College Readiness

Dec. 3, 2014

Today I want to celebrate one of my own. My middle child, a son, will graduate with a degree in geology in about two weeks. I like to bring him up because he did not take a traditional route through college, but one that led him to successfully complete his college requirements.

I have written about him before, but his story is worth repeating. He is smart and made good grades in high school, but struggled with focus and boredom due to his being attention deficit. Due to the fact that he had taken several IB and AP classes, by the end of his junior year, he had all he needed to graduate except for a one-semester government class. When he showed me his line-up of classes for his senior year, I got a bit worried. I have no problem with interest-specific classes, but when the entire schedule was made up of classes like photography and videography, I got a sinking feeling that he might find himself with too much time for getting into trouble—which he had already proven he was capable of doing.

It was me, not him, that suggested he finish high school early and go do something useful in the world. He was suspicious, but listened as I suggested Americorps or something similar. He countered with the idea of going out of the country to volunteer. We started looking into gap year programs, but ended up constructing one on our own through one of my husband’s work colleagues.

This middle child and his older brother—who took a semester off from college, where he was doing well—took off that January to volunteer with a small NGO in Peru. They both had some Spanish, but took an intensive language course in the country before finding their way to the small community in which they worked. It was a great experience for both of them as they had to figure out transportation and housing, as well as their work project on their own.

After their return, older brother returned to college and the younger sized up his options quickly. He knew the rules: if you are a full-time student, your college fund kicks in; if not, you’re on your own. When he insisted he would attend the local community college, all kinds of alarms went off. I knew it wasn’t what he wanted, but he didn’t want to scrounge for his own rent. His dad and I tried to talk him out of it, telling him if he wasn’t serious, he would be wasting his college fund—so, of course, that is what he did—waste his college fund. He made Cs when he was completely capable of As and took classes that didn’t go toward much when he finally did get serious about college.

Shortly into the second semester of community college, he came to me to proclaim I was right: He wasn’t ready for college. Instead he was heading to New Zealand. He saved a couple of thousand from his part-time job, and his dad and I told him to have a great time. Which he did. He worked when he needed enough money, traveled all over, met lots of people, made all his own decisions, and truly matured.

Ten months or so later, he returned broke, but happy with his adventures. He was forced to live at home for awhile due to lack of funds, and he took the first job he could get: selling high end vacuum cleaner and air filter systems. He actually was a good salesman, but hated the job. About three weeks into it, he came to us and said: “I’m ready for college.” And he was.

He started university the following fall, was a serious student, did well in his classes, loved his major of geology, and is now set to graduate in a couple of weeks—at age 25. I never doubted that he would eventually go to college, but I knew it needed to be on his own terms. That is something that many parents have a difficult time accepting, but accept it they should, as it never does any good to force a young person into college.

Education never has been a one-size fits all, and college is not the right path for every high school graduate, nor is going straight to college after high school. It can be a stop-start, much delayed, or a circular route getting there. But the student shouldn’t start until he or she is ready, willing, and able. That’s what it’s all about.

Congratulation Wes!!

Oct. 21, 2014

 

In this venue and in the pages of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?, I have argued and tried to show that success in college involves much more than academic skill. One person I like to quote to substantiate my argument is Dr. David Conley of the University of Oregon. Dr. Conley is a leading researcher of college readiness and has authored many papers and books on the subject. I ran across an October 2013 interview with him by Project Information Literacy of the University of Washington. The interviewer asks what it means to be college ready in today’s world.

 

Heartening to me, Dr. Conley said that eligibility for college and readiness for college are not the same. He explained that eligibility means that the student has taken challenging high school courses and done well, and has done well on standardized and admissions testing. Readiness, however, “implies that the student’s preparation is well aligned with the full set of knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education. The emphasis here is on being able to succeed, not just on being admitted.”

 

As Toward College Success stresses, those skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education also are skills needed to succeed in life. I simply call them life skills, and a young person needs to have the basics in life skills well honed when he or she leaves home after high school—for whatever is pursued. Without those skills, being admitted into college does not equal being successful in college.

 

Dr. Conley has construed a college readiness model that includes “12 components and 41 specific aspects that the college and career ready student needs to master to be fully ready.” They include cognitive strategies, content knowledge, learning skills and techniques, and transition knowledge and skills. Included within these are skills such as self-awareness, motivation, help-seeking, time management, and many others that are discussed in Toward College Success.

 

In the interview, Dr. Conley explains that testing, course selection, and grades are the components that easily convert into policy. The problem is that those components do not show the full capabilities or inadequacies of the student. Determining whether or not a student is truly “college and career ready” is more complex and much less easy to assess than a test—once again, this is a primary message in Toward College Success.

