Monday, January 17, 2011

Freshman Success: Putting It All Together

So here we are--at last--at the end of this series. Writing it has been a good investment of my time, as it has given me the opportunity to reflect on my adventures in teaching and advising to date, and to try and synthesize some of my experiences. In this post, therefore, I'd like to share a few of those reflections, along with some recommendations that I believe would improve the experience in the long term.


1. Between 30-50% of incoming freshmen need remedial education in critical thinking, reading, writing and/or time management skills. The more selective the institution, the lower the percentage. [Statistics based partially on my own observations and partially on this article from the Denver Post, dated December 29, 2008.]

2. Between 10-15% of incoming freshmen will not succeed at the college level no matter how much remediation or coaching they receive. These students need tutors in more than one subject most semesters, and/or they need "intrusive advising" to keep on task. [Statistics based mostly on my own observations. This blog suggests that while 60% of high school graduates attend some college, only half will graduate with a degree (although note that the author does not cite a source for his statistics).]

3. Between 20-30% of incoming freshmen list their major as "exploratory" or "undeclared." Let me be clear here: registering as an undeclared major is not, in itself, a risk factor for failure in college--although it sometimes signals the lack of ambition that is. It does, however, affect the quality of advising a student receives and, depending upon how things play out, it may result in the student taking so many classes that don't count toward a potential major that s/he gets discouraged and decides to drop out anyway. As far as I have been able to determine, about a quarter of my "undeclared" students actually have a pretty good idea of what they want to study but are afraid of being locked into a decision with no way out--a scenario that is a complete myth created by persons or factors unknown to me. Another 40-50% (my best estimate) are between two or three major possibilities and actually profit by spending a semester trying out courses in their options before they commit to one. The remaining students have absolutely no idea what they want to study or do--which makes advising difficult and can potentially set up the drop-out scenario I mentioned. These are the students I worry about most, as they are the most likely to fall through the cracks or to lack the ambition to get through random courses with no specific goal in sight. I can find no figures to back up my observations, but anecdotal evidence from the faculties at CUA and at my alma mater suggest that the percentage of students who fall into this category has risen sharply within the last 5-10 years, as more and more parents and high schools focus on just getting students through the secondary education system and hope that everything else will fall into place later.

4. Many of the students who arrive at university with a specific career or major in mind are unprepared to begin their prescribed course of study right away. I'm thinking particularly of students who are interested in medical school but who have not tested themselves with a rigorous math and science curriculum in high school and who have no other interests to fall back on when they fail college chemistry or biology, and of aspiring business/economics majors whose last math course was either trigonometry or statistics their junior year of high school, and who don't realize that their chosen major requires a calculus course. Again, the presence of gaps in a student's secondary school curriculum is not necessarily a risk factor for failure at the college level, but it can mean an extra semester or two of remedial course work that some students and/or their families don't want or can't afford to endure. If these students cannot quickly find an alternative interest, they move into the at-risk group.


1. Parents need to help their children learn to manage their own schedules and become independent before they leave the nest. They need to allow their children to fail and gain a realistic sense of their strengths and weaknesses. They need to stop bailing their children out when they are faced with an undesirable outcome and help them understand that some consequences can't be undone after the fact.

2. Elementary school teachers need to encourage children to explore careers early, and they need to encourage students to take the kinds of courses needed to be ready for college work in that major.

3. Secondary school teachers and counselors need to continue this work, and they need to be encouraged to write realistic recommendation letters for their college-hopeful students. "Nice" and "polite" are good character qualities, but they don't ensure college success (and you wouldn't believe the number of recommendations I've read for students who have low GPAs and a slew of C's and D's in their high school courses who are nevertheless "highly recommended" because of their manners, civic-mindedness, or "enthusiasm for learning"). They need to steer students whose career aspirations don't require college degrees (graphic design, sports/music management, etc.) toward appropriate vocational training programs. Finally, they need to meet individually and more frequently with each of their students to assess realistically whether or not they could do college-level work, with or without remediation.

4. College admissions personnel need to identify underprepared applicants before they arrive on campus (Not sure how, but I like the aforementioned blog's idea of creating a "college-ready" certification attached to the high school diploma. Alternatively, we could bring back tracking and replace the existing "general" and "advanced" diplomas with the old vocational/general/college prep high school curricula.) and set up special pre-semester remediation programs for them. These students would arrive two or three weeks before the start of orientation proper and spend 5-6 hours a day in intensive workshops that would teach reading techniques, logic and critical thinking, and pre 101-level writing skills (all incoming freshmen would spend a full week in orientation attending general workshops on time management and study skills). Students who need remedial math courses would be encouraged to take them at a local community college during the summer prior to their first full semester. Students identified as underprepared by admissions personnel could also be limited to 4 courses for their first semester, and, in place of the usual fifth course, be required to meet weekly on an individual or small tutorial-sized group basis with a trained educational specialist to discuss their academic progress and to catch problems early. The educational specialists leading these groups would be trained to help wean students off such assistance by the end of their freshman year.

Of course, none of these solutions are foolproof or easy to implement. Most of them probably have glaring problems that I have failed to see. But the discussion on college and career readiness has to start somewhere. If you've got an idea, feel free to share it--this stuff is my bread and butter.

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