Category Archives: Ideas for Professional Development

Saving Money by Cutting a Music Program is Harder than You Think!

Hello, Readers!

This is a slightly edited version of a post that I published in May 2016. I hope you find it useful.


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I was recently talking with several graduate music students about threats of underfunding or complete elimination of a music program or unit at a college or university by senior administrators looking for ways to save money. Such risks are real because music programs do tend to cost more to run than do many other programs: we have specialized equipment and our studio model of individualized lesson instruction is expensive.

I began thinking about these issues about a decade ago when the provost at one of my prior colleges considered eliminating a studio faculty line when a senior music professor retired. In higher education today, provosts routinely pull back faculty lines after retirements—it is one of the ways they can reshape priorities and programs. But for music programs large enough and of high enough quality to have full-time faculty covering most, if not all, studio areas, the loss of the one studio faculty line for a particular instrument (e.g., the one trombone or the one viola faculty position) undermines the quality of the whole organization because each studio feeds into the overarching ensemble superstructure of a serious music program.

I’ve also been involved in campus-wide budget development and campus-wide program review, which included conversations about resource reallocation. The reality is that for many smaller colleges and universities today, budgets remain very tight, and music and arts programs take on the appearance of “low hanging fruit.”

Here’s the catch: I am not going to make the case to save a music program on the merits of the arts generally or of music specifically or of student well-roundedness in the abstract. Arguing from the “inherent value” of the arts or the quality of your specific program is pointless in this situation. If your president or provost believed in the inherent value of the arts (not to mention the value of a well-rounded, liberal arts education), you would be having a different conversation! They would be looking for other cost saving measures or efficiencies, or they would be hitting the pavement to find more donors committed to the arts in higher education.

My argument takes as its starting point the belief that your only chance of winning this debate is with data that demonstrates that eliminating your music program will not generate the hoped-for savings!

Let’s begin with some basic financial numbers. Assume we are teaching at a mid-sized, private liberal arts university of about 4,500 students. We’ll call it Presbyterian College of the West, and with 4,500 total students, it is not unrealistic that it would have 150 music majors. On a cloudy Monday morning, the chair of the music department let’s her faculty know that PCW’s provost is considering closing down the music program. It is too expensive, and resources are needed elsewhere.

So let’s investigate the potential cost-savings by considering the basic financial data: At most small- and mid-sized colleges and universities, the single largest cost in an academic program

is usually its fixed faculty salary commitments. Assume 150 music majors are being instructed by about 20 full-time music faculty. According to recent national data, for faculty in the arts, the average Associate professor salary at masters-level institutions is $63,438.  ( Assume a 35% add-on for benefits, and for 20 music faculty, PCW is spending around $1,712,826–a tidy sum of money that could be saved if PCW’s provost carries through with his plan to close down the music program and eliminate the majority of those music faculty lines.

Furthermore, for the sake of the argument, and to be as “generous” as possible in terms of assumed savings, let’s also factor in staff costs. There are probably 6 full-time staff working with 20 music faculty and 150 music majors faculty (assuming a 1:25 ratio between music majors and music staff). If the average staff salary is $48,000 and total compensation with benefits is about $64,800, then PCW is spending $388,800 on staff in the music program. Lastly, we’ll assume that the rest of the music unit budget runs to about $250,000 per year and covers remaining adjunct salaries, equipment repair and purchase, and production costs. The total expenses for the music program would thus run to about $2,351,626 per year.

At the same time, the average annual tuition at four-year, private colleges is currently about $32,405. Average room and board adds about $11,516 to the annual bill (see If most music majors at PCW are getting about a 50% tuition discount (which is not unrealistic today, especially at private colleges), and if only half of the music majors are living on campus, then PCW would be collecting about $3,294,075 from 150 music majors. Now do the math: for a savings of $2,351,626 in music faculty, staff, and other costs, PCW risks a net loss of tuition and room revenue totaling $942,449.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Why assume all that tuition and room and board revenue will be lost to PCW just because it shuts down its music program?”

