Thank you for visiting the ISU Ed. Leadershop. Our intent over the past few years has been to field-test community-engaged writings for PK-20 practitioner conversation -- quick, 5-minute "read's" that help put into perspective the challenges and opportunities in our profession. Some of the writings have remained here solely; others have been developed further for other outlets. Our space has been a delightful "sketch board" for some very creative minds in leadership, indeed.

We believe that by kicking around an idea or two and not getting too worked-up over it, the thinking and writing involved have even greater potential to make a difference on behalf of those we serve. In such, please give us a read; share with others. We encourage your thoughts, opinions, feelings, and reactions to our work and thank you for taking your time. You keep us relevant.

[Technical Note: If you find that your particular web browser does not allow you to view our articles for a full-text read, please simply select another browser and enjoy.]

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Word on College

A Word on College

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

As leaders, shouldn’t we ensure that our teachers are preparing each and every student for college?  Can we say that we are doing our jobs if we’re not?

I once asked these questions in a room full of educators and just about got drawn and quartered.  It’s not that they didn’t want what’s best for kids; it’s that they didn’t think I was communicating too well.  I couldn’t have been serious, they thought.

Let me clarify, by offering a word on college.  The word IS “College.” 

“College” as a word has more impact on children than we may think.  For starters, it influences their perceptions of capability and worth.  We typically use the word much more narrowly than others around the world. 

What follows is how my leadership in P-12 influenced me to define “College.” I oftentimes would share these perspectives with my own staff and students in whole-school assemblies.  Please let me know if I’m on to something, or not.

All kids must go to college.  Without college, students miss out on the quality of life they deserve, oftentimes marginally employed and passing on to their own children that one should hate a job.

It’s not that one must live to work, by any means, but one must be able to “live” while working.

“College” as a term isn’t limited to furthering one’s academics, as many relay. It’s about furthering one’s learning. In actually, “College” is any of the following derivatives of international definition, including, but not limited to …

Community or Junior College;
Technical/Trade School, Vocational Program, or Specialty Institute;
Apprenticeship or Certificate Program;
Military Service;
Seminary, Theological School, or Divinity School;
Peace Corps or Missionary Work;
Community-Based Life-Skills and Transitions Programs;
Recreational and Competitive Sports Programs; and/or
Schools of Performing Arts.

Get the idea?  It’s ALL COLLEGE! 

My definition, borne of years in P-12, is pretty inclusive. 

And … “College” is not just any ole’ word.  It has power.

Used appropriately, the word “College” can then dispel the myth that some kids are College Material, while others are not.   Used errantly … it can crush dreams.

What IS College Material, anyway, as we would describe some of our students, if not a construct borne of snobbery or classism?

To even say that there is college potential in some, yet conversely, trade school aptitude in others, is to perpetuate the notion of two distinct classes of folks in the minds of children who are not as academically inclined.  It affects their perceptions of capability and worth, as they point out:  There are the smart kids … and then there are those like me.

Is that what we want?

The word “College,” is powerful. We must be aware of this fact.  Power exists in a word.

When I was a principal in the U.P. of Michigan years ago, I watched students who struggled with traditional academics enter diesel training school after graduation because they loved the woods, and of course were fascinated by the logging machinery therein. In just a short time, they exited “this institute or that” with the skills and training to work on large equipment, in myriad industries. After which, they enjoyed gainful employment, making more money than many of us will ever make in education, while raising children, buying homes, taking vacations, and saving for their children’s college (yes, as I use the term). 

Many did not consider themselves very bright in high school but should have.  Most did not consider themselves College Material … but SO were!  Could we have done something about this?  Could one word, judiciously shared, have helped?

I had other students who spent careers in the military, retiring after 20 years with a full, federal pension to pursue other avenues of gainful interest.  They barely made it through high school, yet the training they received while on active duty, coupled with the experiences of world travel and service in defense of freedom, allowed them to live their lives with tenfold the impact of most.  Many did not see themselves as capable, or as “those kids who could DO college,” while in high school. They had a low sense of self-worth.  Thankfully, the United States Armed Forces introduced them to the college experience, and much more!

What about that mop-headed, skydiving drop-zone dude with raggedy shorts, a day-old bologna sandwich in hand, and a parachute on his back, wandering leisurely through life in the months prior the graduation, past which he barely skimmed?   Well, he went to college, as I use his definition of such:  Open-air classrooms, blue skies, and freefalling at 120 miles per hour.  His licensure proves he can do what most cannot, with credentials accepted worldwide. 

That kid almost throttled me one day when I asked him in the hanger how he was doing in high school.  He despised everything “school” …  AND ME, for inquiring, yet excelled at the academic application of skydiving (evidenced by the safety training and Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, not your lightest-of-read).  Imagine, how rewarding it has been for him all these years in his career, helping others each day with their bucket lists! 

When someone at work asks this dude, “Hey, how’s it going today?” he certainly doesn’t reply, “It will be a heck-of-a-lot better once getting out of here.”   He doesn’t live to work, but he LIVES while at work because of his “College.” To this day, he continues with advanced certifications, yet never thought of himself as College Material.

College is not necessarily about academic inundation, although it could be.  That worked fine for some of us.

Yet for most, “College” should not be a place or institution reserved for a certain type of curriculum.  Better defined, the word “College” defines LIVING one’s further expansion of mind and personal experience.  It is about liberation, so one has choice!  Access to “College” includes all students of ALL ability levels.

I will argue that the mainstream use of the term, itself, in education needs to be redefined, so that it is no longer thought the privilege of students who get the higher SAT’s or the better report cards.  If we did this collectively in P-12 schools, college I believe could become as commonly traveled as kindergarten. 

Are we as leaders selling “College”? 

Answer this by asking another question, “How many children in our schools believe they can DO college?”

If less than 100%, could it be because of the way we are defining and selling?


Dr. Ryan Donlan sees every kid a “college kid.”  Will you join him and begin reframing how students think of “college” at your next whole-school event?  Please also consider sharing your thoughts with him at (812) 237-8624 or at

No comments:

Post a Comment