I remember how bad I felt when I assigned my first F. The night before I turned in my grades, I could barely sleep; I kept tossing and turning, worrying about the student who was about to fail. I thought this failure was going to ruin this kid’s future; he was doomed, I was certain, to a life of meaningless jobs for sub-minimum wage because his first-year writing teacher failed him. I equated his failing with my failure: He failed by not doing the work, and I failed him on an existential level because I was not able to keep him from failing.
As my mentors at the time explained to me, it did indeed get easier to give Fs. One of the reasons was linguistic; I stopped saying I was "giving" grades and instead switched to the language of "recording what the student earned." In this case, semantics did make a difference, but, truthfully, in the 15 years since I "recorded" that first F, I have never felt good about it. Contrary to what many students believe, giving — ahem, recording — failures is not fun. Teachers do not celebrate when students fail; and many, myself included, often bend over backward to find ways to allow students to pass. We listen to their stories, their excuses, their reasons, and we give an extension or some extra credit. We work hard — sometimes harder than the students themselves — to help them pass.
I never really questioned this practice until I stepped into the dean’s role in academic services. At my institution, the dean of academic services oversees the granting of incompletes, leaves of absence and withdrawals (both voluntary and required), and any and all academic issues students may be having. In practical terms, this means that almost every student who is struggling academically sooner or later comes to my attention. While my role is to counsel students about academic issues, inevitably their personal lives — mental, social, physical, emotional -- are wrapped up in their academic issues, so I hear stories that range from the tragic to the sad to the more mundane.
As dean, I spend much of my day listening to tales about dying grandparents, sick siblings, financial struggles, drug and alcohol addiction, family troubles, roommate troubles, classroom troubles — the list is endless. In many ways, I am still the softie I was 15 years ago; I often believe students' stories — even the most fantastical ones — until they give me a reason to doubt them. I have learned, though, how to balance my (perhaps) naïve sense of trust with the realities of needing documentation. It does take some skill to express sympathy in one breath and in the very next breath ask for a copy of an obituary. Where I have noticed the biggest shift in my thinking, however, has been with the issue of giving Fs.
Perhaps because the students I talk to every day are not “my” students (i.e., I am not their teacher, and I don’t actually have to assign a grade), I now have a broadened perspective on the importance of — and even the educational value of — failing. At the end of the semester, for instance, I often get e-mails from professors saying something like, "Sally hasn’t been to class since spring break, has missed her midterm and her final and hasn’t responded to my e-mails. What should I do?” I have to restrain myself from simply writing back: “FAIL HER.” As the dean and not Sally’s teacher, I am able to see Sally’s situation as cut-and-dried: she has disappeared and stopped doing the work. She has chosen, for whatever reason, not to complete the course and the consequence of her decision is an F.
I’m sure at this point some of my readers are thinking that I am being too quick to judge Sally, that there must be extenuating circumstances that need to be taken into consideration. About 50 percent of the time, those readers are correct: something has happened in Sally’s life that has caused her to disappear from the classroom. Sometimes that situation is the common one of a first-year student not sure how to handle the sudden freedom of college and deciding to spend too much time on the social. But there are other scenarios, too: Sally has been very ill; Sally has lost a parent; Sally has a learning disability but thought she could handle college without accommodations; Sally is anxious, depressed, addicted, or a combination of all three.
I always reach out to students when I hear they are in trouble. Some respond but most don’t. If Sally does come to see me, I patiently listen as she tells her story. Sometimes, I might cry right along with her. There are indeed days when I have to close my door to grieve over what I have just heard, weeping for the complicated and overwhelming lives some of our students lead. But even in these worst cases, when Sally’s story breaks me, I still think Sally should fail.
If Sally’s circumstances have indeed been difficult — and they often are — I will look for ways to get her back on track. I might help her get an appointment with the counseling center or walk her down to register with our disability coordinator. I will explain the academic support services we have on campus and show her how to register for those. I will help her think about ways summer courses or interim courses might allow her to catch up on her requirements so she can still graduate in four years. In other words, I will do whatever I can to help Sally except advocate for her to get a passing grade she did not earn
Sally should fail because she did not complete the work; she did not learn what the course proposed to teach; she was not educated. If the university allows Sally to pass, we will be failing her in a much more serious way: we will be failing her as an institution that is deeply committed to learning, failing her as mentors, failing her as human beings. If we do not let Sally fail, she will not learn that adults need to take responsibility for their actions, even when the chips are down, even when the world seems like it is coming to an end. She will not learn that sometimes, for reasons beyond our control, even the best of us fail. If we do not allow her to fail, she will not have the chance to learn resilience. She will not learn to ask for help or recognize the importance of communication. If we don’t allow Sally to fail, she will not learn that adult life is hard and often unfair and that success is defined in that critical moment between giving up or staying the course.