 

Dr. Conley also is asked about his insistence that teaching research skills is important for college success. He states that his research shows that most high school students are not assigned many research papers, and those that they are assigned are usually required to be several pages long. High school students are not learning how to investigate, analyze, hypothesize, and organize a shorter, accurate, concise well-written paper—the type of paper that is more often assigned in college. Then, unfortunately, once in college many of these students do not seek help with their writing because they do not has self-advocacy skills.

 

And on and on. I recommend reading the interview at http://projectinfolit.org/smart-talks/item/80-david-conley-deconstructing-college-readiness and looking for more of Dr. Conley’s work on the subject of college readiness. I also recommend reading Toward College Success!

 

Sept. 4, 2014

There is a website on which reporters post “want ads” for information on subjects they are researching. Today I saw one of those information requests for college preparation advice for high school freshmen. The ad specifically requested “advice on how to build good habits.” I translate that to advice on how to be successful in college and life beyond high school.

How convenient then that the updated, second edition of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? has recently been released. It is, of course, full of just that kind of information. It is directed toward parents, however, because they are the ones that through guidance and the handing over of responsibilities give their teenagers those skills necessary for a successful college experience.

Although these skills have been discussed often in this forum, it is never too repetitive to make or update a list.

1. Your freshman should keep her own calendar. Include not only academic deadlines and dates, but have her note sport and extracurricular meeting dates, doctor appointments, and anything else she has going. You also should keep track of those dates because in the beginning she probably will miss a few. You can remind her, but eventually let her take over—and let her suffer the consequences of missing a deadline or an appointment.

2. In high school, many teenagers get involved in numerous activities: multiple sports, music, clubs, community service, a job. This is a good time to guide your teenager through priority management. Teenagers can become overwhelmed juggling too many activities on top of school work. Make it clear that academics come first. If school work starts to slide, then your teenager may need guidance in deciding which activities to let go. This can be hard for parents because the teenager may decide to give up something that mom or dad really want him to pursue—such as piano lessons or a particular sport that is near and dear to mom or dad’s heart. Remember that this is the teenager’s life and he needs to make the decisions.

3. If you haven’t already, this is a good time to put your teenager on a budget and teach her financial responsibility. Make a list of the items you will pay for and those for which the teenager is responsible. Do this whether the teenager’s money is an allowance, from work she does for you, or from an outside part-time job—and stick to the plan. This is a good time to show your teenager your household expenses and how you budget.

4. Provide opportunities for your teenager to improve his communication skills. During family gatherings or when friends are around, ask an adult to start conversations with your teen, asking about the teen’s activities, interests, or views. Teens need to learn to communicate face-to-face instead of relying on texting or social media outlets. Also encourage your teen to ask questions as that is a good way to start networking and building contacts.

That’s a good list to start. It will grow as your teenager ages and as you give out graduated responsibility. Keep reminding yourself that the goal is to help your teenager be ready, willing, and able for success in college and life beyond high school.

Aug. 18, 2014

Today my middle kid boarded a plane to Honolulu to settle in and start his last semester of college. He is a geology student and although he has focused on hydrogeology, he has a keen interest in volcanoes—and where better to study volcanoes than Hawaii? This final semester—his semester abroad—is the end of a college career that started rocky, disappeared for awhile, but finally happened. When he decided he was ready for college, he became a serious student and has done very well.

Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?—as the title implies—stresses that students need to be ready, willing, and able to be successful in college. That sometimes means the student’s timetable is not the same as his or her parents. The important thing is not to force a student into college if he is not ready. I think I judged well on my son that I kissed goodbye today.

He had his share of trouble during high school, but being clever, intelligent, and charming he made his way through—a favorite with friends and teachers alike. However, he did get in trouble, oftentimes because he was bored. As his junior year wound down, he had already finished, and gone beyond, all requirements for graduation, save a one-semester government class. For his senior year, he proposed several “interesting,” but not challenging courses. He saw it as a year to have fun and coast; I saw it as prime opportunity to find trouble.

I suggested he finish his senior year mid-term and then do something useful and unusual. At first he was skeptical of my motives, but he eventually came around, but insisted he wanted to leave the country. Thanks to his dad’s connections, we were able to set up an internship for him and his older already-in-college brother with a non-governmental organization working in Peru. They both had a great experience and returned home about two days before graduation ceremonies.

Once home and graduated, he needed a plan. He knew our rule—we offered room, board, and tuition for full-time college students; we offered no financial support for other choices. He proclaimed he would attend the local community college and live with three other friends. I knew he wasn’t ready and tried to persuade him to just get a job and work awhile, but I couldn’t sway him. He went to class, hated it, did okay, and played hard. Toward the end of the second semester, he announced that I was, in fact, right, he didn’t really want to do college at that point. “I’m going to New Zealand,” he said. “Have a good time,” was our response.

