What is college ready? How deep is the water where you swim?

All, Reflections

motivationThis August I am embarking on two new ventures which have me thinking a lot about college readiness and what it means to be a successful college student. I am teaching First Year Seminar for the first time and I am taking on the newly-minted role of College Readiness Coordinator at Morehead State University.

I have taught freshmen before, but always as a writing class. While I was cognizant of my duty to prepare these novices for college-level work, I also knew my primary goal was to prepare these students for college-level writing. However, now those roles are reversed. While I can, and will, use writing as a tool to support learning, my primary focus has to be on starting these students on a trajectory which can make them successful college students.

confidenceMy new job is going to be very exciting. I will study and/or monitor the many existing programs Morehead State University has for underprepared students, primarily in my new academic home in University College, to determine the strengths and weaknesses of our existing programs as well as determine where we can scale up or adapt programs to serve more students. One of my primary jobs will be to identify the needs of underprepared students not currently served by these existing programs and find ways to work with either an existing program or create new programs to support these students. My new job does not officially begin for a few weeks, but it has been on my horizon for months and now that it is so close I can barely think about anything else.

One central question has dominated my thoughts: what does it mean to be college ready? The Commonwealth of Kentucky and Morehead State University have specific academic expectations for students based on past academic performance (high school GPA) and specific content knowledge (test scores) but as someone who has been involved in education as a participant (student and instructor) as well as trained observer (school-beat reporter) for more than four decades I have a real problem with those criteria as a predictor of college success. Not only is grade inflation rampant, but high school work frequently has little in common with college work – especially with so many school districts focusing on test preparation. K-12 success does not guarantee or predict college success. Test scores are even worse predictors as they do not measure intangibles such as confidence and motivation and adaptability.

adaptabilityI would rather ask students one simple question: Where do you swim? Are you willing to enter deep and unexplored waters or will you stay safely in the shallow end? Are you afraid to do more than dabble your toes in the water or will you dive in head first? Their answer to this question could tell us a lot about those intangibles. I have a great deal of experience working with underprepared writers, but I suspect these same issues are true for those underprepared in reading and math as well. Underprepared writers lack writing competence, but in the majority of cases it is not a lack of education that is causing the problem – so simply throwing more education at them is not the solution. The problem is that they lack confidence in their ability to use/adapt their existing knowledge and the motivation to learn and try because their past experience has been so fraught with struggle and failure. Before we can help them, before we can reach them, we need to know if these students are willing to step off the beach and into the water. Once we get them into the water then we can use our support program to encourage them progressively into deeper water. We can help them develop the confidence they need, but they need to bring their own motivation. without motivation our chances of helping them diminish.

college readinessWhat is college ready? Yes, there are benchmarks, but for me college readiness is about mental and emotional readiness even more than academic readiness. I see many freshmen enter college meeting the academic benchmarks, but struggling and even failing because they refuse to adapt to new rules and new situations. Much like the freshmen I will teach, my success in my new job will depend on my own ability to adapt, but I feel good about my chances. Yes, these are deep, uncharted waters, but I have changed career paths before and even reinvented a job in the past. I have knowledge and experience to bring to the task and I have a great support system to help me navigate the tricky spots. I hope I can help my students realize they too bring these things to their new challenges.

I believe true college readiness includes confidence, motivation, and adaptability. How do you define college readiness? What do you think we can do to improve students’ chances of success in college?