Not Ready for College

The phrase “achievement gap” is often referred to the test score discrepancies between white students and non-white students in public schools.   However, the more alarming achievement gap is between high school work and college work.

Plenty of students excel at the high school level, enrolling in advanced placement classes, and maintaining 4.0 GPAs.   Yet something happens when they go to a four-year university where nearly one-third of college freshmen end up taking remedial English and math classes.

Look at the condition of entering freshmen at all levels of colleges in California, as reported by the state’s Legislative Office of Higher Education.

Community Colleges. About 70% were not ready for college-level English in 2009; 85% were not ready for college-level math.

State Universities. In 2009, 58% were “unprepared for college-level writing or math,” with the unprepared rate at an astonishing 90% of those attending CSU Los Angeles and CSU Dominguez Hills.

University of California. Over 25% of freshmen were unprepared in 2010.

The cost of re-educating those college students is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The other problem with college students taking remedial classes is that the courses are not worth any credits meaning that it will take those struggling students longer to complete college.   Often the students who did poorly in the classes in high school continue to do poorly in those at college, even when the courses are offered online (where there is an even higher failure rate).

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s data shows that in California, almost 35% of college freshmen finish their degree in four years, 65% do so in six years.   No one is quite sure of what happens to the other one-third.

Clearly the concept of attending college and exiting with a bachelor’s degree in four years is no longer the norm.

There is plenty of finger pointing to go around. Professors accuse high school teachers of grade inflation, while high school teachers accuse professors of not making material comprehensible so more students can understand it.

Los Angeles Times reporter Kurt Streeter wrote an excellent article in August, “South L.A. student finds a different world at Cal,” about a young man from Los Angeles who struggled in his first year at Berkeley even though the student excelled in high school.   His 4.06 GPA, second highest in his high school class, sunk to a 1.7 GPA in his college freshman year.

These students are faced with assignments untried at the high school level.   For example, professors commonly assign 15-page research papers while high school teachers assign 2-3 page papers, often without any research required. No wonder there is often a disconnect between high school success and college readiness.

Back in the 1990s I was a part of a consortium of high school and community college instructors whose charge was to use career oriented curriculum as a way to reduce the “readiness gap.” Such an endeavor, usually nicknamed K-16 for grades kindergarten through bachelor’s degree, lasted as long as other well-meaning efforts—until the grant money ran out.

There needs to be a joint effort, a once a year “state of the schools” conference where leading teachers and professors meet to compare notes and strategize how best to help students so that crossing the stage at one’s high school graduation is not the only bridge they cross in furthering their education.

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