I do not enjoy watching students fail any more than I did 15 years ago, but now I see failures as part and parcel of the total experience of a college education. Like so much in life, failure and success are just different ends of the same spectrum. Learning to navigate that spectrum with integrity, grace, humility, and a little grit, is one of the most important skills colleges can teach.
Melissa Nicolas is interim associate dean of academic services at Drew University.
The Obama administration is right to make community colleges a cornerstone of its plan to close skill gaps and put people back to work. The nation’s 1,200 community colleges enroll 6.7 million students, or nearly half the U.S. undergraduate population. They are key institutions in today’s education-intensive economy.
But there is a gaping hole in the community college pipeline: some 60 percent of incoming community college students must complete one or more remedial courses before working toward degrees, and upwards of 70 percent of students in these "developmental" math courses don’t complete them. As a result, the higher education careers of many students are over before they begin.
Researchers at Teachers College Columbia University have attracted wide coverage for a recent study arguing that as many as one in four community college students placed in remedial courses would pass regular college-level classes if given the chance to enroll in them. But whether that’s true or not, vast numbers of students arrive at community colleges woefully unprepared and there’s little chance of substantially expanding the community college sector’s role in economic development unless we help students catch up.
The solution lies in rethinking remedial education. With the support of five national philanthropies, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has launched a national network of 27 community colleges and three universities dedicated to helping students at the greatest risk of failure in math. The approach uses a comprehensive strategy of support for students and faculty members in a "networked improvement community." It’s early in the life of the project, but the results so far are encouraging.
The strategy starts with dramatically altering the nature of instruction. Teaching students the same content the same way over and over is obviously not working. Those who failed to move beyond arithmetic in middle school, and who didn’t grasp key concepts any more fully during re-teaching in high school, are unlikely to master them if they are presented in the same abstract and rote fashion once more in community college.
Instead, the Carnegie network’s instruction and online out-of-class resources focus on the statistics and quantitative reasoning that matters most for students’ work, personal and civic lives. There are units on "Seven Billion and Counting," "The Credit Crunch" and "Has the Minimum Wage Kept Up?" Students learn math through themes such as citizenship and personal finance. It's rigorous stuff, but relevant and engaging, requiring students to use the tools of algebra, statistics, data visualizations and analysis to solve meaningful, real-world problems as a way of thinking mathematically.
The network is also using a number of promising psychological and motivational strategies to overcome students' pervasive math anxiety and other debilitating stereotypic beliefs and give them the confidence and drive they need to work hard and be successful. The effort includes helping faculty members create positive and productive learning environments through carefully designed team-building activities, protocols for classroom discussions, "classroom contracts" that foster camaraderie and group responsibility, and other strategies.
To the same end, the network is reconceptualizing students' homework assignments, replacing traditional rote exercises with problem- and scenario-based exercises that extend classroom learning. We're taking the obvious but often-neglected step of helping the many community college students for whom English isn't their first language navigate communication barriers.
And the project has abandoned the traditional model of the independent faculty member working in isolation in favor of a network strategy that allows faculty to work together across campuses to build common instructional systems and improve the program in real time through the network’s ongoing collection of student and faculty feedback (including strategies such as quick surveys delivered via students’ cell phones) and other information on instruction, instructional materials and student performance.
Importantly, community colleges in the project grant college credit toward certificates and degrees to students who complete the new, rigorous yearlong Carnegie “pathways,” saving students the often-demoralizing delay of taking noncredit classes (the norm for remedial courses in higher education).
Colleges pay just over $20,000 a year, the equivalent of about a half-dozen student tuitions, to participate in the network. Some pay less. By increasing the success rate in developmental courses, the network helps colleges extend student enrollments and increase graduation rates -- giving them a potentially substantial return on their investment.
The network’s early results are promising, even with a largely high-risk student population. Nearly half the students in network colleges are from households with incomes below $40,000 a year. And only 10 percent have mothers with at least a bachelor’s degree. Yet 89 percent remained enrolled for the full fall term (the program rolled out in the network’s colleges at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year) and 68 percent finished the first semester with a grade of C or better (required for college credit), nearly double the 36 percent of students earning the same grades in the less-demanding courses taught previously in the network's schools.
