We Can't Do It Alone

March 27, 2006

Colleges and universities have come under relentless pressure from lawmakers and the public about retention and graduation issues, and demands for accountability based on graduation rates have increased across the country. Higher education even faces the possibility of standardized achievement testing, which has made life at the K-12 level miserable for teachers without necessarily improving student learning. Unless colleges and universities can start to both raise graduation and retention rates, and to change the public’s perspective on these issues, academe may look a lot more like a high school than a university.

Universities and colleges, including my own, have made retention a priority, encouraging faculty members to rethink what they do in order to foster student success. However, this is only half the effort needed, and may come too late for many students. Like the musical Chicago’s Velma Kelly, colleges and universities cannot be a one-person act in the musical Retention; they need their K-12 partners to get in on the action.

Recent research on student achievement may help colleges and universities start to formulate policies that reverse this tide of bad news. The first key piece of evidence comes from Clifford Adelman’s study “The Toolbox Revisited," which charted the high school courses that helped students complete college on time. He found that taking a core set of academic classes was the most powerful predictor of high school and college success, for students of all races, classes and genders.

In other words, a great deal of the success of college students depends on the choices they made in high school, particularly the decision to take rigorous classes, and to also pursue college credit options. If students enter college with six college credits in academic subjects, their chance of successfully making it through freshman year increases markedly. Core high school academic classes, such as advanced mathematics, give students a broader chance of majors, and keep them out of the remedial/non-credit classes that serve as a trap for students, basically leading to stagnation and eventual non-completion.

A second recent piece of evidence is William Tierney, Zoe B. Corwin, and Julia E. Colyar’s book, Preparing for College: Nine Elements of Effective Outreach, which noted that taking a rigorous college preparatory curriculum is “the key to college access.” The authors found that taking a rigorous academic curriculum that includes a strong mathematics component is the most consistently successful way of boosting college attendance and success, beating out mentoring, tutoring, summer programs, and many other popular means of helping students get to college. While they do not denigrate such programs (some types of programs lack evidence, not promise), it is clear that a strong set of academic classes in high school does make all the difference in college access and success.

The final piece of evidence is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation report on high school dropouts, “The Silent Epidemic,” published this month. Former students reported to researchers that they might have stayed in school had they faced a more challenging curriculum and adults who held them to high standards. Many of these dropouts had high expectations of themselves, but did not find challenge or relevance in high school, leading them to a dead end.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s psychological concept of flow helps explain why setting challenging goals for young people is critical. When people are faced with tasks that both challenge them, and are within reach of their abilities, they feel motivated to take them on. However, faced with tasks that have no challenge, or tasks that are simply out of reach, they give up. Unfortunately, if high school students give up on mathematics, reading or writing in high school, limp to graduation, and then enroll in higher education, they are part of a flow that leads to remedial classes, and eventual stopping -- or dropping out.

If college and universities worked with high schools to promote rigorous classes, relevant curriculum, and to give students in high school a vision of what they could become, both institutions would benefit greatly. The greatest area of need, as the Gate Foundation study points out, is for teaching methods that effectively engage and motivate students, and colleges and universities are critical to providing that professional development to teachers.

However, it is also important to address public and lawmaker perspectives on retention and graduation. Adelman makes a strong argument that students and their choices need to stand at the center of the debate on high school and college success. High schools and colleges need to do their utmost to promote success and opportunity, but need to remind people that while they can offer incentives, they cannot choose for students. Students themselves choose AP Calculus or study hall in high school, and they can choose to take classes over the summer in college or drink with their friends. Public officials, policymakers, the public and parents need to hear this message more often.

To recognize that students make their own decisions is not to let institutions off the hook. The federal government needs to support programs that promote college readiness, such as GEAR UP and Upward Bound, rather than annual proposing their destruction. Whether funded by federal money or not, college and universities need to provide middle and high school students with accurate and timely information about where they stand and what they need to do to achieve college admission and readiness. University access and mentoring programs need also to be expanded, and must target the students most in need of them.

Colleges and universities need a proactive strategy for working with K-12 schools to promote college readiness, and to encourage middle and high school students to do the work that will prepare them for college success. From a retention and graduation rate perspective, colleges and universities need more students with a strong academic core, who have had college-level experiences before enrolling freshman year, and who are prepared to work hard at being a college student -- and fewer students who expect the college experience to be what they have seen on Laguna Beach, Beverly Hills 90210 or (worst of all) Saved by the Bell: the College Years.


Russell Olwell is associate professor of history at Eastern Michigan University, where he teaches classes in methods of history teaching, research and writing, and does outreach to local schools.

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