Sunday, August 19, 2012

 

Ask the Administrator: What Does “College Ready” Mean?

A new correspondent writes:

I'm curious as to your definition of "college ready."
I teach first-year writing at a community college, and I genuinely love it. I love teaching writing, and I love teaching at a community college. One of the things I love most about CCs is the wide range of students who enroll; not only do we get the fresh-out-of-high-school students, but we gets students who have been working longer and developing professionally since the time I was in middle school, or longer. (I'm in my mid-30s.) I recently heard a colleague bemoan that students today weren't "college-ready," although I have to admit I didn't get the chance to ask her what she meant by that - her comment was made in context of her dislike of teaching that first level of writing because students weren't "college-ready." (I had to take a non-credit math class in college before I was permitted to take the lowest level of math class that would be permitted for my major. I had also been out of school for almost 10 years. Not college ready?)
I find such an attitude dismissive towards students who may, in fact, have been strong students, academically speaking, when they were in high school, but may need a refresher, or need an instructor who can finally make sense of any writing and reading issues they faced while enrolled in school previously. There are skills skills that need to be taught; one of the reasons one attends college to begin with is so that one can be taught those skills. There are always learning curves, both academically and in terms of attitude.  
Does it mean that the students who come to college shouldn't need first year English? Should their writing skills be such that they shouldn't need to take writing courses at all?  Do we tell students who are in their 40s and 50s, who have spent decades developing professionally without having gone to college, that they're not college ready simply because they might never have been strong writers? (Especially if they've been out of school for a few decades.) I wonder if she meant that students' attitudes and expectations were not what they should be, or what we would like them to be.
In any case, I'm curious as to how you define "college ready," and if you think students come to college really ready or if there are other thing that we could do in the trenches to help them.


I’m reminded of the exchange between Homer and the pawnshop guy on an early episode of The Simpsons, when Homer tried to pawn his tv.  “Is it cable ready?”  “Ready as it’ll ever be...”

Ready is a relative term.  And some level of skepticism is warranted, since every generation inevitably finds its successors lacking in something.  Kids today don’t even know who Tabitha Soren was!  Unthinkable.

That said, I think there are two “default” assumptions about “college readiness” that have general currency.  

The first is the student who places immediately into college-level courses, who has the finances, transportation, and books all arranged, and who has a clear goal in mind.  This student is optimally prepared to succeed in college, and it would be glorious if more students arrived like this.  Students who know what they want are likelier to attain it, and students who have their various ducks in a row at the outset are well-situated to succeed.  That’s no guarantee, of course, but the odds are far better.  (There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question with students like this.  Do they succeed because they’re prepared, or are they prepared because they’re the type that tend to succeed?  I’d guess it’s some of each.)

The second is the student who has identifiable risk factors, but who can still get it together.  This is the more common type of student; it sounds like you were one yourself.  This is the student with some academic gaps, some economic or family challenges, and, sometimes, some old, unhelpful habits that tend to die hard.  

The exclusive colleges like to outsource the second type of student to colleges like mine.  That way, they can spend their vastly greater resources on students who are nearly guaranteed to thrive.  That would be fine, if people who should know better didn’t go around crowing about differences in graduation rates, and drawing unfounded conclusions based on flawed measures.

But I digress.  

The challenge for faculty at colleges who take more of the second type of student -- and, yes, sometimes the third type, the ones who just aren’t ready -- is in focusing on the goal, rather than the gaps.  The gaps can be easy enough to see -- sometimes they hit you squarely in the face --
and sometimes they make a painful impression.  That’s especially true for folks who teach the introductory and developmental courses year after year.  Whatever progress you make with a given set of students in a semester, you have to hit “reset” and start over again the next semester.  Over years and even decades, the strain of that sometimes gets the better of some people.  They start to complain about “kids today,” and how they just don’t measure up, and how too much (fill in the blank -- comic book reading, television watching, web surfing, social networking...) has reduced their brains to mush, not like the Good Old Days When They Were Young...

