Breaking Away

By Karen Gross

Karen Gross is senior counsel with Finn Partners, former president of Southern Vermont College and author of Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students, from which this piece is excerpted. (Endnotes have been deleted from this excerpt.)

How we foster wise decision-making generally and among young people in particular has been the subject of numerous studies. Professionals working in the field of student life struggle to accomplish two goals on campus: foster quality decision-making and curb irresponsible behavior. Tough tasks. Given the range of choices confronting college students, it is no small wonder that college presidents have many sleepless nights worrying about the safety of the students in their charge. Danger lurks everywhere on and near campus. No one wants to be that president or dean who calls a parent or guardian with a sentence that begins “I have some terrible news to share with you …” or “I am so sorry to report …”

For “breakaway students,” complex decisions arise long before college begins—indeed the choice to go to college itself is only one example of making a remarkable and positive choice. In looking at the breakaway students who have succeeded in college, the question is how these students, consciously or not, made generally wise decisions from childhood onward. Or if they made some bad decisions, how did they recover from them to begin making better ones? For our purposes here, I refer to quality decision-making (whether consistent over time or garnered after a time of less quality choices) as pivoting right. By this I mean that when confronted with alternatives, a particular child chooses the option that is likely to lead to favorable outcomes for him or her over the short and long term.

Imagine the many choices breakaway children confront from early on. Here are several examples: using drugs or alcohol, skipping school, not completing homework, stealing money or food, not returning home in the evening, finding lovers to fill emotional gaps, having or not having a child. The choice to stay in high school and enroll in college-preparatory classes, sign up for and take SAT or ACT tests (and deal with their costs), fill in a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application with or without parental involvement, apply both to college and for student loans—each is a difficult choice and perhaps outside the norm for a students’ families and even their schools. …

One can exhibit resilience by becoming the best and most successful drug dealer in one’s community. At least that brings financial well-being and safety and even respect—albeit not for long. One can demonstrate grit by organizing and then running a gang that overtakes a rival gang. Dangerous, yes, but it is a pathway to power that provides some safety for one’s family and friends. One can meditate to calm down after a bad choice or one can try to fight the urge to fight with meditation and relaxation. But absent the right conditions, mindfulness may not have the power to overcome group pressure. Growth mindsets, encouraging a belief in self, are value-neutral. Developing study habits and other academically oriented skills can help students achieve more in school, but these qualities may not grow or transfer to external events that have nothing to do with academic learning and intellectual growth.

Being lastic

Children and students who are lastic have, for the most part, pivoted right, exercising decisions that lead not only to their survival but also to their thriving more … economically and in their sense of safety.

Now, one can make the argument that individuals who become successful drug dealers or gang leaders are thriving by some definitions, but it is most assuredly not in the way that we, as a nation, want to promote and encourage. One of the reasons we are so eager to encourage college access and degree attainment is that, as noted earlier, those with a degree earn more money over their lifetime, they have better health outcomes, they vote more frequently, they participate and give back more actively in their communities, they can lift their family up from poverty, and their children will be more likely to graduate from college.

While we would like to think there is some inexplicable intuition that enables quality decision-making, the reality is that there are many mechanisms that drive choice. Good decisions can be the product of individuals who push students to make good choices—teachers, parents, relatives, friends. Role models can influence choice, even role models such as athletes, actors and politicians whom one knows about only through social media. Coaches can foster good decisions, as can individuals in afterschool programs. Guilt is another driver. So is religion for some. So is fear. So is blind luck.

Reflect on the decisions you have made in your life. Many of us made many bad choices in our youth, and reflecting back, we cannot quite believe we survived relatively unscathed. For breakaway students, the risky choices can be more extreme and more frequent, with life-changing consequences.

Making good decisions

For breakaway students’ access to and success in college to occur, good decision-making needs to start early and often. To be sure, breakaway students’ pathway to quality decision-making is not always direct. A lot—both positive and negative—can happen along the way. There is a growing chorus of folks who, in complaining about the absence of college success, place the blame for poor decision-making on students.

Folks complain about the abundance of choices that students face in college, ranging from course selection and majors to activities and opportunities outside the classroom. Blame may be placed on faculty and staff for not providing adequate advising on courses and careers, omissions that can lead to negative consequences such as prolonged time in school to meet necessary requirements because required courses are not taken, the necessity of retaking a course in which one has not achieved an adequate grade to progress (think anatomy and physiology, which you can pass for credit but not pass for entry into a nursing program), and a lack of career readiness skills. This all costs extra money—on every level. Students need to pay more for their education, employers are dissatisfied with the graduates seeking employment, and faculty and staff are frustrated by the absence of sufficiently good performance in their courses.

However, this criticism misses the real point of pivoting right. There are degrees of “right,” and many people make unwise choices and learn from them. So pivoting right is not the same as 100% quality decision-making. Far from it. Rather, pivoting right reflects a child’s or young adult’s effort to pursue a personal pathway that yields positive outcomes in physical and psychic well-being. Pivoting right is in large part about self-preservation.

One important qualification: There is no map of what pivoting right means. What it means for one person may not be what it means for another. Decision-making is deeply influenced by culture, religion, ethnicity, and tradition. Quality decision-making can mean choices on which a child or young adult and his or her parents may not agree.

But we are not talking about some types of decision-making that will align children and parents or guardians. For example, a child may not want to be a doctor like his mother; perhaps he wants to be an artist instead. Another child may not want to be a police officer like his father and may instead want to be an economist. A child may want to be a mechanic like his father, but his father may want him to obtain an advanced engineering degree. Following a parent’s professional footsteps is not about pivoting right.

Instead, we want children from an early age to be empowered to make their own (age-appropriate) decisions; those decisions need to be informed by facts and circumstances and made through free will, and with self-preservation and well-being as paramount concerns. What we can do is work with breakaway students as they progress through the pre-K–12 pipeline and in after-school programs and community activities to encourage wise choices and create opportunities to correct bad choices when possible. We can help students build an architecture of better choice, in part by making deliberate what may now be done without much thought. …

Trying to nudge

Two concepts are at work. The first involves trying to nudge … breakaway students to make wise choices. Structuring available choices in a way that encourages quality decision-making can foster this. For example, completing homework can lead to rewards and positive reinforcement; reading in school can lead to having books one can take home. Nudging in the right direction by parents, teachers, mentors and professors can feel intrusive, but there is literature supporting such “intrusive” (now less negatively termed proactive) advising. …

However, make no mistake about this: Nudges enable quality choices but personal decision-making skills are not necessarily enhanced. This is because the default mechanism at the heart of quality nudges is pre-set to ensure success, not failure, of choice. And the students are not setting that default choice! Nudges reinforce at some level an external as opposed to internal locus of control.

The second concept involves the idea that bad choices are all not necessarily outcome-determinative, and one can improve or change one’s choice architecture over time, with guidance. We create improved choice architecture when breakaway students are in college, often without intentionality. For example, we offer up lectures in evenings so students have an alternative to sitting in their rooms playing video games. We offer student clubs that align with their interests, enabling students to engage and to diminish the amount of time in which they may be idle that can lead to bad choices.

Stated simply, improved choice architecture can be constructed by offering enough alternatives, enough oversight, and enough opportunities to self-correct or be corrected in ways that do not distance the student from his or her support system. It can involve retrenching from bad decisions, with all the concomitant hassles and hurdles.

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