The answer is simple, though it may be hard for some senior administrators to accept: Music majors—at least in my experience at four different higher education institutions—choose to become music majors and THEN select and apply to target colleges with the studio faculty, ensembles, and music degree programs that they wish to pursue. Most do not choose a college or university and then enroll there, regardless of whether or not there is a (quality) music program.

In other words, music is not a “landing” program; music is not a major that students stumble into once they arrive on a campus with which they have fallen in love. This certainly does not happen on campuses with serious music programs that require auditions of its prospective students.

Music is a “destination” program.

So if PCW closes down its music program, its potential music majors won’t suddenly decide to come to PCW anyway but become nursing majors or psychology majors instead. No, those young musicians will decide to go to one of PCW’s regional competitors.

Furthermore, many of the current music major are going to expect that PCW “teach out” the music major until most—if not all— currently matriculated music majors are finished. (PCW’s state may even require such a “teach out” period.) Depending on PCW’s president’s tolerance for lawsuits, threatened or actual, the teach out might take four or five years. That length of time minimizes whatever savings might come from closing down the music program and delays when those savings actually hit the university’s financial bottom line.

Five years is a long time – long enough to move through a national or global business cycle, with all of its impact on demands for certain types of majors, and long enough for a college presidency to run its course.

OK, so if the reality of the financial data does not scrap the plan to close PCW’s music program, how about football?


Yes, football.

If PCW’s president is trying to reallocate money from music and the arts or “low performing programs” to fund other programs that could “raise the profile of the university,” then athletics is certainly on her mind.

But if the music program is eliminated, there will be no marching band. And if a marching band already exists to support an existing football program, what will the booster organization think (and do) when the marching band program begins to erode and the football experience is diminished?

You cannot sustain a substantive marching program without a core of strong players from the music major.

So far in our scenario, cutting the music faculty and program has resulted in a net tuition loss because music majors (potential and current) will begin to go elsewhere. And the boosters are upset by the loss of their beloved marching band program. But here’s the next major problem: What will PCW’s administration do with that empty music building?

PCW’s provost is not going to just start having biology or chemistry labs in an un-renovated music building that—let’s be honest—is likely to be old and outdated if the music program has been struggling! Science laboratory buildings today require modern and sophisticated ventilation systems and ample electrical systems to power expensive equipment, things that will probably be missing from PCW’s music building built in ca. 1965.

And your music building classrooms are not going to suddenly host an overflow of humanities classes that do not need a lot of specialized equipment. If music is struggling on PCW’s campus, chances are the humanities are in much worse shape in terms of numbers of majors in those programs.

And PCW’s music building is most certainly not going to become a dormitory. Colleges and universities do not win today’s “amenities cold war” with renovated dormitory spaces! No freshman will want to live in a refurbished music practice room on an interior hallway with no windows!

So not only will the music building require massive amounts of investment to make it useful for something other than music, PCW’s president and provost will have…. tons of unused pianos to unload! In other words, there will be even more assets that have now become useless.

Cutting the music program ultimately saves very little because tuition revenue will typically outpace faculty and other instructional costs until the ratio of full-time music faculty to music majors (at a private college or university) reaches about 1:5. The exact ratio depends, of course, on a particular institution’s tuition rate and its “discount rate,” that is, the amount “returned” to students in the form of scholarships. PCW’s music major enrollment would have to drop to about 107 students before tuition revenue and unit costs (including faculty and staff salaries) balanced out.

It would be far better for PCW to make a renewed financial commitment to its music program in an effort to attract more tuition-paying students to use the facilities and equipment in which the institution has already invested. Granted, to get ahead financially, the music department would have to hold the line as best as possible on additional instructional costs. But as a moderately sized college, PCW’s budget would benefit from even as few as five or six more music majors.