The students who completed the new courses scored nearly as high on an independent end-of-semester exam as a national sample of community college and university students who had completed college-level statistics coursework. And 88 percent of the students earning C's or better moved on to the second half of the two-semester, credit-yielding course. That's more than triple the proportion of students in the network's colleges who successfully navigated a first term of remedial math and signed up for a second before the network's creation.
And we know from surveys that the program’s confidence-building components increase students’ enthusiasm for math, and make students less anxious about the subject and more likely to believe that with hard work they could master it — a complete turnaround from the typical perspectives of students in traditional developmental math classes.
The test of the new network model will be sustaining these early results as we scale from 1,600 students today to our target of 62,000 a year by 2017-18. But the encouraging early evidence suggests that it is possible to reverse the pernicious culture of failure among community college students, that a comprehensive improvement strategy can put them on a surer path to a truly higher education.
Anthony Bryk is the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Thomas Toch directs the foundation’s Washington office.
First generation college students (or FGS) comprise a student population that is routinely overlooked at American colleges and universities. These students, whose parents have attained neither a bachelor’s nor an associate degree, are more likely to encounter academic, financial, professional, cultural and emotional difficulties than are students whose parents attended college. However, at a time when budget space is at a premium, many colleges and universities do not have campus programs to help first generation students matriculate. This could be problematic for student recruitment and retention at the nation’s college and universities.
Years ago, one could learn a trade, make enough to support a family, and even comfortably retire. Not today. Even specific trades require additional education. Today’s graduates also report that a college degree does not necessarily guarantee an interview during the current economic recession, when well-qualified and older workers are unemployed and seeking entry-level positions.
However, a college degree is increasingly necessary for an initial interview. As a result of these circumstances, first generation students are increasing at the nation’s colleges and universities. Nearly one in six freshmen at American four-year institutions are first generation, according to a 2007 study by the University of California at Los Angeles’s Higher Education Research Institute.
The topic of first generation college students is often linked to race, ethnicity and affirmative action on many campuses. Programs that assist such students are frequently housed in multicultural or diversity education offices because minority students are also commonly first generation. A 2005 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 36 percent of minority students are also first generation. Certainly, research indicates that FGS usually have to traverse additional cultural boundaries such as race and ethnicity, as well as class, when they enter predominantly white institutions.
Some might argue that race and ethnicity matter in a way that economic status does not. Education researchers assert that race, ethnicity, and class are all important, but do not always impact students’ college experiences in the same ways. One recent study found that minority and first generation students have somewhat different challenges. FGS are less involved in fine arts activities, science/quantitative experiences, course learning, and engage less with students who are different from them, but they have greater academic learning gains than minority students.
Given these and other findings, educators must recognize what factors can be attributed to first generation status and/or race/ethnicity, and then target those students’ specific needs. FGS programs could address targeted areas in existing campus initiatives to save costs. For example, orientation workshops could teach first generation students how to effectively take notes and participate in class, just to name a few academic skills. Residential programs and even class assignments could encourage minority students’ learning and involvement with campus activities. I tried this latter possibility in my first-year seminar course at Hope College a few years ago, when I required students to attend campus events and discuss how such events could affect their overall college learning.
Regardless of whether first generation students are racial or ethnic minority students or not, studies show that FGS often lack reading, writing and oral communication skills at the levels of the children of college graduates, which frequently lead to poor retention rates. I was a strong high school student, and even was class valedictorian, but soon after I arrived at Oberlin College I realized that my preparation for college-level work lagged that of my classmates. I learned in high school to study for memorization rather than for analysis. I learned study and time management skills through Oberlin’s Student Support Services (now Student Academic Services). After a semester of hard work, I caught up and later progressed toward graduate studies.
First generation students struggle with more than just academics. With the burden of outside work hours and less parental involvement, such students take part in fewer extracurricular organizations, campus cultural programs, internships, and career networking activities than their peers from middle- and upper-class economic backgrounds. If FGS participate in extracurricular activities, they often delay their involvement until they feel they have their studies under control. Although the hurdles may seem insurmountable, FGS must use campus resources to build social and professional connections.
Campus involvement was not an issue for me because I enjoy helping to make decisions that impact my community. I quickly joined Oberlin’s campus newspaper staff and other organizations. Research has shown that social networks are crucial for academic success. Campus involvements helped me better acclimate to campus culture by giving me a sense of belonging and thus a stronger desire to succeed academically.