It’s called “burnout,” and I’ve seen good people fall prey to it.  

If we put aside the bitterness and selective memory of “golden age” appeals, though, it’s increasingly clear that there are a few things people can do to help prospective students, and new students, succeed at greater rates than they otherwise would.

One, simply enough, is to convey to students an expectation that they will succeed.  This is why burnouts are so toxic; their fatalism is self-fulfilling.  Students have been known to rise, or fall, to the expectations set.  

Another is to help students identify goals early on.  We often make the mistake of foregrounding the gaps instead.  “You aren’t at the college level for math or writing, so you’ll need to spend a year retaking courses you hated the first time before you take anything that counts.”  Students tend to find that demoralizing.  It’s one thing to endure a long, hard slog when there’s a clear purpose behind it; it’s quite another when the whole enterprise just seems like an expensive quagmire.

On my own campus, for example, I’ve been heartened to see a shift in career advising from the last semester to the first semester.  Instead of waiting for students to be nearly done before talking about career goals, we get them as they walk in.  The idea is to help students figure out what they actually want.  Once the goal is in mind, it’s much easier to have discussions about pathways and strategies.

(Before the flaming, let me clarify that frequently the goal involves transfer and moving on to higher degrees.  It’s not at all antithetical to the liberal arts.  Besides, if memory serves, a fair number of students at snooty liberal arts colleges have career goals when they arrive.)

Yes, it would be great if the high schools did a better job.  But at the college, we can’t control that.  What we can do -- and are starting to make progress toward doing -- is to treat students as potential successes, and as people to be taken seriously.  Have the epistemological humility to admit that anyone who declares with absolute certainty who will and won’t make it is either lying or toxic.  Some folks with impressive early promise fizzle, and some who don’t look like much when they get here catch fire.  The job of the folks on the front lines is to create the conditions under which actual students -- not the idealized versions dimly recalled from undergrad days at selective places - can find their way.  

One guy’s definition, anyway.  Wise and worldly readers, how would you define college ready?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Comments:
Your definition is perfect, as is your diagnosis of what we need to do about it. Having a clear career path is very important, but not nearly as important as knowing that others have succeeded on that same path.

My comment for your correspondent is that any student in first year English is at least minimally "college ready" no matter how they got there (placement or developmental) if the rest of the college (testing or remediation) has done what we expect of them. The rest is up to us. Based on my experience, even a student who has passed a semester of calculus usually has some algebra gaps that need patching to succeed at the next level.

Heck, I'd say that the mere fact that Duke doesn't have a 100% graduation rate shows that everyone has some flaw that needs fixing. Or, using a sports analogy, it is certainly not the case that every HS All American makes it to the NFL or NBA. Some are so full of themselves from the publicity that they never improve and small flaws in their game become fatal at the next level of competition.
 
I would recommend a few specific essays that address this topic very well, and made a huge impact on me in the composition pedagogy course I took during my MFA. They're well-known pieces, but in case you teach composition and happened to miss them:

David Barthelme, "Inventing the University" (http://tinyurl.com/8gzob8k)

Mina Shaughnessy, "Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing" (http://tinyurl.com/8fuvljd)

Really, anything by Shaughnessy will likely help, and she should be required reading before any teacher is allowed to get near their first freshman composition class, to allow the teacher to shed some of her own assumptions and preconceptions, and to come to the work with respect for the student and some understanding of the difficulties those students are facing.
 
To me, college ready has very little to do with actual skills and everything to do with attitude. I've seen so many students who've come and writing, reading or math skills were below a very necessary level but they had a drive to succeed. They were also battling the standard issues of money, transportation, flexible work, childcare etc.

Then you have the students who have all the knowledge and skills but lack the drive or don't care at all. They just need the ticket punched. The apathy is depressing.
 
See, when I think about the college-readiness question, I think I tend to focus most not on issues related to career path (those are certainly important, though) or on issues related to gaps in knowledge (also important). For me, "college readiness" is about academic maturity/academic life skills stuff.

