The High School to College Transition: Minding the Gap

The value of a college degree is well documented. College graduates earn at least 60% more than high school graduates. Beyond the economic value, college graduates show higher rates of civic participation, engage in volunteer work and even have a much higher likelihood of being “happy,” according to a 2005 survey by the Pew Research Center. Students who drop out without attaining a college degree will forgo significant lifetime earnings and are likely to be saddled with debt that may impact their ability to buy a car, a house or even return to finish their education at a later date. And the consequences for failing are not just for the students who leave. Our economy, and many argue our democracy, depends on maintaining and building an educated workforce and citizenry. Most of our efforts over the past decade have focused on college access and we have made progress in preparing students to aspire to and apply to college. However, given our poor track record of graduating students, we have much work to do to help students attain a college degree. The data show that only about half the students who enroll in college end up earning a four-year college degree. This statistic has not changed much in over a decade. Yet the stakes have increased since President Obama took office. He has committed to increasing the number of high school graduates who enter and succeed in college, understanding that completing the degree is the prerequisite for career success.

The reasons for student attrition have been researched and documented and include: lack of finances, lack of preparation and poor fit between expectations and what students experience once they arrive on campus. An entire industry has been created to assess students and assess the campus environment, and the literature is abundant with best practices in student retention. My own campus employs many of them: early alert and mid-semester warnings, academic tutoring, peer mentoring, financial literacy programs and a first-year seminar to ease the transition to college. Despite all these efforts, we still lose more students than we’d like and are stymied about how to improve our retention and their academic success. We have developed a multitude of programs to focus on student success, but to some extent our approach is to do these for or to the student; too often the students themselves haven’t been true partners in efforts to help them succeed.

High school students may have a pretty good understanding of what they need to do to get into college, and of the importance of attending college for career and financial success, but they have an undeveloped and even unrealistic understanding of what it takes to successfully transition, persist and graduate from college. As I think about our students, I see a persistent and pervasive gap between what students are expected to be able to do in college and what students actually come prepared to do. Even those students who test into college-level courses—based on their performance on entering placement tests—seem to lack crucial academic knowledge and skills and appear ill-prepared for the demands of college-level work.

Students bring with them the habits and attitudes that may have been “good enough” to get by in high school but will not support their success in college where “passing” is not enough to maintain sufficient academic progress toward a degree. If they don’t get a C or better in developmental and foundation courses—also know as the “gatekeeping” courses—they cannot progress and lose time and money without reaching their goal. Too often students exert the minimal effort that they perceive will be good enough to pass the course. They seem more focused on getting through the course rather than learning the content and skills which can inform their work and lives. This is especially true when they don’t readily see the point of what they are learning—typically in their general education and developmental courses which they view as too much like high school.

Many of our faculty work hard to “meet students where they are,” allow for extra credit work, and encourage students to meet with them outside of class for further instruction or clarification. Still, too many students don’t take advantage of these opportunities and seem either unable or unwilling to seek assistance. However, I don’t believe that this is because they don’t want to be in college or they don’t wish to succeed.

The fact is that while many students have the expectations and aspirations to pursue their college dreams, they are unprepared for the work. Despite the reports stressing the need for a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum in high school, many high school graduates enter college lacking the academic habits and skills—including how to read a textbook and take notes as well as study and organizational skills—necessary to successfully transition to college-level expectations.

Beyond academic preparation, one explanation for the high school-to-college achievement gap is what Seton Hall professor Rebecca Cox calls “the college fear factor.” The students she studied know that a college degree is essential to their future success in life and careers but bring tremendous anxiety to the experience. Many bring past experiences with failure in an academic context. And typically, this gets reinforced on their first day of college where they have to “pass or fail” a placement test to see if they are deemed ready for college-level work. They come to college acutely aware of their past failures and lack of readiness and this feeds their self-doubts about whether they will be able to succeed.

