As an adviser to college-age students, it could be easy for me to say “major in what you love” and be done. Research shows that employers often recruit for transferrable skills, and there is no direct correlation between one’s major and career. In fact, Forbes magazine has presented research findings indicating that only 27 percent of college graduates are working in a job that relates to their major.
The story I most like to tell is of a former student who studied religion and went on to immediately work for a National Basketball Association team in marketing and sales. However, I then recall one of my most challenging advising situations with an Asian-American student whose passion was English, but her parents held to the idea of a “practical” major that would assure her employability. In that situation, an English major alone would not be the option for her -- she could never satisfy cultural values surrounding interdependence and filial piety and be content with following her passion. This situation resolved itself with a compromise: she double majored in English and finance.
Google the phrase “Does your major matter?” and you will find that most articles out there succinctly state, “Nope, doesn’t matter.” Yet, sometimes, it does. To be better advisers, we need to consider the cultural baggage a student brings to a conversation when discussing their major.
We should not presume that factual arguments surrounding employability, regardless of major, will suffice in discussions with parents and other family members. That can appear ethnocentric, as it fails to consider cultural values and norms that are outside American ideologies of independence. If we continually advise without understanding diverse students’ practical concerns, while appreciating their distinct cultural value systems, we inadvertently project the idea that independence is the norm and interdependence is an erroneous way of thinking. In short, we add to the already pre-existing dissonance that a student is bringing to the academic discussion.
For example, one student whom I queried recalls focusing on biology and medicine because she wanted to make her parents happy. While a discussion with an adviser about alternate options would have been fruitful, advisers who merely espouse majoring in one’s own personal interest could have devalued the real, interdependent factors at play in her decision-making process. Although some experts such as Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci may argue that decisions made based on one’s own interests may be less depleting than those based on external factors like family wishes, a confounding variable must be considered: If the intrinsic beliefs of interdependence are held strongly, how does a college-age student balance that conflict?
When I asked a Korean international student about her major, she said that had her parents not been happy with her major, she would not have been happy herself. A Nigerian-American student said to me, “The family that helped you get to a point where you could make a choice between what you love and what pays better: When it comes time to choose, how could you not choose them? [It] is no longer a choice between two careers but a choice between loves -- the love for your family and for your career. It also becomes a choice between two futures -- one where you are happy and your family miserable, or vice versa. That is when you look at how they helped you get to where you have this choice, and you realize that there is really no choice.”
Happiness in pursuit of one’s own interest may then sacrifice happiness in areas of interdependence. The question for advisers is how our own cultural values influence our advising and potentially devalue the cultural history a student brings into our office.
As culturally competent advisers, we need to allow students the space to share their employability concerns, ask the questions of where their concerns come from and engage in conversation about how feasible it is for them to minimize family conflict (if it is incongruent to their well-being) while pursuing a passion. It is our responsibility to ferret out reasons why a student may not readily adopt the idea that majoring in a passion is a path to consider -- and that it may not necessarily be the “right” and “only” path a student can and should take.
As we advise, it is also important to consider acculturation in discussions with students from diverse backgrounds. For Asian-Americans, studies have shown that differences in acculturation levels between parents and young adults can lead to an increased likelihood of family conflict. But they have also highlighted the importance of family social support in mitigating psychological and bicultural stress.
In addition, many studies continue to indicate differences between white American college students and those from ethnic minority groups. Thus, when we as advisers only advocate following one’s passion, we should ask of ourselves if we are microaggressors, telling students that is the only right way to engage in education. This generation of college students will probably be the first that does not outstrip their parents in earnings. Therefore, a practical major and earnings potential are a real and true concern for our student population.
That is not to say, however, that we, as seasoned advisers, should not continue to encourage students to major in their areas of interest. Indeed, our goals are to help students discover what they enjoy and want to engage with more deeply, and to encourage them to consider education as part of their engagement in developing their identities. Surely, we can all easily identify a vast number of students who have majored in what one may consider an “impractical” major and gone on to make more money than we, with our doctorates, may ever see.
But given the vastly different backgrounds of the students whom we advise, to be an effective adviser, to connect and encourage, we must also be cognizant that our roles will also entail tactful discussions that go beyond merely saying, “Do what you love, and it will all work out.”
June Y. Chu is dean of Pierson College at Yale University.
