Certificates of Failure Given By Colleges: Yes, Really

By Karen Gross

The news is filled with stories about the admissions scandals at elite colleges and universities. And recently, some of the wrongdoers have pled guilty and await punishment. Apparently, prosecutors are seeking jail time. Apart from jail time, I have already suggested approaches to punishment that involve fines that go into a cy pres fund to be redistributed to small non-elite colleges and their students. Ironically (or not), the fake charity to which these parents “donated” was intended to serve low-income kids. Hey, make that really happen … and legally.

At the same time, there have been articles about the competitiveness of elite colleges and universities and the need to provide courses or partial courses or seminars in failure. The idea is legitimizing failure; it happens to everyone after all. But, since some college students have never experienced failure (see above), the colleges need to include instruction on how to fail. And some even provide certificates of failure at the beginning or end of the courses. (See image at right.)

One of the pre-course certificates is issued, I am embarrassed to say, by my alma mater, Smith College. It is provided before the seminar begins with the suggestion that it be displayed proudly. The certificate provides, in part,

“You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.”

Apparently, students (at least those cited in the article about this in the New York Times) are delighted to hang these words in their dorm room. A recent article in the Washington Post shared similar initiatives, with some institutions replacing the word “failure” with “grit training” or “resiliency education,” although the certificates awarded for failure were noted.

I have no idea who invented this idea of Certificates of Failure for college students. Was it a psychology professor or a student life professional or some consultant? Was it an expert in parent-child development? Answer that question please.

From my perspective, this whole “accept” failure movement strikes me as what we term in other contexts “a first world problem.” In other words, learning about and dealing with failure is a problem for some students attending some elite colleges in America, where they suddenly get a low grade or struggle for the first time in their academic and personal lives.

From my experience in education, spanning early childhood education through adult education, I see the opposite experience among low-income, first-generation, minority, ethnically diverse and immigrant students. Many of these students experience failure early and often. In their schools, they are often, directly or indirectly, signaled: “You can’t make it.” Some are deprived access to gifted programs or AP courses. Surely they are not getting the level of tutoring that the wealthy can afford. There are assumptions, acknowledged or not, as to who progresses and where in education—from elementary school programs to elite public selective high schools to elite colleges (or any college actually). Just peruse the Pell Grant numbers of enrolled students at elite colleges (although the numbers are increasing).

I can’t count the number of students at Southern Vermont College (SVC), which is sadly failing now under current leadership and set to close unless miraculously saved (something for which I have been fighting), who said to me “I was told I was not college material.” Talk about not needing a certificate of failure. And many of the students we accepted back then at SVC had profiles that would have suggested that college was not in their future, let alone graduation. Indeed, the SVC Mountaineer Scholar Program, remarkable in so many respects though undermined of late sadly through mission drift at SVC, aimed to enroll students most thought would “never make it” in higher education. Some had projected graduation rates of under 9%; they too graduated.

There are many reasons that students have failed along the educational pipeline. Poor schools, poor teachers, fiscally underfunded schools, lack of parental support (or other adult support), cultural expectations and norms including few or no individuals believing in success. If you want to see this, view the movie Raising Bertie or the movie STEP. Surrounded by failure of every sort from food scarcity to parental absence, incarceration and addiction to homelessness, many of today’s college students have not experienced success. They have lived lives filled with failures.

These students don’t need lessons in failure; they need lessons in success and their capacity—remarkable capacity—to succeed.

I would add that trauma, a topic about which I have been writing regularly, has been a large contributor to low student expectations and misunderstanding of student capacities. Indeed, we know that trauma has many cognitive effects on student learning, and it is often mistaken for other student shortcomings—when actually the students did not ask for the trauma and had no choice in being on the receiving end. Children who have been traumatized and are not in trauma-sensitive environments with tools to defuse the autonomic nervous system can feel the effects for a lifetime. Trauma’s aftermath can make you feel like a failure when you are anything but. You are a survivor. But trauma and its impacts don’t disappear. Reflect on the recent suicides a year after Parkland and several years after Sandy Hook. Tragic.

Most of us don’t need certificates of failure. We have failed. We have experienced lowered expectations. We know what it is like not to succeed and to watch others around us fail with regularity.

The focus on “certificates of failure” makes me ill actually. It applies to such a narrow segment of college students. Why is it that we can’t pay more attention to the vast majority of students and put our time, our energy, our money and our focus on their successes—hard-fought successes—in a world that dealt them failure? Yet again, we focus all our attention in the media and elsewhere on the elite as if that is all that matters and as if that is somehow representative of the vast majority of the population.

So, with the elite parents bribing and certificates of failure to offset lots of success and soft shells in some children raised to always feel good, let’s shift gears immediately. Let’s help non-elite colleges and students across the educational landscape for whom failure has been a constant companion. We don’t need a certificate of failure. It is evident in lives being lived. Instead, we need folks who believe in our success.

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.







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