So, can you work independently to complete assignments? Can you meet deadlines? Can you ask for help when you need it? Can you keep up with your assigned reading? Can you manage your time so that you can complete your schoolwork in addition to any other obligations that you might have? If the answer to most or all of those questions is no, regardless of the age of the student, I'd say that the student isn't "ready" to be in college, and that chances are greater that the student won't succeed, regardless of whether they know what they want to be when they grow up or whether they have the foundational knowledge to write a decent essay.

Now, can a student in that predicament "get ready" to be in college? Sure. And that's why student support services, classes in how to "do" college, first year programs, and retention specialists exist.

But, frankly, students don't fail my first year writing courses because they come into the class unable to write coherently, though some of them do come into the class unable to write coherently. They fail because they don't let me teach them: they don't do the reading, they don't ask questions, they don't submit assignments on time (or at all), they think everything else is more important than their academic work. I don't think that there's much an instructor can do with a student like that, if after the instructor has tried with the student those behaviors continue. BUT - and this is key - in my experience those students who are entirely unable to "get" what is expected of them after I've made the effort are very few and far between. That's why articles like the ones that Mary Anne Mohanraj cites are really illuminating and useful.
 
I think most of the time when people are talking about college readiness, they're talking about fresh high school graduates. Those are the ones where it's most troubling when they place into remedial math/reading/writing.

I think that people totally understand that some academic skills need refreshing after time off, so it's not surprising that someone 10 years out of high school places into a remedial course.

When I taught remedial math (more than 15 years ago), these returning students were the responsible and dedicated ones in the class who had a focus and knew what they had to do to get what they wanted. They stayed after class, they asked questions, they struggled with the material, and they passed. In some cases, they might have thought it was a silly requirement, but they were prepared to do whatever hoop jumping was required because they were there for a purpose.

It was the college freshmen in the remedial class who flailed. Some didn't bother to come to class. Others didn't do the work. In general, fewer of the freshmen had a sense of why they were even there.
 
What makes a student “college-ready”? Certainly overall intellectual ability as well as a good preparation in high school play important roles in student success, but I think that a student’s general attitude toward learning is even more important. I have noted in my career that the students who crash and burn in college are primarily those who have poor attitudes. They don’t really know why they are there in the first place. They are poor schedulers of their time, they don’t do the homework, they don’t complete their assignments on time, and they habitually don’t even show up for class. Even if a student had a poor high-school background, they can often do well if they take their college studies seriously and buckle down and try to learn something. Woody Allen was right when he said that 80 percent of success is just showing up.

When I was an undergraduate, during freshman orientation week the dean got up at a convocation for us incoming freshmen and said “Look at the person on your left. Look at the person on your right. Look at yourself. One of the three of you won’t be here at graduation.” It turned out that he was just about right. The students who flunked out were not always the dummies or the ones who went to lousy high schools—it was the students who wasted their time in goofing off, those who didn’t do their homework, as well as those who regularly skipped class. In those days, colleges were not hesitant in flunking students out, recognizing that there were dozens of students eager to take their places.

 
I've been teaching English at the community college level for a long, long time: I'm starting my 40th year today.

I've heard all the usual complaints about students today can't x, or students today won't y, but all these presuppose some sort of golden age when all (or even most) students were "college ready."

But students haven't changed much over the years. In terms of English comp, they've always had problems with Academic English. Sure, students can drive us crazy, but remembering what I was like as an 18-year-old helps (usually) to keep me sane: I got a "D" in freshman comp, and it was a real gift from the TA. I only did about half the work.

If you go back and look at what teachers had to say about students at any time in American history, you'll find the same complaints: "Students today can't . . ."

--Philip
 
Attitude, maturity, and correct placement make a big difference. I invite you to take a look at Siobhan Curious' blog (scroll down the left side of Joanne Jacobs' home page). She teaches developmental and first-level writing at a CC in Quebec, and has recounted sever5al stories over the past year about students who were in way over their heads even in her courses.
 
