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.