Five Reasons Why Your Students May Not Be Prepared for College-Level Course Work

Recent studies have shown that high school graduates are increasingly unprepared for the demands of college-level coursework. What are some of the issues behind this trend, and how can you help change its course?

Both the College Board and the ACT recently reported that, based on the latest SAT and ACT scores, the majority of today’s high school students are not adequately prepared for college-level course work. The College Board reported that just 43% of students who took the SAT in the class of 2013 graduated from high school ready to take on the challenges of college classes. The ACT drew similar conclusions (if you haven’t already, check out their report, “The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013”) after just 39% of test-takers in the class of 2013 met three or more of the ACT’s college-readiness benchmarks—and nearly one-third failed to meet any.

In light of these disconcerting findings, one is naturally inclined to seek out the origins of the downward trend in college preparedness. I did a little digging and speculating and came up with the following five reasons why some of your students may not be fully prepared for the world of collegiate academia. They may not paint the full picture of the problem, but they may help create an initial sketch as you work to tackle it.

1. They aren’t completing a core curriculum

The ACT found that “graduates who took a core curriculum or more in high school were more likely to meet the corresponding ACT College Readiness Benchmark in 2013 than graduates who took less than a core curriculum.” In 2013, 67% of graduates who took at least a core curriculum in English met the ACT’s English benchmark, while just 36% of graduates who took less than a core curriculum in English met the benchmark.

According to the ACT, students who take a recommended core curriculum enroll in college at a higher rate and have higher college retention rates than those who did not. They are also less likely to need remedial course work and more likely to perform well during their first year of college.

Likewise, the College Board reported that 84% of students who met the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark had completed a core curriculum, and the vast majority had also taken AP courses.

2. Top students may not be as prepared for college as educators and parents would believe

Some educators and parents may be inclined to devote more attention to low-achieving students, and indeed, those students do need and deserve a bit of extra encouragement if they hope to attend college. But it is wrong to assume that high-achieving students are fully prepared for college-level course work simply because they’ve breezed through their AP classes and scored high marks on their standardized tests.

Dr. Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Executive Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, recently discussed this problem in a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“The truth is that not all of the smartest kids who have jumped through the hoops required for selective college admissions are ready for the demands of college-level work,” says Dr. Hansen. “It’s time to acknowledge that even top students may have college-readiness problems.”

3. Many students aren’t challenging themselves as readers

I recently heard a story on NPR about trends in books that high schoolers are reading. I was shocked and saddened by the facts: after middle school, most students don’t continue to increase the difficulty level of the books they choose to read, and last year, nearly all of the top 40 books read by high schoolers were classified as well below grade level. The most popular of those titles? The three books in The Hunger Games series, which are ranked at a fifth-grade reading level.

The NPR story also noted that the books assigned to these students in school are mostly novels, including perennial favorites such as Of Mice and Men, but also more recent titles such as The Help and (gasp!) The Notebook.

I recall reading Shakespeare, Homer, Dickens, and Fitzgerald when I was in high school. Sure, I hated some of it (I’m looking at you, Macbeth), but I also learned to love a lot of it. Reading challenging works of literature made me a better reader and writer and it most certainly helped prepare me for college.

4. They R 2 used 2 texting, #tweeting, and technology

This isn’t just conjecture or stereotyping on my part. Millenials have grown up in a world of technological ease the likes of which no other generation has ever known. Spell check has relegated dictionaries to the recycling bin by the thousands. The term “home row” has gone the way of the Selectric as thumbs become the typing digits of choice. Google and Wikipedia answer our questions before we can even ask them. And if you can’t say it in 140 characters or less, perhaps it’s not worth saying.

But with all this ease and brevity and lightning-fast transmission of information comes a drop in accuracy and intellectual acuity. College freshmen may arrive on campus uncertain of how to navigate an actual brick-and-mortar library. As face-to-face contact becomes an increasingly foreign concept, they may be reluctant to make valuable connections with professors. And I can’t help but wonder how many misguided youth are peppering their poorly-spelled research papers with hashtags where their concluding statements ought to go.

5. Colleges may need to adjust to a new generation of students

In her Chronicle piece, Dr. Hansen places part of the blame on the colleges and universities who accept these unprepared students for admission and suggests that educators at all levels need to work together to help support both low- and high-achieving students.

“On top of the increased numbers and diversity of students in the ‘college for all’ era,” says Dr. Hansen, “college faculty have to reach ‘digital natives’ and adjust curricula and teaching to the expectations and abilities of students who are taught the Common Core State Standards.”

Have any of your students had difficulty adjusting to the demands of college-level course work? What do you do in your role as a counselor or consultant to help prepare them? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie and CollegeXpress. She holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times, she has been an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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