A colleague of mine once asked me a rhetorical question. “What kind of magic does it take for college athletes, especially those from very disadvantaged educational backgrounds, to remain eligible when they must spend most of their waking hours training for or playing sports?”
“The magic,” he suggested, “is academic fraud.”
In his view, which I share, responsibility rests with institutional leaders whose jobs depend on currying favor with powerful alumni and other constituencies whose priority is winning national championships, not academic excellence.
Cheating scandals such as the one at the University of North Carolina are not limited to a few rogue universities. On the contrary, some violations of academic integrity are to be expected in any school that requires athletes to give so much time and attention to sports that an army of tutors and academic support personal is needed to keep them eligible. Most academic counselors are dedicated professionals, but the line between tutoring and doing athletes work for them can get a little fuzzy.
Helping athletes stay eligible becomes academic fraud when athletes’ work is done for them or when they are pushed into classes with little or no academic content.
The evidence is overwhelming that big-time college football players have little time to make college education a priority. The National Labor Relations Board in Illinois recently issued a detailed report on football at Northwestern University stating that football players “are under strict and exacting control by their coaches throughout the entire year.” Pre-season training begins six weeks before the start of the fall semester. During this period, coaches provide “hour by hour” schedules of football related activities which last from 5:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night for an average of about 50 or 60 hours per week.
The NLRB report estimated 40 to 50 hours per week during the season devoted to games, weight training, mandatory meetings, practice, and travel. Players often go to the coaches’ offices at 8 p.m. to watch game film for a couple of hours.
In a survey of college football players undertaken several years ago, the NCAA found that football players devote about 40 hours a week on football- related activities in preparation for 12 regular season games, thus reinforcing the findings at Northwestern.
Athletes recently challenged the NCAA in a number of antitrust cases. Without those challenges, the NCAA would have made no effort to introduce significant educational reforms. The athletes deserve the stipends and scholarship enhancements ordered by the judge in the antitrust case brought by Ed O’Bannon.
However, as a college professor, I am more concerned that big-time college athletes receive the educational opportunity they were promised than the compensation that comes with further professionalizing college sport. Denying athletes those educational opportunities constitutes a breach of contract.
In order to defend athletes rights to an education, the Drake Group, an organization whose mission is to defend academic integrity in college sports, has proposed educational reforms which should be embraced by every accredited institution of higher education and be institutionalized in NCAA rules and regulations where appropriate.
These reforms include:
Allow freshman eligibility for only those athletes whose high school grade point average or standardized test scores are within one standard deviation from the mean academic profile of their entering class, thus giving special admits time to adjust to a more competitive academic environment than they may be use to.
Athletes must maintain a cumulative GPR of 2.0 in order to be eligible for sports, thus sending a clear message that education gets top priority. Athletes who fall below 2.0 should be given two semesters to raise their GPA to that level or lose their athletic scholarship.
Provide extensive academic remediation for athletes who are ineligible to play as freshmen and limit their practice time to 10 hours a week. Remediation should begin in the summer before these athletes enter college.
Require that all academic and counseling support services for college athletes be under the direct supervision of and budgetary control of the institution’s academic authority, administered externally to the athletic department, and be consistent with counseling and support services for all students.
Require institutions to provide “whistle blower protections” for those who disclose unethical conduct or institutional rules violations related to the conduct of athletics programs.
Require all NCAA institutions to award multiyear scholarships that extend to graduation and that cannot be cancelled for injury or contributions to a team’s success. Cancelation should be permitted only for voluntary withdrawal or serious violations of team rules.
Require the faculty senate (or other highest faculty governance authority) to closely examine athletic department and coaches’ rules (other than those promulgated by the NCAA) to ensure they are compatible with educational best practices. Faculty should have the final say on this.
The NCAA’s 20 hour a week (4 hours a day) rule should be strictly enforced and the scholarships of players who skip supposedly “voluntary” workouts during the year to devote their time to non-athletically related activities should be protected.
Institutions should work with faculty senates to ensure that athletic contests are scheduled to minimize conflict with class attendance, and no athlete should be prohibited from taking a class that may occasionally conflict with a practice, or team meeting.