Although I quickly found a niche in campus organizations, internship searches and other aspects of professional development were foreign terrains. Non-FGS may be able to consult their parents for assistance with making professional contacts and preparing for interviews. First generation students often do not have an immediate role model for such activities and have to look outward for such support. Because my parents had factory or service jobs, I did not understand the process of applying for a white-collar position. Thankfully, Oberlin’s career office provided excellence assistance in job search strategies, résumé and cover letter writing, and interview preparation.
Adding to the academic, social, and professional challenges that FGS face, these students typically straddle home and school class cultures. The home culture is typically working-class, whereas the academic culture is traditionally middle and upper class. When I was at Oberlin and even long afterward in graduate school, visits home were very stressful because I had to abruptly leave my growing middle-class identity on campus and jump into a working-class one. I sometimes spent school breaks on campus because I did not wish to experience the anxiety of straddling two class cultures.
The stress of managing two class cultures was especially acute during my early college days. I compare my immersion into campus culture to being dropped into a foreign country without a map. To navigate unfamiliar territory, I required certain types of cultural capital that needed to be learned. It would be erroneous to argue that either the working- or middle-/upper-middle class milieu lacks cultural capital. Rather, each social class has its own cultural capital that someone must know in order to function well within that class. Difficulties occur when someone lacks the cultural capital necessary for successful self-management within an unfamiliar social class.
My college experiences were a lesson in acquisition of cultural capital. As a first generation college student in the early 1990s, I was not prepared for the culture shock that I would experience at Oberlin. I thrived in Oberlin’s academic environment, where I befriended other students who were curious about the world, politically- and social justice-minded, and enjoyed learning. However, the campus’ cultural class aspect was initially more challenging because many classmates came with previous assumed experiences that would have been unthinkable in my working-class upbringing. I learned a new cultural grammar for relating to others and just being: What conversational topics were appropriate for dinners with professors, how to make an airline reservation, what outfits were appropriate for professional interviews, and many other aspects of this new middle-class life. Most of these cultural rules were unspoken, making the puzzle of learning them even more maddening.
Many of my Oberlin classmates, professors, and staff were welcoming and eager to help, but I especially experienced class disparities while studying abroad. During the spring of 1993, I planned to study abroad through an Oberlin program in London. I worked five jobs during the summer of 1992 just to save for the travel. For many peers, this was not their first trip abroad. I was dumbfounded to discover that some of my friends’ families even swapped houses with people in other countries or rented cottages abroad. My classmates had an assumed cultural capital of fluency in European languages, travel experiences, and knowledge of art and theater. These would be unthinkable luxuries in my working class upbringing in which vacations, let alone plane trips, were rare. I bonded with several other working-class students enrolled in the London program, and together we stumbled through American and British middle-class culture.
The cultural challenges that first generation students face are real, but they can be the most difficult for institutions to identify because they typically result from unspoken cultural expectations. The baseline of knowledge between first-generation students and upper-middle class students is sometimes vastly different. FGS typically lack certain types of cultural capital, such as exposure to cultural arts that wealthier students might take for granted. And first generation students are often employed for more hours and commute rather than live on campus, which make it even more difficult for them to engage in the campus cultural activities that would acculturate them.
To compound these difficulties, the cultural straddling between school and home is often colored by shame and guilt.
I used to feel guilty about leaving my family behind and ashamed of my working-class origins as I worked and traveled all over the world. Other working-class academics speak about having this "survivor’s guilt" even though they logically know their family is proud of their accomplishments. It took me a few years to learn how to gratefully receive opportunities so that I could as a teacher help others realize their goals through education.
My former shame is now similarly replaced by thankfulness. I am grateful for the diverse class experiences that have given me the bilingual-type ability to fluently speak in different class languages. Cultural straddling helps me relate to people from highly varying class backgrounds and different ways of thinking. As I share my class experiences in the classroom, I find that my self-disclosures give my first-generation and/or working-class students the courage to also speak. I always tell these students that the same skills that enabled them to attend college will help them make their way in the world. After all, we are survivors.
Certainly, institutions can assist FGS by recognizing how contextual factors such as class impact academic performance and cultural transition into college. At a time when every student matters, retention of first-generation college students should be a top priority for colleges and universities. I urge colleges that have no programs to support first generation students to start small and dedicate resources toward specifically helping these students. This can be anything from helping these students navigate study abroad opportunities, extra help in explaining financial aid options and, of course, a bit of hand-holding when it comes to different cultural events.
Researchers have found that even existing programs such as first-year experience courses can be fine-tuned to benefit first generation students. A focus on helping such students graduate not only can strengthen a college or university’s bottom line, but also enables more FGS to create stories of success.