively, schools transmit powerful messages about where one fits in: whether one is smart or popular or talented or, alas, a nebbish, a wallflower or a perpetual outsider.

Labaree is writing about K-12 schools, but his ideas also apply to college.

We mustn’t delude ourselves. Currently, bringing all students to proficiency isn’t part of the college DNA. Even broad-access institutions impose a variety of gates—including GPA requirements, enrollment caps and minimum levels of success in prerequisite courses—to exclude students from high-demand majors.

Certainly, we don’t want unqualified nurses or underprepared computer scientists, but at the institutions where I have taught, many talented, high-performing students find themselves excluded from these majors for reasons that don’t bear scrutiny, like concerns about departmental rankings or passing rates on licensure exams.

Unlike many K-12 schools, colleges don’t explicitly or formally track students. But institutions do increasingly divide students in implicit ways, for example, through honors programs.

Then there’s a dropout rate that would be utterly intolerable in K-12 education, amounting to upward of 40 percent of first-time, full-time students at broad-access institutions, upward of 55 percent for part-time students and upward of 70 percent of those at community colleges.

A goal of 100 percent proficiency is, without a doubt, unrealistic, but raising rates by 10 percent or more shouldn’t be beyond our capabilities. What would that take?

There’s lots of low-hanging fruit.

  1. Process credit transfer applications much more quickly and, insofar as possible, count credits toward degree requirements.
  2. Replace remedial courses with co-requisite remediation—for-credit courses that include intensive supplemental instruction.
  3. Provide every entering undergraduate with a degree plan and intervene proactively when students fall off track.
  4. Nurture a sense of belonging by instituting a robust new student orientation and first-year learning communities.
  5. Ensure course availability by modeling course demand and optimizing the course schedule
  6. Institute block scheduling to make it easier for commuting students to juggle their studies with work and family responsibilities.
  7. Create a community of care, a system of advising and wraparound academic and nonacademic supports that includes tutoring services, supplemental instruction sections, learning centers, mind-set training and for-credit student success courses.
  8. Use data to “process analyze” degree pathways to identify and redesign courses with very high DFW rates and equity gaps and unnecessary prerequisite and major requirements that complicate degree attainment.
  9. Put in place a dedicated a graduation concierge who is responsible for identifying students approaching graduation and is empowered to authorize substitute degree requirements and emergency grants to expedite time to completion.

These innovations would make much more than an incremental difference. But there’s something else that would help students persist and succeed: blur the line between the curriculum, the co-curriculum and the extracurriculum.

Let me digress for a moment and offer an example that will suggest what I mean.

Why is middle school, by all accounts, the worst experience of a young person’s life?

The middle school years have a richly deserved reputation as a time of cliques, drama, backstabbing, ridicule, bullying and total awkwardness, when emotional outbursts and panic attacks peak. Being cool and popular assume heightened importance. So does fitting in. Conversely, embarrassment and humiliation become intense fears and recurrent realities.

Popular attention focuses on the hormonal changes associated with the onset of puberty that increase self-consciousness before middle schoolers have developed realistic expectations or a firm sense of self, while differences in rates of physical and social maturation divide these students into a clearly defined hierarchy, with the more athletic, developed or grown-up in appearance at the top.

Fortunately, the middle school ordeal typically ends with high school, as the clearly defined middle school hierarchy splinters and students gravitate into separate circles based on shared interests, styles and aspirations. Extracurricular options expand, giving students opportunities to develop or embrace alternate identities.

College, of course, offers a vast array of extracurricular opportunities, but these are largely unavailable to those students who commute, work or caregive.

There’s an obvious solution: create more for-credit learning experiences that incorporate the elements that make extracurriculars educationally purposeful. Offer more cohort programs, mentored research opportunities, for-credit internships, field experiences and practicums, studio and lab classes, and courses that incorporate visits to museums, archives and musical and theatrical performances,

Since many nontraditional students—the new student majority—can’t take part in traditional extracurricular activities, let’s integrate those activities into degree paths.

The elements that defined the traditional college experience for over a century—Greek life and intercollegiate athletics—persist, but they have lost much of their appeal among broad segments of the undergraduate student body. It’s high time to create new kinds of experiences better suited to the realities of our time.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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