And he did. He had a great time, worked when he needed money, played when he had it, and learned a lot about himself. After about nine months, he returned home, broke and needing a job quick. He took the first thing that came along—selling high-end vacuums and air-filtration systems. He turned out to be a good salesman, but hated every minute of it. Two weeks into the job, he announced he was ready for college.

The rest is history. He figured out the best study methods for himself, honestly told us that he knew he couldn’t work and do well in college, and made college his job. He had an internship this summer that paid well, provided him new beneficial experiences, and expanded his networks. He is hoping to network in Hawaii and land a volcano-related internship there. On the way to the airport he told me, “Who knows, maybe I can go to graduate school and focus on volcanology.”

His ticket was one-way to Hawaii—one way to the end of a successful college career, and beginning of the next stage—all on his own timetable.

July 30, 2014

It’s not long before college students will start heading back to their campuses. For freshmen, whether they are going close to home or further afield, it is the beginning of new freedoms, new friends, a new era in their lives. While most incoming freshmen have already figured out what they plan to pack and their class schedule, there are some things for which they may not be prepared—things that can throw them offer and hamper their ability to succeed at college. Although, as Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? advises, all college preparations and discussions should be attended to long in advance of dropping a student off at the dorm. However, here are a few last minute things to think about:

1. Be prepared to feel some loneliness and/or awkwardness despite being in a dorm full of students. Most students do not know their roommates, so it helps to have contacted that person before moving in. An initial telephone conversation can lessen the awkwardness of moving into a small space with someone you don’t know. Recognize that all roommates don’t hit it off, but do your best to make the situation as positive as possible and stick it out. Remember, there is no rule that you have to hang out with your roommate. Also, loneliness and homesickness are normal; it takes time to make friends. Take heart in knowing that college buddies can turn into lifelong friends.

2. Plot a path from the dorm to your class buildings before the first day of class. Whether you will hoof it, ride a bike, or use a skateboard, make note of how long it takes to get to each class.

3. Mark the last drop/add date on your calendar. After that first week of class, it is common to drop or add a class for a variety of reasons. Understand that the final drop/add date is not negotiable. If you’ve already bought books for a class you end up dropping, be sure you know how and where to exchange or sell back the books.

4. Within the first week of class, figure out the best place and means of studying. The dorm room is rarely a good study location. The library is ideal, but can get crowded. Consider forming study groups early in the semester—such groups are a great help not only in studying for exams, but in providing notes in case you miss a class.

5. Take note of your professors’ and teaching assistants’ contact information and office hours. Do not be afraid to seek out your teachers when you have questions. Introducing yourself to your teachers is always a benefit to the student.

6. Find out where the campus medical center is and understand how to use it. Parents and students also should visit the closest hospital and make preparations for parents to be listed as persons to whom medical information can be released. If an emergency arises, such a release becomes critical, particular if the student is a long way from home.

7. Remember that a successful college experience hinges on a student’s ability to manage time and priorities. Go to every class, participate in campus activities, study hard, go out for pizza now and then, pay attention to deadlines and requirements, explore recreational opportunities that the area affords, broaden your outlook, and have fun!

Note: Please check out the new second edition, e-book version of Toward College Success: Is Your Student Ready, Willing, and Able? Visit your favorite e-book vendor or go to “Buy the Book” on this website for links. And please—let me know what you think by leaving a review. Thanks!

April 30, 2014

I admit, I get exasperated every time I read another article that basically states the same ideas readers can find in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? Neither my book nor I am a big enough name to be noticed by the “well-knowns,” and so I report when their blogs, articles, books, affirm Toward College Success.

Nancy Flanagan, a regular blogger for Education Today, recently wrote a piece titled: “College-Ready?” While she does discuss what makes a student “college ready,” she first challenges the idea that going to college, picking a college, and picking a career mostly should be based on rate of return. I completely agree. Not long ago, I wrote about the value of learning for learning sake, the value of stretching one’s cognitive abilities, the value of studying and discussing challenging and diverse subjects. Flanagan states that the primary trajectory toward college is: “1) Being college ready. 2) Being successful in college (completing a degree program, admission to the next level). 3) Using those degrees to leverage more money and prestige.”

If that is what a student wants for her life, then good for her. Hopefully she has the drive, the maturity, and all the skills to make it happen. But, of course, there are other paths to a fulfilling and successful life—vocations, certifications, apprenticeships, military—but these often carry the stigma that these paths are not as lucrative or fulfilling—two terms that should be defined by personal interests, goals, and priorities, not by the world at large.

Flanagan writes: “What do we expect to get out of a college degree? It’s very rare to hear policymakers or thought leaders talk about depth of disciplinary knowledge, exposure to diverse viewpoints and the art of argument, guidance in learning to create or solve problems–or lead. Instead, we get lifetime salary estimates as payoff for slogging our way to a credential. Nobody talks about personal satisfaction or the benefits of an educated populace.”