Being "college ready" is a moving target. If a bright person with average math skills and 1th grade reading level,but who doesn't know what she wants to do or be shows up ... I say the answer is "yes, she is college ready."

If a guy with the same credentials shows up with a desire to be an engineer, a surgical nurse, or a chemist, the answer is "no, not ready, no how, no way."

But the real issue has always been "how to we help people get what they need to engage fully the path they choose." A person showing up with severe math and English deficiencies is shoved into classes along with everybody else while they are taking semester-long courses to upgrade their skills in math and English. This is fair to no one.

I have always wondered why classes that were taught during an 18 week semester or a 6 week summer session could not be rescheduled to help people with deficiencies. Take those 6-week summer schedules and fold them into a regular sememster. During the first 6-week session, our engineer guy could take one math and one English couse for a full load. The next 6-weeks he could take another math and another English class, and the third 6-week session could be used to take two more classes, ones needed to be taken in sequence to prepare them for the regular curriculum. Thus, in one semester, three levels of remediation could occur (best case scenario, of course).

Doing this would also wreak a little havoc with facilities management, but my college was often described as a place where a cannon could be fired after 2pm and no one would notice. (Having a steady diet of 2-5pm lab classes made us cemists a little bristly about this.) These "catch-up" sections could be clustered at times usually not "high traffic."

Why do we not do a better job of letting people match up their preparation with their dreams or, at least, allow them to find out they couldn't in just one semester?
 
Being "college ready" is a moving target. If a bright person with average math skills and 1th grade reading level,but who doesn't know what she wants to do or be shows up ... I say the answer is "yes, she is college ready."

If a guy with the same credentials shows up with a desire to be an engineer, a surgical nurse, or a chemist, the answer is "no, not ready, no how, no way."

But the real issue has always been "how to we help people get what they need to engage fully the path they choose." A person showing up with severe math and English deficiencies is shoved into classes along with everybody else while they are taking semester-long courses to upgrade their skills in math and English. This is fair to no one.

I have always wondered why classes that were taught during an 18 week semester or a 6 week summer session could not be rescheduled to help people with deficiencies. Take those 6-week summer schedules and fold them into a regular sememster. During the first 6-week session, our engineer guy could take one math and one English couse for a full load. The next 6-weeks he could take another math and another English class, and the third 6-week session could be used to take two more classes, ones needed to be taken in sequence to prepare them for the regular curriculum. Thus, in one semester, three levels of remediation could occur (best case scenario, of course).

Doing this would also wreak a little havoc with facilities management, but my college was often described as a place where a cannon could be fired after 2pm and no one would notice. (Having a steady diet of 2-5pm lab classes made us cemists a little bristly about this.) These "catch-up" sections could be clustered at times usually not "high traffic."

Why do we not do a better job of letting people match up their preparation with their dreams or, at least, allow them to find out they couldn't in just one semester?
 
Being "college ready" is a moving target. If a bright person with average math skills and 1th grade reading level,but who doesn't know what she wants to do or be shows up ... I say the answer is "yes, she is college ready."

If a guy with the same credentials shows up with a desire to be an engineer, a surgical nurse, or a chemist, the answer is "no, not ready, no how, no way."

But the real issue has always been "how to we help people get what they need to engage fully the path they choose." A person showing up with severe math and English deficiencies is shoved into classes along with everybody else while they are taking semester-long courses to upgrade their skills in math and English. This is fair to no one.

I have always wondered why classes that were taught during an 18 week semester or a 6 week summer session could not be rescheduled to help people with deficiencies. Take those 6-week summer schedules and fold them into a regular sememster. During the first 6-week session, our engineer guy could take one math and one English couse for a full load. The next 6-weeks he could take another math and another English class, and the third 6-week session could be used to take two more classes, ones needed to be taken in sequence to prepare them for the regular curriculum. Thus, in one semester, three levels of remediation could occur (best case scenario, of course).