In closing, here are a few more questions that music department chairs or concerned faculty members should be able to answer at a moment’s notice if and when talk begins about cutting into or eliminating the music program:

How many students matriculate into the music major, then drop the major but stay at the college?

How many students audition, are not accepted into the major, but still come to the college to participate in music ensembles?

What is the exact percentage of students overall who participate in music ensembles each year?

The answers to these questions may provide further evidence of how the quality of the musical life at your institution draws students to and keeps them coming to your college or university.

Stan Pelkey

May 2016


Watership Down: Literature and Leadership

Literature and Leadership: Watership Down

 Stan Pelkey    

“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.” (Bigwig to General Woundwort)

“The Sky Suspended,” Watership Down (First Avon Edition, 1975; p. 451)

It’s not difficult to find reflections on leaders and leadership. Northouse (2010) notes, “Bookstore shelves are filled with popular books about leaders and advice on how to be a leader” (p. 1). An extensive body of social science research on leadership also exists. And we could cast our net even more widely and consider how Western literature has reflected—explicitly or implicitly—upon human motivation, behavior, and leadership for millennia. Our collective obsession with heroes and heroic stories, evident in our mass media culture for over a century, as well as in traditional historical narratives, points to wide-spread fascination in Western society with social organization, leadership, and the exercise of power in its various forms, including referent, expert, legitimate, reward-based, and coercive power.

This is my second blog on leadership through the lens of some of the literature and media that I most love. This series of posts grows in part out of my personal vision of the humanities as a repository of collective memories and wisdom, an ongoing conversation about both abstract values and highly practical ways to think about living well and being just. This blog focuses on Hazel, the principal character in the novel Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams. I first read Watership Down when I was in sixth grade; it has remained one of my favorite books ever since. About five years ago, my daughter read Watership Down for English class, which gave us the chance to discuss the book and motivated me to re-read it.

Originally, the story of the rabbit Hazel and his companions struck me as an allegory about various forms of social organization and their influences on the values and characters of individuals. I still believe that is a meaningful way to understand the book, but during my more recent readings, I have come to view Watership Down as a brilliant portrait of highly effective and virtuous leadership. Indeed, Adamsʼs placement of quotations from European literature and philosophy at the head of each of his novel’s chapters invites consideration of the book as much more than a story about rabbits.

Hazelʼs journey is an archetypal representation of the growth from emergent to recognized and transformational leader. He begins life as an unimportant member of his warren, where legitimate or institutional power was exercised with some coercion. As he tells his brother, the mystic Fiver, “Iʼm sick and tired of it…. ʻThese are my claws, so this is my cowslip.ʼ ʻThese are my teeth, so this is my burrow.ʼ” (Adams, p. 14) Although we witness far worse forms of coercive power before the end of the novel, the point is well taken: social organizations from the very small to the very large rely heavily on rewards and punishments; in doing so, they alienate many, especially “out-group” members (in this case, smaller animals). Interestingly, despite being introduced as an outsider or “outskirter,” Hazel is also marked by Adams as different from most yearlings with words such as “shrewd” and “buoyant” from the moment he is introduced. (Adams, p. 12)

Almost immediately after their simple conversation about coercion, Fiver has a vision of the impending destruction of their warren; this unexpectedly thrusts Hazel into the first of a long series of decision-making moments around which the book’s plot takes shape. He rises to the challenge each time and steadily establishes himself as the undisputed leader of his band of breakaway rabbits.

In the very first night of flight from their home, Hazel begins to establish himself as the leader of the breakaway rabbits. First, however, he has to accept that he has talents and value, especially in the face of the arrival of the larger rabbit, Bigwig. Next, Hazel has to take the risk of exercising authority publicly for the first time in his life. He does so by ordering a group of rabbits sent to bring them back to the warren to go or be killed. Immediately after, he —and he alone—makes the decision that the group of rabbits with him must stop waiting for more (potential) mutineers and must move out. Then, during the night’s journey through a “desolate, grassless woodland,” with terrifying night-time animals all around (Adams, p. 34), Hazel takes physical risks himself in order to guide and ultimately protect the group—in short, he leads from the front. He does so again the next morning, scouting ahead on his own to find a safe place for the group to rest, then getting them safely across a large field the next night. By that point, other rabbits openly acknowledge Hazel as their leader.