So why don’t students reach out to professors who say that “their office doors are open” and they are “always available to meet with students”? Cox believes that students are afraid professors will confirm their academic inadequacy. Because of these fears, students end up not employing the very strategies that will help them such as meeting with professors outside of class, asking for help or asking questions in class for fear of being exposed as stupid. They don’t ask questions, seek outside help from faculty or their peers and may even skip class rather than risk seeming ignorant or slow. Unfortunately, these behaviors only exacerbate the problem. Students may be afraid to even admit this to themselves and usually have no one to turn to who can help them sort through these feelings. This is especially true for students who may be the first in their families to go to college. Finally, too few students see themselves as having some measure of control about their ability to succeed or fail. Those who struggle are more likely to attribute it to bad luck or factors they see as out of their influence. Students see themselves as passive recipients of their professors’ knowledge rather than viewing learning as an interaction between the professor and student. They typically rely on the faculty member to “teach them what they need to know” which usually translates to what will be on the test. This may be attributed to previous school experience or stage of cognitive development or possibly both. Helping students become active participants in their own learning requires skilled teaching, however this is almost never part of most faculty members’ graduate preparation. Research on Latino students by Laura I. Rendón, professor of higher education and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Iowa State University, indicates that students who persist are actively engaged by key adults (who may or may not be their instructors) also known as “validating agents” who take an active interest in and provide encouragement for students and affirm their ability to do academic work. These are people who, in the words of one of our students, “… believed in me before I even believed in myself.”

Increasing student readiness for college is important, but we also need to improve our ability to better serve students. Instead of adding program upon program to the array of services we provide students, I believe we need to fundamentally rethink the first year of college for the increasing numbers of students who come to us who aren’t “hard-wired” for success. Vincent Tinto, distinguished university professor at Syracuse University and widely known expert on student attrition, suggests that unless institutions of higher education do something to reshape the prevailing educational experiences of students during their first year of college and address the deeper roots of their continued lack of success, then we should not expect to see results any different from what we have experienced over the past few decades. Imagine if colleges were ranked by how much students learn once they arrive rather than by how much they need to learn before they enter. While this requires a larger cultural shift, in the meantime, there are a number of systemic models for what a program or a college that is focused on student success might look like.

The City University of New York has come up with a bold plan for a new college structured to improve student success. The college will engage students at admission in developing an educational plan and establishing connections with faculty and staff who will advise, register and help students apply for aid. Beginning in a three-week summer bridge program, students will complete a variety of assessments to diagnose learning strengths and weaknesses and begin to develop the skills and strategies necessary to succeed in their courses. Students will take a required first-year core curriculum integrating liberal arts and professional studies which will lead to a second- and third-year program that places students in linked courses along with internships. Finally, advising and student support services will be “wrapped” around students, and students will work either on campus or in a setting with partner employers.

Another effort is the Foundation Year Program currently being piloted in Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies. It entails a structured year-long full-time college-based program that begins with a six-week summer program followed by three 12-week quarters in the fall, winter and spring. An intensive five-day a week schedule includes both credit-bearing and noncredit academic courses as well as supported study time, college and career exploration and leadership, wellness and youth development programming. Additionally, in the winter and spring terms students spend two afternoons per week in internship rotations. The program provides a dedicated student advisor and four full-time faculty who offer writing and math instruction, tutoring and advising to a cohort of 40 students. Though in its first year, program participants are expected to continue as sophomores either at Northeastern or at selected partner institutions.

A well-known approach that isn’t institutionally based is the Posse Foundation’s model, which creates a “posse” or cohort of students who act as a support system for one another in order to succeed in college. Posse Scholars are recruited while still in high school and spend their senior year preparing for their college experience. They meet weekly in workshops that build skills around team-building and group support, cross-cultural communication and leadership. Once they have matriculated, Posse staff visit each university four times a year to meet with Posse Scholars, campus liaisons and mentors. Each mentor meets weekly with the Posse as a team and with each scholar individually every two weeks during the first two years of college. This program recognizes the importance of preparation prior to matriculation and support while in college and to arming students with the skills and tools to be active participants in their own success. It demonstrates that the transition to college needs to begin while students are still in high school and suggests that we might rethink the senior year of high school—especially the second half of the senior year—to focus not just on getting into college, but on getting through college. This could include opportunities for dual enrollment to enable students to experience college-level expectations and assignments while they are still in high school and early placement testing so that students can get information on their academic strengths and remediate areas in which they are weak so that they enter college prepared for post-secondary level work. High schools could also offer the equivalent of a college success course including time management, study skills, reading a textbook and writing a college-level research paper so that students do not have to learn these skills while simultaneously being enrolled in college courses.

Too often college access and success are viewed separately with secondary schools shouldering the responsibility for college enrollment and colleges being accountable for student persistence. The result is typically finger-pointing and blame: High school folks say that colleges need to do a better job of graduating their students while those who work at colleges say that their students would succeed if only high schools did a better job preparing them. The truth is we will never achieve the goal of raising college attainment levels unless we work across sectors to close the gap between high school and college preparation and performance to ensure that students successfully transition and graduate from college.


Deborah Hirsch is associate vice president for academic affairs at Mount Ida College.


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