The Coaching Educator

Remedial Nation: The Ghastly State of College Preparedness

dictionary, scream dunce, magic johnson and larry bird

By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

The kids aren’t ready, but the colleges themselves must share the blame for the college preparedness crisis.

A few months ago, we reported on the lamentable fact that the majority of American college students leave without their degrees (More than Half of American College Students Leave Without a Degree. Here’s Why, September 9, 2018). The expense of attendance, irresponsible behavior, personal crises, and unwisdom in the selection of a college, all contribute to the problem. So, alas, does an outright deficiency in academic preparedness.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reports that 60 percent of college freshmen are not adequately prepared for post-secondary courses, and the National Conference for State Legislatures says that fewer than 25 percent of students who take remedial courses ever graduate. The “readiness gap” ranges from 10 percent at highly selective institutions to 60 percent in the most non-selective public universities. Even college-prep courses are not having the desired effect.

A 2017 Hechinger Report study of 911 colleges in 44 states concluded that 96 percent of them enrolled students requiring remediation in the 2014-15 academic year. More than 200 of those schools assigned upwards of half their incoming students to remedial courses. Because colleges are not uniform in their reporting on part-time students, or adults returning to school, the true total of students needing remediation is “likely much higher” than the 569,751 discovered by the study.

According to a 2006 study by Complete College America, nearly half of incoming students at two-year schools require remediation, with 40 percent of students in remedial courses not completing them. Four-year schools enroll about a fifth of incoming students in remedial courses, with a fourth of those students not finishing them. Needless to say, those who don’t complete remedial courses don’t go on to take courses that count toward a degree.

While the problem is certainly more pronounced in some states than in others, none of them has escaped it.

“No state right now is close to equating its high school graduation standard with anything that would be meaningful as a college-career-starting standard,” says David Steiner, executive director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University and a former commissioner of education for New York State.

According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education:

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 post-secondary 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…The readiness gap is nominal in the most selective universities because their admissions criteria screen out most students who are under-prepared. The gap is huge, however, in [less selective and non-selective schools], which serve between 80 percent and 90 percent of undergraduates in public institutions.

Does it count as “left behind” if it’s all of us?

The NCPPHE notes that most states with exit exams for high school students actually measure proficiency at 8th- to 10th-grade level in order to minimize the number of students not receiving diplomas. The No Child Left Behind Act has exacerbated the problem because “the law holds states accountable for high school graduation rates irrespective of proficiency levels represented by the diploma.” As Diana Goldstein reports in The New York Times, the Common Core has done little or nothing to remedy the situation. Thus large numbers of kids are graduating with skill levels that fall several years short of college. Many states have embraced explicitly identified college-prep courses as the means for closing the gap, but the NCPPHE contends that the results have not been inspiring:

Even a recognized college-prep curriculum does not ensure the development of the critical thinking skills associated with reading, writing, and math that are necessary for college-level learning. These are the fundamental cross-cutting skills needed for college success in all subject areas. And they are skills that college placement or readiness tests expose as insufficiently mastered by most entering students.

Standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT also are not reliable predictors of college success, not being “tightly connected enough” to college curricula. The College Board reported that just 43 percent of students who took the SAT in the class of 2013 proved ready for the rigors of college, while the ACT claimed that just 39 percent of test-takers attained three or more of the ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks—and nearly a third failed to attain any.

The decline in preparedness has not occurred overnight. More than a decade has elapsed since Diploma to Nowhere, a report by Strong American Schools, a nonpartisan group supported by the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation, frankly assessed the problem:

In many ways, our education system has been perpetrating a terrible fraud, because the high school graduates who require college remediation are often the ones who did everything that was expected of them. They went to good schools, they posted high GPAs, and they took difficult classes. Teachers and parents told them that they would do well in college. But when these students enrolled at their local flagship university or nearby community college, they failed the math placement test. [Or] they were shunted into remedial reading.

Now I’ve said my A…B…my, uh…LOL!

In fact some of the most discouraging reports are in the realm of reading, the most essential of those “fundamental cross-cutting skills needed for college success in all subject areas,” to use the NCPPHE’s verbiage. NPR reported in 2013 that high school students who read for pleasure tend to choose books written at middle-school level—at most. Certainly the students must shoulder some of the responsibility for developing their intellects, but it appears that schools are not helping them develop the skills needed for the cultivation of more elevated, college-ready tastes. Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas, says that a trend toward more “accessible” books began in the ‘60s and ‘70s as part of an initiative to motivate students to read more, and that students have stopped rising above that level:

Kids were never pulled out of that particular mode in order to realize that in order to read more difficult works, you really have to work at it a little bit more. You’ve got to broaden your vocabulary. You may have to use a dictionary occasionally. You’ve got to do a lot more reading altogether.”

