By Walter Wendler
When colleges are confronted regarding low six-year graduation rates (52% in Texas) and low persistence rates—the rate at which freshman continue into the second year of college (about 73% nationally), the immediate response of too many in leadership positions is to blame high schools for low college readiness marks. College readiness is the level at which high school seniors appear to be prepared for college studies. I am not prone to “blame down” or attribute a lack of college readiness solely to high schools.
Various approaches around the nation regarding low college readiness and solutions to the problem are being tested. Many of the students from the rural community of Onalaska, Washington, go on to college; last year every senior was granted admission to college. Even more telling is the fact that many of them come back to Onalaska to work and start families. This, according to a recent Hechinger report, is a front-line battle to reduce “rural brain drain.” Onalaska, guided by local values and tenacity, has changed the rules. College is becoming the default expectation. Their own are being prepared.
This a win-win-win situation. The school benefits—graduates are more successful. Students benefit—they are better prepared for college. The community benefits—young people return to the community they love and contribute to effective social structure through positive family life and economic development.
College readiness includes the knowledge and insight that high school graduates need to be successful as freshmen in college. Those qualifications include a general understanding of math, language, history, science and the foundations of productive citizenship. Students need to know problem solving and its foundation, critical thinking.
Typically, a well-prepared college student has four attributes: reasonable standardized test scores, a good grade point average, a competitive class rank and coursework that indicates ability in the basics. These four points create the corners of a box, into which students fit themselves. Strong indicators on at least two of these corners are essential. The greatest likelihood for success in college comes from reasonably good performance on all four corners. Over-reliance on just one of the four corners is a mistake. Admissions processes need to look holistically at students and consider various indicators of readiness.
Achieving the Dream works with students who enter community college with deficiencies in any, and in some cases all, of these four corners. When challenges are encountered, developmental courses are recommended without apology. People from all walks of life and every imaginable ethnic and social group have the opportunity to be “shored up” in basic college readiness, no matter the cause of deficiencies.
A Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce report affirms the national workforce needs projection—almost three in four jobs by 2020 will require some form of postsecondary training and education. This does not mean everyone should have a bachelor’s degree. According to Inside Higher Ed, the economic recovery from 2010 until 2016 created 11.5 million new jobs, and nearly every job required some form of postsecondary education or training. However, not all of them require a “college education” evidenced by a bachelors’ degree.
Many universities are doing away with developmental coursework for students who enter college yet are unready in one way or another. This is not a new phenomenon. Joliet Junior College, “America’s first public community college began in 1901 as an experimental postgraduate high school program. It was the “brain child” of J. Stanley Brown, Superintendent of Joliet Township High School, and William Rainey Harper, President of the University of Chicago.” Harper approached the school board in Joliet, Illinois, and asked if they might start a college preparation (readiness) program. Too many students from the “Collar Counties” were not ready to enter the University of Chicago. Over a century of service for an unapologetic and purposeful junior college followed.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, offering developmental courses at community colleges is the best approach. Most states are working to shrink the number of hours above those required for a particular degree. Reducing excess hours demonstrates efficiency. Many university leaders argue college readiness coursework in community colleges is most effective from all perspectives. The recognition of this reality is a healthy step in getting students ready for university study should their life aspirations and abilities require a bachelor’s degree. This approach echoes the partnership from Chicago and the mission of Joliet Junior College model.
The challenges of college readiness will not go away. With increased numbers of people entering universities through dual enrollment, or as nontraditional students, and with ever-pressing cost increases, college readiness will continue to be an issue.
Finding fault with any aspect of family life, high school preparation, or other legitimate components of college readiness doesn’t address the issue. Action does.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at www.walterwendler.com.