Thoughts from a seventh year: The recession and its effect on campus

When I think of the events that will define people of college age, I think of Sept. 11, the election of Barack Obama and the Recession. There are, of course, numerous other events with varying degrees of national and international significance that have occurred in the 20 or so years of our lives, but those three stick out has having left the most indelible marks on the psyches of Americans.

The Recession, being the most recent, created perhaps the largest reverberations of any of the three today, especially on a liberal arts college campus, because we have come of college-age in an era of very uncertain financial stability. We’ve witnessed bailouts of previously thriving industries, seen the U.S.’s credit rating downgraded from AAA to AA and many of us have personally felt the effects of spending cuts in areas like the arts and education.

It hasn’t been a particularly secure few years, to put it mildly, so it should come as no surprise that Max Feldkamp, super-super-super senior extraordinaire in his seventh year on campus, has noticed that the Recession has been felt on campus in ways large and small.

The first and most obvious are the huge winter breaks. The placement and length of the winter break are the results of the desire to save money in heating costs in the coldest months. If students aren’t on campus the entire month of December, then the school doesn’t have to heat many of the buildings, especially dorms.

Before, the terms “didn’t start until the very end of September” and then would be “done around Christmas, like the average school, then [we’d] have a break until early January,” said Feldkamp. Funnily, said Feldkamp, the administration, “didn’t even know if it would work, if having the longer break would save money. It must have, though, because they’ve kept it.”

The rearranged academic calendar has had effects on more than just the heating bill. Feldkamp said, “The official word is that the terms aren’t more compressed than they were before, but in reality they are. We used to have longer reading periods, for one thing.” In fact, reading periods before finals lasted for three days, instead of two, from Saturday to Monday. Then the entire rest of that week, Tuesday to Friday, were reserved for finals rather than the shortened Monday to Wednesday we know now. “

The other way Lawrence has tried to pick up the slack created by the Recession has been in larger class sizes. Both the current senior and freshman classes are of record size and they’re “on campus at the same time!” Lawrence’s endowment “is not as big as they would like, so having larger classes helps keep the school comfortable financially,” said Feldkamp.

Perhaps it is a combination of the larger student population, higher-paced academic calendar and insecurity wrought by the Recession that has led to the most subtle but insidious change Max has noticed come over campus since 2007, when it began: anxiety.

“Every year, I see more and more people in aural skills of all things, a one unit class, in tears because they’re not getting an A. And when I was taking it, the mentality was, ‘Ok, we’re going to do well. We’re going to do our best here. But if I don’t get an A, such is life.’”

Feldkamp sees direct ties between the Recession and this new, higher-stakes, higher-stress mood on campus. “Though we may feel like we’re half-way out of the woods, the psychological damage of the Recession, if you will, has been done. I think that, especially being a small liberal arts college, we feel very insecure as to our own self-worth. I mean that collectively and as individuals.”

Feldkamp remembers his freshman or sophomore Convocation series as a testament to this insecurity. That year, “the entire convo series was an attempt to justify the worth of a liberal arts education. We still do that to a large extent with all the chest thumping and saying, ‘Yeah, we’re awesome.’ We’re desperate for this reassurance that we’ll get the job, that we’re more adaptable than other people. Looking back, it all seems very insecure.”

All of this is despite the fact that Lawrence has a great track record of successful graduates who go on to earn more than graduates from any other college in Wisconsin. Today’s college students have a lot going up against them, from the psychological reverberations of the Recession to a fast-paced schedule. The trick is in how we deal with it.