Friday, July 29, 2011

Really, College Isn't For Everyone

Via Joanne Jacobs I came across the article, "5 Myths of Remedial Ed", a suggestion that colleges should provide remedial education programs to students they don't believe are qualified to enroll in regular classes. I agree to a point, as I do think that students who are capable of getting up to speed but who were left underprepared by their high schools, weren't particularly motivated in high school, or have been out of school for long enough that some of their basic skills are rusty, should be able to get back on track for a degree or certification program. I become more skeptical of remedial programs at four year colleges, as it seems to me that students who aren't ready for the academic rigors of a four year degree would likely be better served by enrolling in a community college and determining if they truly want to complete a four year program. Given how few remedial students actually complete a degree or certification program, that approach should also save a lot of students a considerable amount of money.

The first myth offered is that "Remedial Education is K-12’s problem". The author's complaint is that, as there's no uniform standard for admission into a college, there's no uniform standard that high schools could set in order to guarantee that a student would not need remedial classes.
Because colleges have not clearly articulated the skills that students must possess to be college-ready, students are blindsided when they are placed into remedial courses, and high schools don’t have a clear benchmark for preparing students for success. Higher education can no longer kick the can down the road to K-12. The two must share accountability for student results.
I disagree. What it takes to be qualified for college is no big mystery. Nor is it a big mystery that some colleges are more rigorous, and thus more restrictive of which students they will admit and the academic backgrounds of those students, than others. A high school student who wants to enroll in a specific college or program should be able to get a pretty good idea of their qualification by talking to a counselor at their high school. Further, unless somebody has invented a time machine, when a college says "You're not prepared for the program in which you want to enroll," it's not "kick[ing] the can down the road to K-12" - that's what happens when the K-12 school says, "You should be able to admit that student, get him up to speed, and have him complete any program you offer without regard to what we did when he was enrolled here", which is what the author appears to advocate.

By the same token, if a student entering a college is surprised to learn that she lacks basic math or writing skills and thus must take a remedial course, that cannot be said to be the fault of the college. The author makes it sound like we're talking about calculus, when in fact we're talking about the basics. You can go to pretty much any college in the nation and pick up a first year text for composition and algebra, and you'll see similar content and expectation for what a student will be able to do. A commenter notes that "that the National Council of Teachers of English has published two volumes entitled What Is College-Level Writing". The expectations for what it means to perform at college level are anything but a secret.

The second myth described is that "Remedial Education is a Short-Term Problem", apparently based upon the notion that "new common core high school standards will" end the need for remedial programs. I have not heard anybody suggest that to be a likely outcome of reforms, so this seems like something of a hollow man. The author seems to be proposing that remedial education be expanded to provide additional support and alternative means of completing classes throughout college, rather than being designed to bring students up to speed then have them participate in regular classes:
Institutions should provide a wide range of options for students based on their competency, recognizing that many don’t have time for semesterlong courses. Self-study options that use courseware, low-cost refresher sessions, tailored curriculum and simply mainstreaming students who are just below the cut score into college-level courses are just a few of the options that will work well with the full range of students in remedial education.
I would support colleges bringing such flexibility and support to all students, but to the extent that the idea is to create a two-track system where we hand-hold unqualified students through the process until they obtain a degree, without regard to how their educational attainment compares to other graduates, we're not solving a problem - we're repeating the problem that has kids graduating from high school and expecting to attend college without basic skills.