Leading from the front is one of Hazel’s most significant leadership qualities. Over the course of Watership Down, he demonstrates his other. Hazel repeatedly rejects brute force and coercion as the basis of social organization and cohesion. Instead, he reveals a knack for sizing up and valuing the individual qualities and skills of the other rabbits in the coalition as it continues to expand around him. Hazel then harnesses the abilities of those best suited to solve particular problems at particular moments rather than relying on the sharpest claws or mightiest teeth. The result of this leadership strategy for the other rabbits is “buy in” to the larger vision and process charted by the coalition; for the coalition as a whole, the benefit is that skills and abilities are not lost from the group simply because they come packaged in smaller, weaker, or less popular individuals.

First and foremost, Hazel accepts the gift (and truth) of his brother’s visions. He also welcomes other smaller, more vulnerable, or less talented rabbits, recognizing that in launching out on a risky new venture, one cannot always pick and choose one’s allies. (Adams, p. 26) How many could-be-ventures – personal, cultural, business – never get off the ground because a potential leader becomes trapped into waiting for never-to-arrive ideal moments and never-to-arrive perfect participants?

Two of my favorite scenes in the early part of the book exemplify Hazel’s ability to draw upon the talents of those around him, for the good of the whole. On the first night of their journey while in the woods, Hazel realizes that the group must rest, but he also knows that they are exposed and that without something to distract them, some of the rabbits might bolt from fear. His solution is to ask Dandelion, the master storyteller in the group, to entertain them. To his credit, Dandelion realizes why Hazel makes this request and is able to work through his own fear to settle down and tell a story. As leader, Hazel catalyzes the mutual care that can occur by turning to those with skills for the moment rather than using force to push through his own agenda (e.g., moving forward). Similarly, the next day, Hazel has to put his trust in Blackberry, “the cleverest rabbit among them,” to come up with a plan to get everyone, including the small rabbits, safely across a river. (Adams, p. 45) Hazel comes to realize from this that he can regularly lean on Blackberry’s uncanny technical understanding.

What is extraordinary in terms of the overarching narrative is that these early scenes repeat themselves at the end of the book, but on much grander scales. Hazel learns from the early input and ideas of his fellow travelers and is then able to marshal their skills in even more complex ways when it matters even more. In essence, under Hazel’s guidance, the coalition becomes a learning organization.

By the end of Watership Down, Hazel is the universally respected and undisputed leader of his people, having guided the community as it created a shared vision, a common purpose, and a mutually edifying social structure. Thus it comes as no surprise when at a crucial moment, the most physically powerful rabbit in the new warren on Watership Down, Bigwig, once Hazelʼs principal rival, is willing to sacrifice himself to carry out Hazelʼs wishes, for the good of the community.

This is Hazel’s greatest victory – though not necessarily in the way you might think. It is not simply that Hazel wins out or wins over Bigwig; rather, the victory is that in having done so, he does not reject Bigwig. From early in the novel, Hazel actually learns to appreciate even Bigwig’s gifts – and not just his superior strength. Rather than rejecting him first as a potential rival and then as a vanquished one, Hazel draws Bigwig into the center of his “executive team.” Hazel the leader can then utilize Bigwig’s talents, but this decision also transforms Hazel: he comes to understand that there is a place for Bigwig’s gifts within the larger social structure that Hazel is shaping in opposition to the more coercive systems he has witnessed. By rejecting the destructive or continually bitter rivalry that could have been all too natural between them, and by coupling themselves into a tight friendship and partnership, Hazel and Bigwig achieve more together than they could ever have achieved on their own. That is the greatest victory for Hazel, as well as for Bigwig: self-mastery where it matters absolutely the most, and openness to self-transformation.