Doing this would also wreak a little havoc with facilities management, but my college was often described as a place where a cannon could be fired after 2pm and no one would notice. (Having a steady diet of 2-5pm lab classes made us cemists a little bristly about this.) These "catch-up" sections could be clustered at times usually not "high traffic."

Why do we not do a better job of letting people match up their preparation with their dreams or, at least, allow them to find out they couldn't in just one semester?
 
Being "college ready" is a moving target. If a bright person with average math skills and 1th grade reading level,but who doesn't know what she wants to do or be shows up ... I say the answer is "yes, she is college ready."

If a guy with the same credentials shows up with a desire to be an engineer, a surgical nurse, or a chemist, the answer is "no, not ready, no how, no way."

But the real issue has always been "how to we help people get what they need to engage fully the path they choose." A person showing up with severe math and English deficiencies is shoved into classes along with everybody else while they are taking semester-long courses to upgrade their skills in math and English. This is fair to no one.

I have always wondered why classes that were taught during an 18 week semester or a 6 week summer session could not be rescheduled to help people with deficiencies. Take those 6-week summer schedules and fold them into a regular sememster. During the first 6-week session, our engineer guy could take one math and one English couse for a full load. The next 6-weeks he could take another math and another English class, and the third 6-week session could be used to take two more classes, ones needed to be taken in sequence to prepare them for the regular curriculum. Thus, in one semester, three levels of remediation could occur (best case scenario, of course).

Doing this would also wreak a little havoc with facilities management, but my college was often described as a place where a cannon could be fired after 2pm and no one would notice. (Having a steady diet of 2-5pm lab classes made us cemists a little bristly about this.) These "catch-up" sections could be clustered at times usually not "high traffic."

Why do we not do a better job of letting people match up their preparation with their dreams or, at least, allow them to find out they couldn't in just one semester?
 
Being "college ready" is a moving target. If a bright person with average math skills and 1th grade reading level,but who doesn't know what she wants to do or be shows up ... I say the answer is "yes, she is college ready."

If a guy with the same credentials shows up with a desire to be an engineer, a surgical nurse, or a chemist, the answer is "no, not ready, no how, no way."

But the real issue has always been "how to we help people get what they need to engage fully the path they choose." A person showing up with severe math and English deficiencies is shoved into classes along with everybody else while they are taking semester-long courses to upgrade their skills in math and English. This is fair to no one.

I have always wondered why classes that were taught during an 18 week semester or a 6 week summer session could not be rescheduled to help people with deficiencies. Take those 6-week summer schedules and fold them into a regular sememster. During the first 6-week session, our engineer guy could take one math and one English couse for a full load. The next 6-weeks he could take another math and another English class, and the third 6-week session could be used to take two more classes, ones needed to be taken in sequence to prepare them for the regular curriculum. Thus, in one semester, three levels of remediation could occur (best case scenario, of course).

Doing this would also wreak a little havoc with facilities management, but my college was often described as a place where a cannon could be fired after 2pm and no one would notice. (Having a steady diet of 2-5pm lab classes made us cemists a little bristly about this.) These "catch-up" sections could be clustered at times usually not "high traffic."

Why do we not do a better job of letting people match up their preparation with their dreams or, at least, allow them to find out they couldn't in just one semester?
 
I'm googling around online, looking for good sources of info/advice for a dad friend whose son is struggling hard in his first semester away at college. He's been advised by family not to "rescue" the kid, that tough love is in order, etc.... I'm trying to make a case for *effective* support, but I don't have any tactics, let alone a silver bullet. Of course this kid's college career is but one a few serious challenges the family's dealing with right now.

Anyway, fwiw, your compassion, and generosity are inspiring. And, then the first two comments?! It's just terrific to know you all are "out there." Keep up the great work.
 
Colleges were not hesitant in flunking students out, recognizing that there were dozens of students eager to take their places.
Loan Against Gold
 
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