The third myth, "Colleges Effectively Determine College Readiness", is interesting. The author criticizes placement tests as being a "general predictor of success in college-level courses" as opposed to "identify[ing] which skills students are lacking". The author suggests that this could result in a student being placed in a remedial class that "may or may not be addressing their specific skill deficiencies", and that some students placed in remedial classes "are perfectly capable of succeeding in college-level work without remediation". The author proposes considering the student's high school GPA along with placement tests, with GPA serving as "a good proxy for student motivation and academic skills." But doesn't that take us back to the first "myth"? The reason you need to have students with high GPA's take placement tests in the first place is because you don't trust that their high schools gave grades that reasonably assessed their performance. A student who received an "A" in algebra should not have to take remedial math. To the extent that he does, his GPA is not an indicator of his academic skills in the subject of math. That also raises the question of what it means to be motivated. There is something to be said for students being motivated to perform at a particular level - "A" students tend to put in the work necessary to achieve A's, and will tend to step up their effort for a more difficult class. But you can also create an atmosphere of entitlement and coasting when you hand out A's to students who attend classes and turn in assignments, but who don't achieve mastery of even the basics.

It's also not the case that every student who enrolls in college takes a battery of tests to determine whether or not they can perform at the freshman level. If a student is required to take placement tests and performs at a level that has the college assigning her to remedial classes, but has a level of motivation and actual academic achievement that should make remedial classes unnecessary, perhaps there's a mismatch between the student and her college. Frankly, if a student is placed in a remedial class but has ample skill to complete regular coursework, that should be obvious within days.

The fourth myth, "Remedial Education is Bankrupting the System", is also interesting, in that the author comes close to suggesting that remedial education is a profit center.
Remedial education is actually inexpensive for the colleges – because institutions don’t use regular faculty for the courses, and the technology required is cheap.
This raises the question, if remedial education is so cheap and easy why are we "kicking the can down the road" to colleges, rather than assuring that college-bound high school graduates have the basic skill set that will satisfy 99% of the nation's colleges. Again, while colleges do have different admissions standards, the basic skills we're discussing are no mystery. Also, this seems like a good reason to keep remedial classes in colleges that can serve students at the lowest cost to the student. When you pay four-year college tuition, you should expect to get a calibre of class and instruction commensurate with the tuition you're paying. To the extent that colleges are able to churn remedial students through their cheapest courses, watching few succeed, that's something I would rather see them end than expand. Although the author suggests the same, she proposes that we "remove incentives for institutions to use [remediation] as a cash cow, and fund institutions both on the number of students needing remediation and their rates of success" - but provides no description of how that might be accomplished.

The last myth is no myth: "Maybe Some Students are Just Not College Material". For better or worse, some students aren't college material. Some lack the aptitude, some lack the motivation, some could complete a degree program but would be far better served by being encouraged to pursue other areas of aptitude. The actual myth is the one advanced by the author: That all students are "college material", can perform at the college level and would be well-served by being encouraged to pursue a college degree or certification. The author turns reality on its head:
After all, as this myth goes, students who are not college-ready may not possess the motivation, interest and wherewithal to succeed. These students should just learn a trade and move on. This ignores the reality that some postsecondary education is the ticket to the middle class, and that many students go to college to get the knowledge and skills needed to move into a trade. They need to have the basic skills in reading, math and writing to do that, even if they don’t want to go on to get a four-year degree.
Note the false dichotomy (the only alternative to pursuing a college degree is learning a trade) and the continued effort to shift responsibility for teaching basic skills from high schools onto colleges. Yes, our society is sufficiently complex that you're not likely to do well without at least basic skills in reading, writing and math, but it's difficult to see how encouraging students to enroll in college, take some remedial classes then drop out to pursue their trades, is the best or most cost-effective means of developing basic skills. There's also no small amount of elitism in the implicit notion that you're somehow not living up to your potential if you forego college in favor of learning a trade. If a high school graduate learns a trade and excels, the student has no need for a college degree. If a high school graduate learns a trade and struggles, she may find a greater incentive to identify and work hard in a certification or degree program that could provide for a more secure future.