In the end, all leaders will run up against situations, obstacles, or people that they cannot win over or “master.” Given that reality, one could argue that self-mastery and openness to self-transformation are ultimately the most important character traits of leaders. There’s no guarantee that modeling such behavior or traits will inspire others toward their own self-mastery and self-transformation. But one can keep growing and continue to offer oneself to others for the good of the community.

Stan Pelkey

August 25, 2016 (Tallahassee)



Literature, Leadership, and Change

By Stan Pelkey

It’s not difficult to find reflections on leaders and leadership. Northouse (2010) notes, “Bookstore shelves are filled with popular books about leaders and advice on how to be a leader” (p. 1). Besides those popular books, an extensive body of social science research on leadership exists. And we could cast our net even more widely and consider how Western literature has reflected—explicitly or implicitly—upon human motivation, behavior, and leadership for millennia. Our collective obsession with heroes and heroic stories, evident in our mass media culture for over a century, as well as in traditional historical narratives, points to wide-spread fascination in Western society with social organization, leadership, and the exercise of power in its various forms, including referent, expert, legitimate, reward-based, and coercive power.

Six years ago, I began my journey into academic leadership when I became an “area” or department chair in the School of Music at Western Michigan University. At the same time, I had the opportunity to join a year-long, university-wide leadership training program. I became so interested in the topics we discussed and the readings we completed that I followed up on that experience by taking some formal coursework in higher education administration and leadership. As I took those courses, I kept turning to literature and media culture for insights, which is in keeping with my personal vision of the humanities as a repository of collective memories and wisdom, an ongoing conversation about both the abstract and the highly practical. Now, years later, I’m taking some time to do what I did not have time to do back then: share a few thoughts about leadership and change through the lens of some personally beloved literature and media.

In this first blog around the topic of leadership and literature, I’m going to focus on “CHANGE.” Yes, I know that can be a terrifying word. It has often been for me as well. In the past few years, however, I’ve challenged myself to re-assess my desire for stasis and to re-imagine “change” as a deep, moral commitment to constantly try to improve processes and products to better meet other people’s needs.

For example, Northouse (2010) writes that change does not need to be “disruptive”; it can mean improving existing functions (p. 48). Rost (1993) notes that change should be linked to meeting people’s real needs (p. 113). Senge (1990) argues that small, incremental changes can be the “leverage” needed to start to transform entire systems (p. 64). These authors helped me gain a new vision of what “change” could mean in higher education (and other organizations generally).

Faculty members are humans, and like so many other humans, some react negatively to proposed change because it threatens their sense of identity, status, or “turf.” Change can also seem to threaten the integrity of academic disciplines. Change is less threatening, however, when academic disciplines are understood to be tools that can be used to solve problems that are important to individual students and to society more broadly rather than as sacrosanct bodies of processes and tightly guarded and bounded collections of knowledge.

I have come to believe that if faculty members were given more time and resources so that they really could continually grow as scholars and teachers, many (though not necessarily all) of the problems that we try to solve with endless committee meetings about curricula, scheduling, technology, and policy would be eliminated.




There would be a sudden, massive development in human capital across our academic institutions, which would lead in turn to collective, “transformational” leadership at every level of those institutions.

That transformational leadership would be consistent with the democratic ideals espoused by the educator Lyman Bryson in his classic text, The Next America: Prophecy and Faith (1952). Bryson argued, “Any process is democratic that enables those who take part to learn by choices made in freedom and to test new choices, while knowledge and experience grow. Its purpose is to develop human beings as ends in themselves” (p. 93) and to enable them to become all that they can be (p. 240). Democracy and democratic processes are not limited to government or the state, but should permeate every facet of social and cultural life, including society’s schools. Therefore, “The teacher is the one who enlarges our freedom by enlarging our knowledge of possible choice and likely consequence” (p. 142), which is the chief means of individual development (p. 144). If Bryson is right, then not only should our universities be run as democratically as possible, but academic leaders should work to “enlarge the freedom” of faculty, and every faculty member should do the same for students. “Change”—understood as growth—would become second nature in such an environment.