Institutions should have a tenured faculty-only Committee on Academic Oversight elected by the faculty senate to report annually to the senate on the academic progress of college athletes and, when possible, to compare such data to non-athletes. This report would list independent studies taken, grades received, and professors teaching. It would also include a list of athletes’ advisors, courses taken, faculty who taught those courses and grades received. Care would be taken to adhere to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
This is only a partial list of reforms that should be instituted. In the coming years, Congress should take a very close look at the way college sports in American higher education is governed. Perhaps the NCAA should be totally replaced by a federally chartered corporation that is willing to institute meaningful reforms that go well beyond the proposals mentioned above. America’s colleges and universities are a national treasure. Should college sport be governed by an organization that appears to have put education on the sidelines?
Allen Sack, a professor in the college of business at the University of New Haven, played on the University of Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team. He is past president of the Drake Group
Between a presidential proposal rating colleges based in part on what graduates earn, studies linking specific majors to earning potential, and seemingly endless reports analyzing the return on investment of higher education, never have the economic implications of a college education been more important.
Faculty members in the liberal arts are, not surprisingly, resistant to the notion that an education can be reduced to a starting salary. Education, we insist, should prepare one for life — for work, for play, for relationships, for responsible citizenry. And when our students do ask questions about their job prospects, we are encouraging, if not precise. We remind students vaguely that critical thinking skills are highly sought-after by employers and then we refer students to our campus’s career centers to work with trained career professionals, whom we largely do not know.
Is this enough?
For years I thought it was enough, but with tuition and student debt loads continuing to rise and a public that seems increasingly impatient with the liberal arts, I’m no longer so inclined.
For the last ten years or so, I’ve been piecing together, often clumsily, a different answer with and for my students that has developed into a three-credit course on career exploration. Based on the premise that students can apply the writing and research skills they’ve developed in the liberal arts to launch their job searches, this course defends the choice of a liberal arts major, while at the same time confronting the challenging job market these students face.
It is an approach that has required me to become much more involved in my students’ job searches. It is not enough, I now realize, to refer students to career centers or to write glowing reference letters. It is not enough offer platitudes about problem-solving skills.
The course almost always begins by having students identify as precisely as possible the skills they have developed in their majors. When talking with English majors, for example, students almost always start with obvious skills such as research, writing, and critical thinking. But quickly they start unpacking these general categories, and we talk about using databases efficiently, the difficulties of synthesis, and the unappreciated skill of paraphrase.
We talk about interpretation, understanding historical context, writing for particular audiences, and explaining complex theoretical perspectives. Someone inevitably acknowledges that he has learned to discuss difficult subjects like racism and sexism. Someone else confesses that she used to be “bad” at peer review, but now knows how to give -- and receive -- constructive criticism. Someone else talks about developing an aesthetic sense, of appreciating a line of poetry for its sheer beauty.
The different directions this conversation can take have been instructive. The English majors almost always say something about how they have learned to disagree with others, without insisting that one person’s interpretation is right, another wrong, and they appreciate their ability to do so without resorting to the shouting matches they see on cable television.
But students in other disciplines, I’ve learned, are not so quick to claim the English major’s love of ambiguity. During one discussion, two political science majors bristled at the notion that there are no right answers. We, the political scientists proudly declared, learn to win debates. We learn to find the weaknesses in other people’s arguments, and we learn to defend our own positions. Not a bad skill, we all realized, for future policy makers, many of whom will work in a political context in which there are, unquestionably, winners and losers.
I always end this class activity the same way: by asking students to erase those skills we’ve written on the board that are not transferable to a professional setting. There is almost always a long pause, but someone inevitably offers up something: “Peer review. No one here is ever going to get a job peer reviewing poems.”
Before I even have a chance to use the eraser in my hand, however, someone else chimes in with some version of this story: “I’m probably not going to peer review a poem again, but I will have to give constructive criticism. I had a boss once who didn’t know how to give feedback, and it was awful. I know I can give criticism better than he did.”
In all the times I’ve done this exercise, we’ve never erased a single thing.
This activity is no magic bullet. Students still need to identify skills specific to their individual experiences and affinities, and they need lots of practice articulating these strengths to potential employers. But it can be start, a way of helping students link their majors with career options. Because it challenges students’ own perceptions of themselves as having chosen a “useless” major, it also serves as a particularly helpful launch to an entire course devoted to preparing for a job search.