The author suggests that college makes students more valuable as employees:
Moreover, new research... shows that college has benefits for employers who hire people like cashiers and construction workers, plumbers and police officers. These workers make more money than their non-college educated peers, and contribute more to their organizations by innovating and solving problems. So the benefit goes to the organization and to the individual.
We should not be surprised that, on the whole, students who have the aptitude to complete a college education will be better at innovating and problem solving than those who do not. If a police department has sufficient funding to require that its recruits possess a college degree, they are apt to attract a significantly different candidate pool than a department that offers lower pay and does not require a degree. Given the study and testing that is often associated with promotion within a police department, it should also be no surprise that police officers who have completed college end up earning more money. It is no surprise that workers in various fields of skilled labor will fare better, gaining better earning specialized skills, supervisory authority or ultimately starting their own businesses, if they have the aptitude to complete college. But let's not confuse cause and effect. Although there are benefits to a college degree, if you have worked in a field such as food service you will find that some employees innovate and solve problems even while enrolled in high school, and many others who are years out of high school lack similar aptitude. It's more likely that the former group aspires to go to college, or includes college students who are working part-time. So the question is, does completing a college degree make these workers significantly better at innovation and problem-solving, or is it that people who are innovative and good at problem solving are both more apt to enroll in college and to complete their degree programs?

When I talk to college instructors and professors I hear a number of complaints about the current generation of students, notably including that the "culture of dumb" has crept up from high schools into college classes - it's not "cool" to look too smart, so some students sit on their hands in class rather than participating in discussions or activity that would reveal their intelligence - and that students expect to work less than in the past but also have an increased expectation that they should get good grades. Recent studies suggest that college students study significantly less than they did a decade or two ago. Colleges are concerned about their budgets, which plays a role in grade inflation - many colleges don't want students to "flunk out" because then they won't be paying tuition. The net effect of this has not been lost on employers. Two generations ago you could start a promising career path based upon a college degree, even one that was arguably irrelevant to your chosen profession. A generation ago you could apply for jobs within your field of study and have a good shot of finding an employer willing to hire you. Today you are much more likely, even at the entry level, to have to go through a series of interviews for any job you wish to obtain, and are much more likely to be tested (be it an actual test or through carefully designed interview questions) as part of that process. The notion that a college degree is an automatic ticket to the middle class is not aging well. To an extent the problem is driven by a larger pool of qualified candidates - you can impose higher academic expectations in order to narrow the candidate pool while still having ample candidates to consider for pretty much any job. But it's also driven by the fact that as you diminish what it means to complete a degree program, employers must apply other measures to assess whether a candidate possesses knowledge and skills that might once have been presumed.

Meanwhile the most significant job growth is in lower-paying fields that do not require college degrees. The author is advancing another myth, that good jobs are waiting for most or all college graduates, even those near the bottom of their classes. I wish that were the case, but it is not. What does the author propose for the students she would like to see hand-held all the way through an undergraduate program, if they cannot find jobs when they finish? Graduate school?

In sorting through the comments to the article, I find some well-meaning souls, but... from a professor who has taught remedial classes:
I have developed a remidiation [sic] program in English that Rigoress [sic], Relevent [sic] and Relational 4 years ago.
I'm reminded of a story an English professor shared with me, about how a student had complained to him that she had received A's in high school, had received A's on all of her compositions while in community college, but was struggling to pass her English classes at his college and couldn't understand why. He asked that she bring in some of her work from community college and found that, although they were poorly composed and full of errors, not one had been marked with anything but the grade (consistently an "A") - no comments or corrections. His inference was that the community college instructor hadn't even bothered to read the papers before assigning the grades. But perhaps at some colleges even the instructors lack basic skills.

At the end of this, it seems reasonable to question the four year degree in and of itself. Is an undergraduate degree itself becoming an anachronism. With the evolution of student bodies and the rise of distance learning, should we still be looking at a four year residential degree as the gold standard? Even when the decreasing number of students who live on campus are apt to take at least one Internet-based course each semester from their dorm rooms? Perhaps the solution is less one trying to hammer square pegs through round holes, and more of trying to find ways to make meaningful, affordable, and suitable educational opportunities available to those who want to advance their knowledge and skills, even if that means moving away from the four-year model or away from the traditional concept of a college campus.

1 comment:

  1. I am teaching remedial reading at a community college. Without a doubt, some people have no business being in a college classroom.


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