Putting ‘willing’ into the equation

A couple of months ago, the American Association of Community Colleges and the Walmart Foundation announced $4.19 million worth of three-year grants to community colleges across the country as part of the Job Ready, Willing and Able initiative.

“Ready” and “able” I understand, but I was having a hard time with the “willing” part. How do you teach someone to be willing to do a job, and do it well?

During a visit to West Virginia University-Parkersburg last week, I got a better idea of how colleges are tackling that problem. Vice President in the Office of Student Services Anthony Underwood was patient enough to allow me to hound him with questions for longer than our original schedule would have allowed. When I asked him how they handle the “willing” part of the initiative, he explained WVU-P has tried to make work ethic and personal responsibility as much a part of the curriculum as the job training and academics most would expect.

One of the most concrete tools for such an education is financial. Whereas most colleges and universities hand out financial aid at the beginning of a semester – before a student has set foot in a classroom – WVU-P makes sure early-semester expenses such as books are met and then waits to see how seriously a student is taking his or her classwork before handing out the rest of the cash. A student has to demonstrate willingness to fully participate in his or her own education before receiving financial assistance.

Underwood described the alternative as handing someone a paycheck before that person has completed any work. It just does not make sense, and, in fact, re-enforces a sense of entitlement.

In another example of the lengths to which Underwood’s office tries to be a good steward of the funds it is able to disburse, he described the personal attention each student’s case gets. The flexibility of examining each case on its own merits, as opposed to adhering to a blanket set of criteria, means if a student living only a few miles from campus applied for emergency financial assistance to cover traveling expenses and subsequently blew through the entire sum in one semester, he or she would be unlikely to receive the same assistance from Underwood’s office the next semester. Many other examples of the individual consideration given each student were available.

WVU-P received a $150,000 grant from the Job Ready, Willing and Able initiative for three years to grow the Chemical Operator and Polymer Technology program. A good deal of work with employers is being done to ensure students receive the full benefit of the academics and experience this grant should provide.

But in addition to monetary incentives, Underwood knows his office holds another tool for helping students understand how important it is to keep up their ends of these bargains – extra-curricular activities such as athletics or student government. WVU-P does not fund athletic programs on campus. They are strictly club activities. Therefore, the programs are not bound by some of the academic requirements of programs in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Just because they are not bound by such rules does not mean students are not expected to maintain the same academic standards if they are to participate in club athletics or student government. Underwood described it as another way to help students understand they will be held accountable for their own academic efforts, no matter what other ways they have chosen to engage in campus life.

The puzzle of personal accountability is one being faced at all levels of society, across the country. It will take the accumulation of efforts such as the one at WVU-P to turn the tide. But it is encouraging to know local folks are doing their part.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com