The constant transformation of individuals takes hard work and deep commitment. Too often, we become obsessed with our past accomplishments; this can make us complacent or fearful of change. It can also lead to a kind of emotional paralysis if previously mastered skills become associated too closely with our personal identities.

In his short story, “The Leader of the People,” which eventually formed part of the Red Pony stories, John Steinbeck introduces us to Grandfather. He is Mrs. Tiflin’s father, Jody’s grandpa, and one of the banes of Carl Tiflin’s life. Grandfather annoys Carl because he dwells constantly on his experience leading a wagon train across the country to California in the later nineteenth century. Mrs. Tiflin tries to explain her father to her husband Carl (and to the reader):

“He led a wagon train clear across the plains to the coast, and when it was finished, his life was done. It was a big thing to do, but it didn’t last long enough. Look… it’s as though he was born to do that, and after he finished it, there wasn’t anything more for him to do but to think about it and talk about it. If there’d been any farther west to go, he’d have gone….” (p. 213)


This explanation fails to diffuse the tension, and Grandfather eventually overhears Carl complain that he is sick of hearing the same stories over and over again. Grandfather later admits to Jody that it’s not even the long-ago events themselves that matter most to him. It was the process of “westering”:

“It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast. And I was the head…. Every man wanted something for himself, but the beast that was all of them wanted only westering.” (pp. 224–225)


While Grandfather articulates that amazing feeling of a being part of a process that moves toward a common goal and shared vision, he has become trapped in the memory of his own past accomplishments. More to the point: he fully identifies himself with them. He may have had the rights skills and correct understanding for that moment in his life, but he does not seem to be a leader generally, as he has been unable to translate those abilities into problem-solving skills for new experiences, challenges, and opportunities.

In my work as a Director of Music at numerous churches in six states during the past two decades, I have witnessed this “paralysis in the past” many times, not only in the oft-mocked “we’ve never done it that way before” attitudes voiced by many church members, but also in the tendency for some to be unable to face new challenges without recourse to nostalgic comparisons to “back then.” It’s not simply that some are unwilling to try new approaches to solve new problems; some are unable to face the very existence of the new problems because of devotion to systems, processes, and products of the past. But let’s be honest and fair: such devotion to past systems, processes, and products can be found among members of all human organizations!

I spent years falling prey to this attitude! But then I realized that this attitude was strongly tied to a paralyzing association of my current skills with my personal and professional identity. I was afraid that I could not continue to “grow my skill set” and keep expanding “who I am” personally and professionally. Against my best “preachments” that who I am is more important than what I am or what I do, in “practice” (emotionally, and in terms of some behaviors and attitudes), too often in the past, I comfortably slid into a definition of myself that was strongly tied to “what I do,” “what I know,” and ultimately “what I am most comfortable knowing and doing.”

Now I know that this attitude is the change killer in me! My remedy: embrace the insights I gained from Birnbaum, Fullan, Rost, Schlechty, and Senge, among others, and challenge myself to master new skills and build new understanding at a faster pace. Instead of worrying that change diminishes past accomplishments (and so threatens established identity), I try to see calls for change as opportunities to grow, to become a more richly textured person.

Being a leader means being on a constant quest to expand the self. True leaders will likewise inspire and make possible the expansion of other selves. They will act accordingly in relation to all those around them, whether that means actually contributing something of value or just getting out of the way!