But it is a path that works only if we, the faculty in the disciplines, willingly assume a role in career counseling. As fabulous as the career professionals I’ve worked with over the years are — and they are incredibly knowledgeable and talented — they cannot nor should be solely responsible for helping students recognize the discipline-specific skills they have developed.
Rather than refer students to career professionals, we need to partner with these counselors, in our classrooms and in their career centers. Only if we work collaboratively can we give our students in the liberal arts the career guidance they need and deserve.
Patricia Okker is professor of English and interim deputy provost at the University of Missouri at Columbia.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association rarely admits to the need to revisit an infractions case, and particularly one that strikes at the core of academic integrity issues. So when the NCAA announced an unusual and embarrassing return to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to reopen an academic fraud investigation that first came to light in 2011 and resulted in narrowly constructed sanctions in 2012 that affected the eligibility of a single athlete, it marked another confidence crisis in whether the NCAA can control the powerful forces of big-time college sports.
The reopening of the case also served as a measure of vindication for those on the UNC campus and in the media who bravely withstood public ridicule and even death threats.
It is undeniable that academic cheating scandals have spiked in the past decade. A 2011 review by Inside Higher Ed found a significant rise in serious academic violations during the past decade. Some critics attribute the spike in cheating to the weakened initial eligibility standards of the NCAA’s academic reform initiatives, while others point to the inherent incentives garnered from winning.
Recent media stories document a trend of selective universities admitting athletes with woefully unprepared reading skills. They are handed to academic support advisers who manage them in predetermined class schedules and place them in academic majors that neither educate them nor prepare them for a career. The university’s traditional deal with the athlete is a bona fide college education in exchange for athletic talent. Too often the promise of an education is unfulfilled. The spikes in these fraud cases are but a fraction of the daily fraud perpetrated against athletes, and the second-class education given to them.
Several highly publicized academic scandals in major athletic programs have gone largely unaddressed by the NCAA. The University of North Carolina fraud case exposes numerous serious allegations of fraud and cover-up by athletic staff, coaches, faculty and administration, with an emphasis on shooting the messengers. The scandal has been a painful and costly journey for this great public university characterized by a steady leeching of damning indictments from former athletes and a former staff whistleblower in national media.
The focus of the scandal is on a former professor at UNC facing a felony charge (now dropped in exchange for cooperation with UNC) of receiving a $12,000 payment for a class he didn’t teach. In the interim, several investigations conducted at the request of the university administration have consistently concluded that this was not an athletic scandal.
In May 2014, the university contracted with Kenneth Wainstein, at $990 per hour, to conduct an independent investigation of the scandal. Advantaged by the cooperation of the professor and his former administrative assistant, Wainstein appears to be sharing his findings with the NCAA. Wainstein’s investigation has prompted a reexamination of the claims from Mary Willingham and others of a widespread and long-term academic fraud scheme designed to keep unprepared athletes competing.
The shared findings may expose the method used to protect the eligibility of underprepared basketball and football athletes through classes that were designed to secure high grades, demanded little time or work in the form of an often-plagiarized paper, and denied them the opportunity for the education the NCAA proudly advertises as its primary mission.
Although UNC offers the most recent example of fraudulent eligibility schemes to maintain prized athletes, recent history has demonstrated similar instances at other major athletic programs and a disturbing trend. In 2006, a scandal at Auburn University revealed unusually large numbers of directed readings courses from a “jock doc” to football players to enhance their likelihood of remaining on the field in exchange for no attendance and little work. In what is commonly known as major clustering, one sociology professor called his department a dumping ground for athletes. The NCAA did nothing.
In 2008, the University of Michigan discovered a similar scheme perpetrated by an athletics-friendly professor there who provided at least 251 independent studies courses to varsity athletes from 2004-2007 on the subject of study skills. The NCAA failed to act.
These three similar instances of obvious breaches of academic integrity to secure athletes’ eligibility shared the same reluctance of the NCAA to investigate further. It should not be surprising that NCAA rule changes in minimum initial eligibility standards and punishment for those institutions failing to meet progress toward degree standards in 2003, enacted under the banner of “academic reform,” brought increased pressure on schools to protect their investments in athletic talent.
