Underprepared College Students Research Paper Starter

Underprepared College Students

(Research Starters)

About one-third of new college students leave high school unprepared for the academic rigor of higher education. Many educators blame No Child Left Behind legislation for this trend, and researchers note that a lack of effective time management and study strategies makes new college students unprepared. Those students who require remediation in college have higher drop-out rates than their peers who begin college-level courses upon entrance. Colleges pay a price as well; when students drop out, tuition dollars are lost. The trend of academic under-preparedness is not expected to decrease, and, as the number of high school graduates declines, colleges will have to compete for a smaller pool of students, knowing that many of them lack the skills to be successful.

Keywords: At Risk; Attrition; College-ready; Developmental Courses; First-generation; No Child Left Behind (NCLB); Persistence; Remediation; Retention; Underprepared


In most American high schools, it is a part of the 11th grade curriculum for students to investigate colleges and the opportunities that accompany a college degree. Students talk with guidance counselors and sit at computer terminals answering questions about their likes and dislikes, social preferences, and academic strengths. Once entered, that data is translated into a list of jobs that match each student's preferences. The names of colleges that offer degree or certificate programs for the jobs on the list are also provided, so students can begin their college searches. Soon after, the students take SAT/ACT exams and try to narrow their college search based on admissions requirements. In their senior year, they visit prospective campuses, complete application and financial aid forms, and discuss who is going where within their diverse social circles. This process is part of the growing-up package, and students readily accept the parcel. However, few students truly understand the implications; they know they are going to college, but they do not necessarily know whether or not they are academically prepared to do so.

Even though it seems like the issue of underprepared students is new, it is not. It is, perhaps, new that a flurry of research, publications, and finger-pointing has occurred around the topic. However, noted author and social research methodology professor Mike Rose notes that the problem of students leaving high school unprepared for college is not a new phenomenon. Rose notes in his book, Lives on the Boundary:

In 1841 the president of Brown complained that "students frequently enter college almost wholly unacquainted with English grammar." In the mid-1870s, Harvard professor Adams Sherman Hill assessed the writing of students after four years at America's oldest college: "Every year Harvard graduates a certain number of men—some of them high scholars—whose manuscripts would disgrace a boy of twelve." In 1896, The Nation ran an article entitled, "The Growing Illiteracy of American Boys," which reported on another Harvard study. The authors of this one lamented the spending of "much time, energy, and money" teaching students "what they ought to have learnt already" (1989, p. 5).

The problem of underprepared high school students has sparked a flurry of interest from educators, researchers, and laypersons alike. In the fall of 2008, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sponsored a series of articles discussing the effects of underprepared high school graduates moving on to institutions of higher education. According to the first article in the series, "Students Face a Long List of Obstacles on the Way to College Degree," interest in higher education is at an all-time high: "two-thirds of new high school graduates nationwide — up from less than half in the 1970s — go on to higher education" (Chute, 2008). Yet, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than one-third of full-time students during the 2003-2004 academic year were required to take at least one remedial (basic or developmental) course (2006). In other words, students now more than ever are planning to go to college, yet many of them require remediation once they get there.

Issues for Students

The need for remediation in college is actually a catch-22 situation for students. Students who need remediation to improve basic skills like math, reading, and writing advance through a college curriculum less quickly than those who start out in college-level coursework. This is an expensive consequence of a lack of academic preparation; many are required to complete a course, a semester, and sometimes an entire year of developmental courses before they begin taking the college-level classes required for an academic major. In addition, students requiring remediation persist to graduation at only one-half the rate of their college-ready peers (Chait & Venezia, 2008, as cited in Soares & Mazzeo, 2008, p. 18).

Students leave high school with the goal of earning a college degree. Yet, some 30 percent of each new cohort of entering freshmen will require remediation and about one-half of those will not graduate. Over their lifetimes, the students who drop out will earn almost one million dollars less than the students who remain and earn baccalaureate degrees (Pennington, 2004, as cited in the ASHE Report, 2007, p. 1). Furthermore, in 2006, people with only a high school diploma earned on average, $30,072, while those with baccalaureate degrees earned almost twice that amount, averaging $56,897 (Soares & Mazzeo, 2008, p. 7). Looking at real numbers, it is estimated that more than three million students will graduate high school in 2008 (Ashburn, 2008, p. A24). If 60 percent (approximately 500,000) of those three million go to college, and 30 percent (about 160,000) of those need remediation, and 50 percent of that group drops out, about 80,000 students who entered college in the fall of 2008 are now a statistic.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), poor reading skills make high school graduates less likely to earn college degrees when compared with their peers who do not need reading remediation (2000). Furthermore, the American College Testing Program (2006) notes that just over 50 percent "of high school graduates have college-level reading skills" (as cited in the ASHE Report, 2007, p. 2). Students who need developmental reading courses will drop out at higher rates than those students who either need no remediation or who require remediation only in math (NCES, 2000). In addition, students who require reading remediation also often need a semester's worth (sometimes an entire year's worth) of remediation (NCES, 2000). In other words, a student who lacks reading skills tends to need remediation across the board (reading, writing, math, study skills, etc.), whereas a student needing only math remediation can take one or two developmental math classes while taking courses toward his or her degree requirements.

Edmund Hansen, director of the teaching enhancement center at Emporia State University, notes that even though statistics report data about the lack of preparation of students, the "students tend to be highly confident in their abilities [even though] skill levels for basic academic tasks are…alarmingly low for a significant percentage" of them (1998). Further, Hansen notes that in 1997, almost 32 percent of high school teachers awarded A grades compared with less than 15 percent in 1969, and he believes that such incidences of grade inflation have caused overconfidence among students. When students who have always received A's in high school receive C's and D's in college, they become frustrated, and perhaps they should. If high school is supposed to prepare students for college, and students go to college unprepared, that disconnect has an effect on everybody concerned.

Issues for Colleges

For the higher education system, remediation is both a good thing and a bad thing. The students who require developmental courses have to pay for them, resulting in tuition dollars. However, remedial courses require teachers (who need to be paid), electricity to light and heat classrooms (which costs money), and in many instances, academic support in the form of paid tutors, supplemental instructors, and study skills counselors. In addition, as many remedial students withdraw before completing degree requirements, the tuition gained from remedial coursework is lost when those students do not persist to graduation. More important, losing students to attrition causes a college's graduation rates to decrease. According to Carey (2004), "about 20 percent of all four-year colleges and universities graduate fewer than one-third of their first-time, full-time, degree-seeking first-year students within six years" (as cited in the ASHE Report, 2007, p. 3). In other words, at 1 in 5 institutions, a new full-time student has only a 1 in 3 chance of graduating in the six years following his or her enrollment.

Further Insights

Academically, students lack reading ability and are weak in math....

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