Who’s really unprepared: Students or colleges?

Across the country, universities and community colleges are complaining about the high numbers of incoming students who require remediation in order to attend. A seemingly endless string of reports (like this one from Connecticut) seem to support this problem, and there is plenty of blame and fingerpointing.

Higher Education: Connecticut’s College Readiness Gap Big – Courant.com.

The majority of Connecticut’s high school graduates who attend the state’s community colleges and four smaller universities are not prepared for college work, according to a state-led education group. At least 72 percent of those attending community colleges require remedial or developmental math or English; for the Connecticut state universities — Central, Western, Southern and Eastern — the figure is 65 percent.

It’s easy to jump to the conventional wisdom that the public schools are just lousy, or the majority of students are lazy, techno-hypnotized zombies. But what if we’re not asking the right questions.

Consider this: Are all these students really that “unprepared” or has higher education found a new cash cow?

After all, most institutions of higher education, particularly state funded ones, get their money based on how many students enroll, not on how many graduate. The majority of students who enter these higher ed remediation programs languish there until their financial aid and/or their patience runs out.

My question also begs a question: How is “prepared for college” being defined and measured at our institutions of higher learning?  Do we have anything close to consensus on just how “prepared” one needs to be for college anyway? Many use section scores on the college entrance tests or standardized college placement tests to make that determination. Do those tests actually measure what students need to know or do in their freshman courses?  The community college where I teach found that scores on the college entrance test (ACT) did not reliably predict student preparation or success in their college work. We’ve known for years that SAT/ACT scores do not accurately predict the college potential of Black and Hispanic students. Is it really about preparation or gatekeeping?

For traditional students, if the high school courses and state-mandated tests these students took did not prepare them for college level work, will the often hastily constructed or poorly taught remediation programs be any more helpful?  For the increasing numbers of non-traditional students (displaced workers, career shifters, immigrants, returning vets, late bloomers…”), what other realistic option do they have besides college, especially community college, to restart their education, especially if they already have a high school diploma earned years ago?

I teach community college freshman, and yes, they come with widely varying levels of knowledge and skills. But isn’t that why we teach? To meet students where they are and help them develop? Are we ready to shift our collective paradigm from thinking of college education only for the very top students, or as the next step in the educational continuum for whoever needs or wants to continue formal learning?

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