Instead of acting on these lapses of academic integrity and educational abuses of athletes, the NCAA Academic Cabinet and Management Council spent months in an effort to study the definition of academic misconduct and when schools are obligated to report instances of fraud. After months of deliberation, not much has changed. Its new interpretation, issued in April 2014, looks very similar to the NCAA definition of academic fraud issued in 2000.
Academic fraud is not a complicated concept. For NCAA fraud to occur there must be two ingredients: an athletics nexus with the participation of athletics personnel or other institutional staff, and a fraudulent advantage affecting the eligibility of the athlete. Members of the NCAA cabinet described a reticence to interfere with institutional academic misconduct policies
Perhaps the new NCAA official interpretation defining what constitutes NCAA academic fraud spurred the reopening of the case at UNC, but the constant public outrage and allegations from athletes on CNN, HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel," Bloomberg News, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, the Raleigh News and Observer and others were more likely the catalyst.
Media have exposed athletes who are admitted to selective institutions with severe deficiencies in basic reading skills and systematically channeled through a series of fraudulent classes, friendly faculty and non-rigorous academic majors tailored to maintain eligibility. The fraud begins when admissions directors of selective institutions, at the directive of their their campus presidents, admit unprepared but NCAA-qualified athletes. The eligibility of these marginal athletes is cleverly managed with the assistance of some faculty.
The NCAA’s lax admission standards for student athletes incentivize schools to sacrifice integrity and the education of the athletes who will never “go pro.” Why do we continue to ignore the truth that each new recruiting class brings athletes who simply cannot do college-level academic work? It seems ludicrous to expect highly marginal athletes to maintain their coursework while they also work a full-time physical job with the risk of serious injury. The athletes deserve better.
To make good on the NCAA’s promise of a meaningful “world class education,” we should reconsider initial eligibility standards to ensure that athletes admitted to our institutions have obtained the necessary learning skills to be competitive in the classroom. Athletes admitted to our institutions should fall within one standard deviation of the academic profiles of their entering classes. This range of preparedness provides a reasonable skill level to compete with non-athlete classmates. At the very least, institutions must develop intensive, measurable literacy programs to support the educational needs of our underprepared athletes. The current academic culture appears to be a step removed from the instruction necessary for many of these students to be successful. Let’s be realistic about the priorities of students and work together with coaches to ensure that college readiness and academics are priorities.
It is critical that academic support programs are not physically or organizationally housed in athletics. All academic programming for athletes such as tutoring, supplemental instruction, and reading and writing support should be directed and monitored by educators hired by the university who work closely with the student body.
A higher education is a potential way out of poverty, but if we do not make certain that our gifted revenue sport athletes have mastered basic academic skills before they embark on serious college study, then we have not only failed these students, but we have exploited them too.
The NCAA has avoided its shared responsibility with member institutions to curb the widespread academic fraud and eligibility schemes so prevalent throughout our institutions engaging in big time sports. It is wishful thinking to believe the NCAA will reform itself in the radical means necessary to restore public confidence.
We believe that this is moment for faculty to express their outrage and join the battle. Tenured faculty members on the department, college and faculty senate levels must assume responsibility for the academic rigor and integrity of their institutions by insisting on transparency in grading trends. Rather than deliberate institutional castigation of whistleblowers for bringing allegations of serious fraud to light, faculty outraged about academic integrity at their institutions must act.
Gerald Gurney is an assistant professor of adult and higher ed at the University of Oklahoma and president of the Drake Group. Mary Willingham is a former learning specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Forty years ago, I was assigned to teach “Open Enrollment English” at the City College of the City University of New York. The course was classified as remedial, and credits were non-additive.
Walking sprightly and empty-headed into the class, I found one-third of them were off the boat from Hong Kong, one-third off the boat from San Juan, and most of the other third off boats from Palermo, Porto and Gdansk (remember: this was 1970). The first writing assignment produced three different versions of English, and I had no idea where they came from -- or how.
The Chinese guys in the back row were always heads down, thumbing through dictionaries. What I now know to be their lexical transitions were pretty good, but there wasn’t a preposition to be found in their papers. No kidding!
The girls from Gdansk showed hard silent faces, splattered their pages with diacritics, but left no trace of articles. No kidding! I half-understood the guys from San Juan jabbering in Spanglish and felt good about it, but they wrote that way, too. Most of what I learned about all this happened much later. I walked into that class as a thorough naif.
