When it comes to sports, especially golf, loft can be a good thing, a sought after goal. Loft can help a ball soar over a hazard. In fact, loft is often sought for among golfers driving research into clubs, balls, and swing speed. I have come to realize as an educator that this is what we need. We need more loft.
There are many obstacles, hazards if you will, on the path to earning a college degree. However, those obstacles increase exponentially for students underprepared for college-level work. For decades, nonselective public institutions of higher education have taken this work seriously and developed remedial education programs with a specialized curriculum intended to help underprepared students. However, in far too many cases, these classes delay and frequently derail student degree progress. While some students may experience learning gains, those lessons are offset by the sheer volume of students who do not complete the required remedial course sequence let alone graduate from college. Only about 25% of community college students who take a remedial course graduate within eight years and the number is not much higher for four-year colleges (Core Principles).
The reasons that many students do not complete remedial classes and go on to earn a degree are as many and varied as the students, but a common theme is that students believe the label they have been given, they believe they are in need of remediation, and they cannot get past that emotionally and intellectually which then impact their motivation and ability to overcome the inevitable obstacles. Too many students give up. This trauma is exacerbated by the fact that research has demonstrated that the test scores most institutions use to assign that label and place those students in remedial classes are notoriously bad at predicting college success. Students are struggling under the burden of a label that they may not deserve. Scholarships and other student awards are not earned solely on the basis of a single test score, so why do we do students at the other end of the scale such an injustice?
Even worse, the students who do stick it out and complete their remedial course work are no more prepared than when they began because too often remedial courses treat students to a one-size-fits-all approach that decontextualizes the lessons that students need to succeed in college. Students may be prepared for freshman composition but not for college writing. Students may be prepared to pass reading comprehension tests but not for college reading. Students may be prepared for college algebra but not for the math required in their discipline.
Many see the large percentage of students who drop out of college before they even have a chance to complete a college-level course and believe those students have failed. The truth is that we have failed those students as an institution. We need different placement policies that consider more information than test scores before giving students the remedial label and we need different placement policies that treat those cut-off scores not as hard and fast rules but rather gray areas with some room for negotiation.
Equally important, we need alternate paths for these students. There will always be a place for remedial classes. Some students simply did not receive some key lessons that they need to succeed in college. But I expect the shape and form of those classes to change. These changes are already taking place on campuses throughout the United States. Expecting the same methods to yield new results is the height of stupidity. We need to offer targeted interventions and provide support and experience, such as that offered by learning communities, but most important of all we need to give students the ability to choose the interventions they need and skip those they do not. We can offer them a selection of flotation devices, but in the end we must let them sink or swim on their own. I believe that many who scorn our life preservers and swim lessons will be able to negotiate the waters of college life just fine, but that others will take advantage of the life guards and water wings until they gain the skill and confidence they need.
It is our job as an institution, my job as college readiness coordinator, to help students achieve the loft they need to avoid hazards and succeed at college – hopefully as close to par as possible.