A Reading List

Birnbaum, R. (1991). How colleges work: The cybernetics of academic organization and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bryson, L. (1952). The next America: Prophecy and faith. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Fullan, M. (2001). Understanding Change. In Leading in a culture of change (31–49). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Northouse, P.G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and practice (5th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Rost, J. C. (1993). The nature of leadership. In Leadership for the twenty-first century (98–128). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Schlechty, P.C. (2007). Understanding the normative system. In Michael Fullan (Ed.), The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership (2nd ed.) (221–237). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Senge, P. (1990). The laws of the fifth discipline. In The fifth discipline (57-67).
New York: Crown Business.

Steinbeck, J. (1995). The Leader of the People. In The long valley (209–226). New York: Penguin Books.

Tips to Help You Succeed in Your First Year of College

Back in May, I wrote about how potential music majors could prepare for their first year of college. (See “How to Become a Music Major: Four Tips to Help You Get In and Get Through.”) This month I broaden the discussion and suggest ways that all students can improve their chances of having a positive first year at college.

A college or university is a collection of small communities, each advocating for and advancing its own educational goals and ideas. Faculty members often emphasize courses and degree programs as the core mission of a college or university and a student’s performance in class as the primary responsibility of the student in college. It is here that “real education” is supposed (and presumed) to take place. But there is also an entire student life and student development community whose professional members (deans of students, residence life coordinators, leadership trainers, study abroad officers, and health services staff, to name a few) and student members (student government officers, resident advisors, student newspaper staff, and so forth) believe that they have a very important part to play in the total education of students. Some may even think that student life trumps academic work because they offer the more “real world” experience and “real world” education. There are also teams of people—which may include both faculty and student life staff—who are managing all kinds of programming that does not fall neatly under either academics or student life, including guest lectures and presentations, workshops, career development opportunities, internships, concerts, plays, book clubs, film viewings and discussions, and so forth. And finally there are all of the student clubs, organizations, and associations.

ALL of these people or groups are competing for and hoping to get the individual student’s attention and commitment of time.


So my first piece of advice: Do not over commit to campus life during your first year.

Yes, that seems to put me in the camp that argues that academics are all important, but actually I believe that the entire college or university experience can be personally and professionally valuable. I’m not saying, “Do not get involved.” I am saying, “Be very careful not to get too involved.” This is a time management issue, not a statement about the relative merits of academic development and student life experiences. Both are important. But at the same time, you’re paying money for those college courses; in many cases, you’re paying a lot for those classes. You may even be going into debt for them! So I do advise that you spend your first year focusing on your courses until you’ve determined how much time you do need to be successful academically – and for many students that WILL be more hours per week than was needed for success in high school.

Once you’ve determined how much time you need to do well academically, then you can allocate more time to other campus activities and your collegiate social life.

My second piece of advice follows from the first: Do not wait until the second semester (or worse, the second year) to “gear up.” Push yourself as hard as possible in your first semester of college. Really successful students “gear up” rapidly in the very first few weeks of the first semester and every semester afterward.

As a faculty member, I have watched, year after year, as many students wait too long to get their semester started. These students finally realized around week 10 or 11 that they needed to buckle down and get to work. The problem: it is too late!

Often the due dates for critical (and large) assignments will now be only 2 or 3 weeks away, or a second exam in a course will be on the immediate horizon. Poor performances on assignments or examinations in the first 10 weeks are very difficult to overcome in the last 5 weeks because all the final assignments and all that studying for examinations in every class now begins to pile up. If you are behind in week 10, it is unlikely you can complete the work that was due during weeks 1–10 while also preparing successfully for those tasks that occur in weeks 11–15. In most cases, I find that the student grades I’ve accumulated by about week 8 anticipate final course grades for each student. Some students show some improvement in the final weeks of the semester; a few show significant maturation in their work and/or performance on examinations in the last weeks of the semester. Contrarily, grades for some students collapse after week 8—usually because the back log of late work I just mentioned overwhelms them emotionally and then they become so busy trying to finish late work that they cannot keep up with work due late in the semester.