A scan of the usual panic headlines of the past decade will easily turn up “perfect storms,” “tsunamis,” and other dire weather patterns lying in the future of higher education. Some of these are covers for race/ethnicity mix change, others for the deleterious effects of app addictions, and still others for the rise of economic inequalities. I have a shelf for the publications and reports bearing such Jeremiadic news and threats. It’s labeled, “the usual,” and includes more sophisticated but even darker analyses of “separation,” “undereducation,” “stopped progress,” and “crises” strewn about like dead flower petals.
However well-intentioned, these analyses have the effect of telling large groups of higher education students and potential students that they are lacking something, or that “our future would be brighter if only we addressed something you are lacking.”
Really? One numbs at such absence of self-reflection: the writers simply don’t listen carefully to what they are saying between the words. Had they configured the population in a different way, they might have toned down the damning that seeps through their lines.
I am not offering another “usual” today. I am not a siren of ominous effects. Rather, I want to detail a different set of populations that were with us in that 1970 classroom, are with us more now (and even increasing in the future), and that require analyses and guidance in a key other than that offered by the storm literature.
We are going to use languages, not race or family income, as a template. And we’re not assuming that U.S. resident students from non-English-dominant backgrounds are de facto remedial and bound for failure. In fact, quite the reverse.
But that depends on a variety of factors, most of which the research, policy and pundit establishment in higher education has not bothered to map. We will know better what to do if we know more about the experiences and conditions through which these distinct populations cross the line between fluency in conversational English and the literacy constitutive to the reading and writing of English.
“Ways” and “extent,” in turn, depend on the language at issue, and the intensity of language conditioning, environment and maintenance. The Chinese guys at CCNY in 1970 didn’t know from diacritics; the Polish girls were loaded with prepositions. Such belated knowledge is a metaphor that opens a key door to assist advisers and faculty naifs such as I once was. If I had known better and more about my students’ language crossings, I could have done better by them.
This nation of immigrants enfolds roughly 350 languages spoken by 60.5 million people. Among those whose dominant language is other than English, we know native speakers of Spanish are the largest group (37.5 million), with recent Spanish-speaking immigrants more likely to be monolingual Spanish than those long-established in the U.S., e.g., from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and, in the Southwest, descendants of the conquistadores who have been here since the 16th century.
But in addition to Spanish, over 1 million U.S. residents speak each of the following languages (in order of frequency): Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, French (not Creole, but including immigrants from Francophone West Africa, who may also speak a native African language, e.g. from Senegal, Waloof), Korean, and German. Nearly 1 million speak either Arabic or Russian. In addition, we have between 500,000 and 900,000 speaking (in order) Creole French, Italian, Portuguese, Hindi, and Polish, and notable (though smaller) recent immigrant groups coming initially as refugees, speaking Hmong, Serbo-Croatian, Laotian, Cambodian, Farsi, and Somali. Hardly “immigrant,” but notable, are the 169,000 speakers of Navajo, the largest home language group by far among Native Americans.
More important for our purposes than the number of speakers is the proportion of each language group that the American Community Survey (ACS) has determined as not speaking English at all or not speaking English well. For the record, the top 10 ratios, by native language, are:
Seven of these are Asian languages, and, with the exception of Vietnamese and Spanish, all use scripts other than the Roman alphabet of English (I am including Hmong among these, even though some contend that, historically, there was no written language that could be called “Hmong”). Putting these together with 2010 Census data, that means there are 9.7 million native speakers of Spanish and 2.1 million native speakers of the other 9 languages all living in the United States and not speaking English. The ACS does not provide data on reading or writing English, but one can reasonably assume that the list of 20-plus-percent proportion of limited-English-language populations, by native language, would be a lot longer and more diverse if ACS included orthographic considerations in reading and writing. Literacy, to repeat, is distinct from audio/lingual fluency. We are thinking of the children in these groups and of these groups, and of the magnitude and linguistic elements of generational literacy shift in each language group.