We’re glad she mentioned the dictionary. This writer’s experience, during a decade of secondary-level teaching, was that today’s youth would rather be in Hades with a shattered pelvis than consult a dictionary.

A study by Renaissance Learning, a learning analytics company based in Wisconsin, tracked the reading habits of 8.6 million students, and educational research director Eric Stickney said that almost all the most popular books among high-schoolers were well below grade level. In fact, the three-volume Hunger Games series led the list and is written at fifth-grade level.

A subsequent study by Renaissance examined the grade levels of books assigned by teachers. According to Stickney, “The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read has declined by about three grade levels over the past 100 years. A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level.”

Hey guy’s lets discus fun subject’s like tv so yea.

High schools increasingly are dropping classics from the curriculum in favor of more recent works that appeal to students—and teachers—by overtly addressing themes that loom large in the contemporary consciousness and that dominate the political landscape. College English departments have long displayed a tendency to abandon anything perceived as “old” and  turn their courses into exercises in ethnic or gender studies, with frequent excursions into television and film at the expense of literature—but thirty years ago their students were learning to read other things first. Now high schools are in on the act, so students are no longer acquiring a foundation before moving on to colleges where teachers flog their hobby horses along the tenure track.

We are well acquainted with someone who graduated from high school with a B-plus average, scored respectably on the ACT, had no idea that her writing skills were inadequate, and was admitted to a large public university where her English 101 teacher assigned reading material on his pet subjects and then devoted class time to discussing those topics rather than the techniques employed by the writers. I distinctly remember hearing about how he had assigned an article on Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and then spent an hour and a half leading a discussion of the characteristics and relative merits of “black basketball” and “white basketball.” Our friend learned nothing about grammar or rhetoric, while the teacher nonetheless proved to be a very demanding grader. It was the worst of everything: an unprepared student and a teacher with high standards and no pedagogical acumen. The kids who could already write fairly well were able to cope. Our friend floundered until another instructor with an intelligent approach to course content sent her to the campus writing clinic and got her caught up.

The blind leading the merely myopic…

At least she did encounter a responsible and capable teacher, and fairly early. But the ineptitude of her English 101 teacher is disturbing, and not at all unusual. Sadly, more and more colleges are inadvertently “meeting kids where they are” in a bad way: Unprepared students are being taught by faculty members who are themselves deficient. Then those students go and become teachers, among other things. The entire question of college preparedness might soon be rendered moot by the sad condition of the colleges themselves.

Literary theorist Stanley Fish, a professor of both humanities and law, shared his discomfiture in a 2009 New York Times op-ed:  

A few years ago, when I was grading papers for a graduate literature course, I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart. I became even more alarmed when I remembered that these same students were instructors in the college’s composition program [emphasis added].

These graduate students were responsible for teaching a total of 104 undergraduate sections, and a perusal of the lesson plans indicated that “only four emphasized training in the craft of writing” while in the other 100 the focus was not on composition but on  “novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues—racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.” Fish argues that these issues are worthy of attention but that they should be treated in courses specific to them, not in classes that are supposed to concentrate on composition. Our basketball aficionado would have seemed familiar to him. Remember, Fish’s inquiry began with his realization that the writing teachers serving under him couldn’t write.

I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research.

In short, Fish’s up-and-coming college teachers hadn’t learned the fundamentals, and the people calling the shots thought Fish was badly out of touch for wanting them to. The ensuing student-teacher relationship could hardly be other than an apprenticeship in ignorance. Yesterday’s college students are today’s secondary-level teachers, and the flaccid high school curricula to which we referred earlier did not arise unbidden without human agency. There is a philosophy behind them, or an outlook anyway, and it is difficult to believe that such an outlook spontaneously combusted in the hearts and minds of secondary-level educators irrespective of what they themselves had been taught in college.

This writer has learned from recent unpleasant experience in business generally, and in media and marketing organizations in particular, that students who weren’t prepared for college and who were instructed by inept teachers at college level are now present in the workforce in overwhelming numbers. They find it hard to learn anything, because they have never been taught that there is a standard of accuracy and clarity other than what strikes them and their friends as cool. Colleges appear increasingly to be meeting the problem of unpreparedness by abdicating meaningful standards and becoming part of it. The errors we encounter on college websites—and in the writing prompts for admissions applicants—do not inspire confidence in a glorious future.