By starting strong in your first semester will ultimately improve your GPA, and having a good GPA in your first term means you will be less likely as a junior or senior to have to beat the odds to pull a low GPA back up to respectable territory. With a strong GPA in the first semester, you will either set the stage for ongoing success or create a cushion for that inevitable semester that just does not go so well, often through no fault of your own.

So how do you start strong? The following tips collectively form my third piece of advice: develop healthy and successful study habits!

(A) Get to work on large projects and papers as soon as they are assigned. Yes, you will eventually have to set the larger projects aside for a few days or weeks because you will have to turn your attention to smaller assignments with more immediate deadlines (for example, reading assignments, lab reports, short essays, composition exercises, early-term assessments, and so on). Getting started earlier can have psychological benefits: it may mediate some of the anxiety many of us experience as deadlines for large projects loom; you will be more confident turning back to the big projects later in the term knowing you’ve already begun to work on them before the pressure to get them finished really mounts; you will be amazed by how much reflective processing of ideas has occurred in your mind even without your realizing it.

(B) Break down big tasks into a series of manageable sub-projects, then complete one every few days or weeks, depending on the scale of the overall project and your schedule. Tackling projects systematically and incrementally may relieve the anxiety of wondering, “When will I have time to do this huge project? How can I even get started?” Don’t try to find time for the whole, just find time for the smaller components; complete one goal at a time. Reward yourself with break time, and then get back to the next goal later today, tomorrow, next week, or whatever your calendar requires.

(C) Don’t wait to study for examinations. Study a little for each class for 15 or 20 minutes at least every other day. In a few weeks, you will be amazed by how much you know because you have “lived with” the material. Furthermore, you will not have to cram or study all night for a test, which means you will get more sleep when you need it the most!

(D) Read actively. Take notes on textbook assignments and other reading assignments (do not just passively underline or highlight in the book), and read through your notes as part of your test preparation, too. Consider going the extra mile: organize the notes you generate into meaningful summaries. You will be amazed by how much material you will have at your finger tips for essay questions on exams!

(E) If your professor gives you a study guide, use it! If your professor gives you sample questions, work on them!

Fourth: Do not blow off your general education courses. Yes, some may seem remedial compared to the last class in that particular subject you took in high school. Yes, some faculty members assign too much work in general education courses. But here’s the thing: even if you think you don’t care about the particular class or assume the information is irrelevant, you just never know when something you are learning could help you become a better person or contribute to your vocation or other interests. Furthermore, with jobs in near-constant states of transformation, you can not be too confident on what training or education you need, or will need, or what information is relevant or not.

Here’s a suggestion: if you are in a class with readings or texts to be mastered, mine those for ideas that illuminate what you DO care about. Better yet, finds ways to express this in assignments to your professors. Faculty members often will be pleased when students take the initiative to build connections between the texts the faculty member cares about and the general body of ideas or experiences that the student cares about. If it is a skills-based course, such as a lab, then turn the experience into a chance to observe human behavior in that environment. Or again, see if there are natural connections that you can create between your work and the course. At the very least, preserve your GPA and do not blow off general education classes! If the course is in a subject area that you feel you already know well, then take that opportunity to get an A for the course and so strengthen your GPA.

Fifth: Get to know your professors. Most will appreciate it if you introduce yourself to them, pay attention in class, and participate. And as you get to know professors and find the ones who inspire you, consider taking more elective courses with them, if possible. What you learn in the relationship and in observing that faculty member may be more valuable to you and your education than the subject matter of the class itself.

Finally, don’t feel badly if your roster of friends changes across year 1 and into year 2. This is normal as you meet more people and settle into a major. You may not room with the same people after year 1 – no problem! You may begin to eat with people you meet in your classes rather than those whom you first met during orientation or in your dorm – no problem! This is all natural, and everyone is going through this process. It is perfectly fine. Just keep being courteous and civil, and do not burn bridges!