The overall data necessary to estimate what higher education is seeing and will see are fragmented and difficult. The oldest rigorous data on the proportion of non-English dominant speakers in the 12th grade and teetering on entrance to higher education are from the National Center for Education Statistics’ High School & Beyond/Sophomore Cohort longitudinal study: 5 percent. But a body of 12th-graders does not capture what higher education will eventually count, so we need some further and more contemporary guidance. The children of current non-English dominant households entered the U.S. at different stages of life (including being born in the U.S.), entered school at different times, and had to learn English as a fulcrum of their schooling. When they arrive in higher education, then, they are not wholly bereft of the world’s default second language. The basic figures from the NCES Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study of 2003-2009, which covers entering students of all ages, excluding foreign students in the U.S. on visas, are as follows:
Children of Immigrants
English Not Primary Language
All entering students
Dividing these groups by age at entrance to higher education (the most significant demographic variable in the standard universe of such variables) does not change these proportions much at all. The dividing age year used was 20. And since the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition tells us that the number of English language learners enrolled in ELL courses in pre-collegiate education was 5.3 million in 2005-6 (and 5.3 million does not account for all second language students), the challenge to higher education to mark the extent of their participation and state of their English language use eight years later is even greater than what these data -- reflecting a considerable increase of the proportion of non-English dominant students since the 5 percent of the High School & Beyond/Sophomore Cohort as seniors in 1982 -- say of 2003.
These are not small proportions of the entering postsecondary population, and their progress and degree completion rates (lower than those of native speakers of English by roughly 6 percent) may well be influenced by their language status and various aspects of their language histories. Languages obviously differ, and differ in terms of their similarities to English, in terms of morphology, orthography, and phonology. Non-English-speaking environments also differ in terms of saturation of second language media, Internet use by immigrants, and concentrations of commerce serving local populations. Too, language maintenance traditions vary for each of these immigrant groups. We have a history of language maintenance dating to German-speaking immigrants in the Midwest in the mid-19th century. Unless countries are officially bilingual or trilingual (Canada, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, and Switzerland, for noted examples in the West), you don’t see much formal language maintenance elsewhere. How much we still practice, and in what forms, is something our current second language students in higher education will tell us if and when we get to interview them with a consortium of teams advised by second language acquisition experts (see below).
Most importantly, some immigrant cultures and their languages are concentrated in very specific regions of the United States. Institutions of higher education that serve these geographic areas are thus more likely than others to witness enrollments of specific language background groups. For example, the greater San Francisco area is more likely to provide for students from Tagalog-speaking backgrounds; greater Minneapolis-St. Paul for Somali and Hmong speakers; San Jose and Houston for Vietnamese; greater Miami for Luzo-Portuguese (Brazilian); the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles and Flushing in Queens for two very different socioeconomic groups of Chinese; Russians in Brooklyn; Wayne County in Michigan for Arabic speakers; and while they are located everywhere, particularly concentrated populations of Spanish speakers in South Texas and the Central Valley of California.
Why is this geo-demography important? Because when you get in your car to gather information that just might help folks get further down the education thruway, it helps to know precisely where you’re going.
In this case, I propose, we can find captured populations among students from specific second language backgrounds who are recent enrollees in colleges and community colleges in the geo-demographic target areas, and ask them a series of questions on family language background and use, and on their own experiences moving through the chain from language 1 to language 2. One needs college partners in those areas, of course, both to identify the students of interest and to urge them to take an online survey consuming no more than 30 minutes. Do we know whether sufficient numbers of students can be found to answer our questions and begin to provide guidance? No, but our chances are better with geo-demographic targeting.
I’ve got a survey for first- and second-year college students ready to roll to a second language acquisition review panel. It seeks to document features and dominances of language use in the student’s household, peer groups, and work environments, the student’s language transition experiences in high school and early college months, first language maintenance, and focuses on areas of linguistic friction between first language and English.
What we have learned from the self-assessment forms of Europass (designed to enhance cross-border mobility in the labor market) is that voluntary respondents (and there have been about 600,000 in Europe to date who have completed “language passports”) are very honest and forthcoming about what they can do and how well in languages other than that from which they emerged, in what environments they learned second and third languages, and how.
We are less interested in language 1 to language 2 issues such as transfer, semantic judgments, code switching, and speech registers since we would not be asking questions on these well-trod paths of second language acquisition research.
At a time when immigration policy is on the front desks of legislators, we are more interested in story lines, promising and limiting, and commonalities as well as differences by language group. The end product would be a portrait that every institution serving similar students can use, for the benefit of future students, and not merely in “Open Enrollment English” classes, either. Those students, as I learned in 1970, are not remedial.
Clifford Adelman is a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.