Much more of this, and we will soon be rid of the notion that there really is anything for which to prepare. We can simply dismiss the matter from our empty minds and dribble while Rome burns.

The solution to the college preparedness mess lies outside the scope of this article, but we suggest that any efficacious treatment of the problem will involve a willingness to take seriously a large body of technique and content that is now dismissed as “old” or “no longer relevant.” It also will involve the application of human will instead of a supine acceptance of the idea that technology is some autonomous and impersonal force that is ruining thought and expression and that has dominion over us like a rogue machine in a B-grade horror movie. “It’s because of the internet” has become the education establishment’s own version of “the dog ate my homework.” Educators—and the students in their care—have made choices, and lately those choices haven’t been very good ones. We shall see whether anybody desires change enough to make it happen. As one of my coaches was fond of saying, “If you don’t wanna, you ain’t gonna.” He had a doctorate in education, by the way.

We at The Coaching Educator do not purport to be capable of solving great societal problems, but we do claim a decade of noteworthy success in helping students prepare for, get into, and succeed at the right college. Under our guidance, students learn to make the best possible course selections, target the most appropriate colleges, prepare for standardized tests, secure financial aid, and present themselves optimally in writing and in person. 

To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter, he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

References and Recommended Reading About College Admissions and College Preparedness

“Beyond the Rhetoric: Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy,” The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, June 2010, http://www.highereducation.org/reports/college_readiness/CollegeReadiness.pdf

Butrymowicz, Sarah. “Most colleges enroll many students who aren’t prepared for higher education,” The Hechinger Report, 30 January 2017, https://hechingerreport.org/colleges-enroll-students-arent-prepared-higher-education/

Culp, Paul. “More than Half of American College Students Leave Without a Degree. Here’s Why,” The Coaching Educator, 8 September 2018, http://thecoachingeducator.com/2018/09/08/more-than-half-of-american-college-students-leave-without-a-degree-heres-why/

Culp, Paul. “A Nuanced Look at Freshman Retention Rates,” The Coaching Educator, 12 September 2018, https://thecoachingeducator.com/2018/09/12/a-nuanced-look-at-freshman-retention-rates/

Culp, Paul. “Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College,” The Coaching Educator, 31 August 2018, http://thecoachingeducator.com/2018/08/31/ten-common-mistakes-you-must-avoid-in-applying-for-college/

Culp, Paul. “Ugh: When Professional Writers Get it Wrong,” The Coaching Educator, 24 January 2019,   https://thecoachingeducator.com/2019/01/24/ugh-when-professional-writers-get-it-wrong/

Culp, Paul. “Ugh, 2: When Professional Writers Get it Wrong,” The Coaching Educator, 14 February 2019, https://thecoachingeducator.com/2019/02/14/ugh-2-when-professional-writers-get-it-wrong/

Culp, Paul. “Ugh 3: When Professional Writers Get it Wrong,” The Coaching Educator, 12March 2019, https://thecoachingeducator.com/2019/03/12/ugh-3-when-professional-writers-get-it-wrong/

Culp, Paul. “What Accreditation Is and Why It Counts,” The Coaching Educator, 10 October 2018, http://thecoachingeducator.com/2018/10/16/what-accreditation-is-and-why-it-counts/

Farah, Stephanie. “Five Reasons Why Your Students May Not Be Prepared for College-Level Course Work,” College Express, October 2013, https://www.collegexpress.com/counselors-and-parents/college-counselors/blog/five-reasons-why-your-students-may-not-be-prepared-college-level-course-work/

Fish, Stanley. “What Should Colleges Teach?” The New York Times, 24 August 2009, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/what-should-colleges-teach

Goldstein, Diana. “Why Kids Can’t Write,” The New York Times, 2 August 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/education/edlife/writing-education-grammar-students-children.html

Kautzer, Kim. “Students are unprepared for college-level writing,” WriteShop, 28 May 2018, https://writeshop.com/students-unprepared-college-writing/

Neary, Lynn. “What Kids Are Reading, In School And Out,” NPR, 11 June 2013, https://www.npr.org/series/pop-culture-happy-hour/2013/06/11/190669029/what-kids-are-reading-in-school-and-out

Perkins-Gough, Deborah. “Special Report/Unprepared for College,” ASCD, November 2018, http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov08/vol66/num03/Unprepared-for-College.aspx

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