Preparing for College

High School Grads: Ready for College?

The sounds of graduation parties echo throughout the land. Many happy high school graduates are enjoying their congratulations, gifts, and looking forward to a summer when they dream about all the impending adventures awaiting them in college. It’s a heady time.

Other grads anticipate moving directly into the workforce, having gained an inventory of practical skills that will allow them to earn a paycheck immediately, without having to acquire college credentials first. Still others will go on to serve our nation in the armed forces, which, in today’s world, can be risky business.

For those graduates heading to college, though, I have a question: Are you prepared to do college-level work? You may think that my question is asinine. “Of course I’m ready!” you’re thinking. “I’ve taken a basketful of AP courses and my academic profile is top notch.”


Well, “Great!” I say. But how does your work ethic stack up against the lineup of professors you’ll encounter at Best-Choice College or Prestigious University? Work ethic is one thing, but how about that elusive factor called “prerequisite knowledge”?

When you plant your seat in that required English or math course this fall, your professor will be assuming that s/he won’t have to school (as in “refresh”) you in any basics about the subject at hand. The dreaded word “remedial” comes to mind. There is a boatload of incoming college students every year who must pass remedial courses in writing, math, and some other areas before they are permitted to move on to the “good stuff” of higher-level courses (a.k.a. the core curriculum). It’s not a happy situation.

 

In doing some research about the preparation level of today’s high school graduates, I found some interesting, although surprising and depressing, information. For example, take this statement from HigherEducation.org:

Every year in the United States, nearly 60% of first-year college students discover that, despite being fully eligible to attend college, they are not ready for postsecondary studies. After enrolling, these students learn that they must take remedial courses in English or mathematics, which do not earn college credits. This gap between college eligibility and college readiness has attracted much attention in the last decade, yet it persists unabated. While access to college remains a major challenge, states have been much more successful in getting students into college than in providing them with the knowledge and skills needed to complete certificates or degrees. Increasingly, it appears that states or postsecondary institutions may be enrolling students under false pretenses. Even those students who have done everything they were told to do to prepare for college find, often after they arrive, that their new institution has deemed them unprepared. Their high school diploma, college-preparatory curriculum, and high school exit examination scores did not ensure college readiness. 

Sixty percent! If my math is correct, that’s well over half of incoming college students. The bad news is that remedial courses do not earn credit. Yes, Virginia, this is information that you should have mastered in high school. As Michael Douglas says in Falling Down: See, this is what I’m talking about.

Looking a bit deeper and consider this information from U.S. News:

Nearly one in three students was not ready for entry-level college courses in any subject.

Now the U.S. News opinion is that about 33% of incoming college students need “remediation” (a cool term that sounds pretty impressive). However, the kicker in their statement is the “in any subject” part. Whereas HigherEducation.org talks about English and math courses being too tough for freshmen (or, if you prefer, freshpersons), U.S.News addresses courses across the board. That’s a little scary.

So how does U.S.News document their sweeping “any subject” claim? Here’s how:

Nearly one in three high school graduates who took the ACT tests are[sic] not ready for entry-level college courses in English, reading, math or science, according to new data released by the testing organization Wednesday.

Of the 1.8 million high school graduates who took the ACT in 2013, only 26 percent reached the college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects. Another 27 percent met two or three of the benchmarks, and 16 percent met just one.

“Our country’s commitment to college readiness for all students is a good one, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” says Jon Erickson, president of ACT. “There aren’t any clear signs we’re making great progress there.” …

… “The diversity of pools gets larger and larger and start reflecting more of the entire class,” Erickson says. “It’s a challenge to move everyone to the college readiness level.”

Since 2009, the number of minority students taking the ACT has increased, dramatically in some cases. Over the past five years, 126,000 more Hispanic students and 43,000 more African-American students took the test, while the number of multiracial students who took the ACT increased 80 percent.

But those students are also struggling more than their peers. No more than 48 percent of African-American, American Indian and Hispanic ACT-tested students met the English benchmark – the subject in which all groups tested the highest.

“The gaps between minority groups are still too large,” Erickson says. “While it’s good that it’s not getting larger, the bad news is it’s not getting smaller.” …

Back to HigherEducation.org:

In two-year colleges, eligibility for enrollment typically requires only a high school diploma or equivalency. About one-quarter of incoming students to these institutions are fully prepared for college-level studies. The remaining 75% need remedial work in English, mathematics, or both. Eligibility for enrollment in less-selective four-year institutions (often the “state colleges”) typically includes a high school diploma and additional college-preparatory coursework. Experience shows that these additional eligibility requirements still leave about half of incoming freshmen under-prepared for college. Firm data on the portions of entering college students who need remediation in English and/or math are not available, but the proportions shown in figure 1 reflect national estimates.1 All told, as many as 60% of incoming freshmen require some remedial instruction.

These national estimates may be conservative, since not all students who are underprepared for college are tested and placed in remedial courses. The California State University (CSU), a large public university system, for many years has applied placement or readiness standards in reading, writing, and mathematics that are linked to first-year college coursework. All first-time students at all 23 CSU campuses must meet these standards, principally through performance on a common statewide placement examination. Despite systemwide admissions policy that requires a college-preparatory curriculum and a grade point average in high school of B or higher, 68% of the 50,000 entering freshmen at CSU campuses require remediation in English language arts, or math, or both. Should the same standards be applied by the California Community Colleges with their open admissions policies, their remediation rates would exceed 80%. There is every reason to believe that most states would have similar remediation rates if they employed similar college readiness standards and placement tests across all public colleges and universities.

This huge readiness gap is costly to students, families, institutions, and taxpayers, and is a tremendous obstacle to increasing the nation’s college attainment levels.

So, all you newly minted high school graduates, what you need to do is take a hard, objective look at your level of preparation for college. Of course, I can cite my own anecdote about that. (Feel free to skip over yet another of my “Back in the day” rants.)

When I was in high school, I fancied myself a good writer. I always got As in English class and my fellow students looked to me to articulate in writing their special projects and petitions. So, I looked forward to freshman English at my small liberal arts college. One memorable early assignment came when we were supposed to write an interpretive analysis of a certain passage from the classic, Billy Budd.

I was excited to take on this challenge because I was not only a big fan of Herman Melville but I was also very familiar with Benjamin Britten‘s operatic realization of Melville’s opus. Thus, I tore into the essay with my alleged writing muscles bulging.

When our professor handed back our essays with her comments and grades affixed, it was like a punch in my gut when I saw the rather large, red “C-” glaring back at me. What a wake-up call.

Of course, I adjusted my approach to writing for this professor’s course and eventually got an A. The lesson for me, though, was that I had been deluded into thinking that my high school studies (and my teachers) had prepared me for college. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for you to ask yourself if, indeed, your high school has properly prepared you for the rigors of higher education.

College professors can be merciless. To whet (and forewarn) your appetite, check out 4 Stereotypical Professors You’ll Meet in College.

One last time: Are you ready for college?

**********

Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.