• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


"College Ready"

Students who do much better on the second attempt.

October 31, 2019

I was as struck as everyone else by the juxtaposition of two stories at Inside Higher Ed on Wednesday. One of them described a potential lawsuit against the University of California for using the SAT and ACT, on the grounds that the tests are discriminatory. The other used ACT results to claim that high school students are less college ready than they used to be; the usual hand-wringing followed in the comments.

Admittedly, the headlines didn’t say it all. For instance, in the second story, this line jumped off the screen for me: “Students who took the recommended high school core curriculum stayed steady in their readiness in English and math.” If that’s correct, then the point of the story is access to curriculum, rather than student performance. But that’s an aside.

“College ready” as a designation carries a lot of baggage. It assumes that every college has the same expectations. It also assumes, as Michelle Asha Cooper has noted, that the burden of readiness falls on the student, rather than the college (or, I would add, some of each). Cooper refers to “student-ready colleges,” to remind us that fit works at least two ways.

I’ve known enough successful college graduates who describe high school careers that ranged from indifferent to disastrous, followed by dramatic turnarounds in college, that I wonder about the category of “college ready.” How do we know?

In the aggregate, we can look at correlations between test scores and subsequent performance, or previous grades and subsequent performance, and find some patterns. But the key phrase there is “in the aggregate.” I’ve heard, seen and read enough stories of people who barely got out of high school who later crushed it in college to wonder about the wisdom of applying those aggregates to individuals.

The more interesting cases, to my mind, are the people who stumbled through a semester or a year of college, performing badly, then returned years later with great success. Somewhere in between they somehow became “college ready,” judging by performance, even if they didn’t take any classes in between. Presumably, their native intelligence -- if that’s a thing -- didn’t change, nor did their high school records. For them, college readiness referred to something else.

In those cases, what is it? And how can we spot it?

The #RealCollege movement has shown pretty clearly that one element of being college ready is material. Students whose basic physical needs of food and shelter are reliably met are better able to focus than students whose needs aren’t reliably met. That’s an element we can address at a systemic level. Free tuition programs, widespread OER adoption, public bus passes and similar interventions can work to help some students be readier than they otherwise would. Those numbers don’t show up in ACT scores, of course, which is part of the point of the lawsuit.

Here’s where I confess that my day job isn’t “professor of higher education.” If it were, I might know whether there’s a research literature on students who stumble upon first attempts at college, leave for a while, then come back and crush it. If there is, I’d love to know the upshot. What makes the difference? Is it something we can use to help other students? How can we spot it?

Open-admission colleges get a lot of flak, but one clear virtue of theirs is epistemological humility. They don’t pretend to know who will succeed; instead, they let in everyone and find out. The recent move toward streamlining or eliminating remediation takes that humility even deeper, calling into question the idea of “placement.” Sometimes that humility involves a certain suspension of disbelief, but I think of that as a version of being open to refutation.

Wise and worldly readers -- even those who don’t research this stuff for a living -- have you known (or been) someone who returned successfully to college after many years? If so, what made the difference? I’m guessing there’s much more talent out there than we assume when we just look at test scores.


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