 

As for college readiness, Flanagan says that being college ready is having the “self awareness” to wisely choose a field of study and having a clear purpose for going. To be successful in college, Flanagan says, takes maturity, something she doubts many freshly graduated high school students possess. So what does she suggest? One is to take a gap year if you can find one that you can afford.

 

But mostly she suggests getting out and living. “Get a Joe job. Move out and live independently, or with roommates. Pay your own utility bills. Sponge off your parents for home-cooked leftovers and access to the washing machine. Travel to places you’ve never been. Think about how you’d like to live, as an adult. Dream. Read. Make mistakes.”

 

Great advice—found in Toward College Success as well. After such an exploration, maybe that student will decide it’s time for college.

 

To read Flanagan’s article: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teacher_in_a_strange_land/2014/04/college_ready.html?cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS3

 

Nov. 8, 2013

In yet another article, an educator stresses that academic skills, by themselves, do not guarantee college and career readiness—the same message put forth in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?

David Cook, Director of Innovation and Partner Engagement at the Kentucky Department of Education, questioned in an Education Week blog whether we are graduating students that truly are college and career ready. His conclusion, after talking to business representatives, is that education is not providing a crucial part of what is needed. Cook wrote: “Being able to read, write, and demonstrate math knowledge are not the only readiness indicators. In fact, they are the bare minimum.” A statement that reads as if it came straight out of Toward College Success.

Cook goes on to say that employers told him that they “don’t terminate employees because they aren’t able to grasp the content knowledge needed to do the job. Instead, they terminate employees because employees don’t know what to do when they face a challenge or problem, they can’t think creatively about new approaches to issues on the job, they can’t adapt to new work, and most importantly they don’t understand the importance of showing up to work and being persistent when faced with challenges.”

Wow. These are the points that I make in presentations and that I make in this venue, only I relate it more to college success. What these businesspersons told Cook is even more disturbing than the number of kids who get to college without these skills—these same young adults are graduating college still lacking time and priority management, conflict management, and, it seems, basic maturity.  I think it would be interesting to review the history of some of these unsatisfactory young employees to learn what courses they took and the grades they received. It sounds as if something is amiss.

But to reiterate my point: It does take more than academic skill to be successful in college and in life. And while Cook challenges high schools to tackle the issue, I challenge parents to step up. Schools can certainly reinforce “soft skills,” but I believe most need to be taught at home long before the end of high school. Parents are the ones who have the opportunity to give graduated responsibility, who can offer choices that demand careful consideration because of the consequence or outcome attached. Mistakes, even failures, are great learning opportunities; parents can guide their child through learning from a mistake, being persistent, and moving on.

To read Cook’s article: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/engagement_and_reform/2013/11/we_arent_really_getting_them_college_and_career_ready.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-TW

Aug. 21. 2013

The ACT makers announced today that the average composite score on its 2013college-entrance exam is the lowest it’s been in eight years. Apparently, since 2006, the composite score has hovered at 21.1 (out of a possible 36) until this year when it dropped to 20.9. In addition, only 39 percent of 2013 ACT test takers met three or more of the college-readiness benchmarks in English, math, and science. Does that mean a lot of high school graduates are not college ready?

I don’t think the composite scores mean that, but I do think a high percentage of high school graduates are not college ready. In an Education Week article, writer Caralee Adams presented the discussion of what these lower scores mean. In one reader comment following her article, a commenter summed up something I believe. He wrote: “It’s not about so-called academic readiness; it’s about maturity and being personally responsible.”

While I believe academic readiness is definitely an important part of college readiness, I definitely agree that maturity and personal responsibility play a huge role in college success. That, of course, is the whole premise of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able. As I’ve said before, a 4.0 GPA does not ensure college success, nor does high test scores.  If a student cannot manage her time and priorities, cannot handle conflict, cannot manage her finances, cannot self-advocate, then that student is going to have a tough time succeeding in college.

While parents of high school juniors and seniors fret over upcoming college-entrance exams, they should remember their part in being sure their teenager is college ready. It is up to parents to teach the life skills that all teenagers will need to solve problems, make adjustments, and move toward accomplishment once those teenagers head out into the world—whether it is to college, work, military, or whatever. If parents see that their teenager has not honed needed life skills, then parents need to encourage their teenager to take some gap time and undertake meaningful occupation to help grow those skills. College will be there when that student is finally ready, willing, and able to succeed.

To read the article:

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/08/21/02act.h33.html?tkn=TZYFISVznFEi6aAZ98afVGq%2FIc7n58mgyyP5&cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS2

March 26, 2013

Last week I wrote about various alternative high school programs that allowed students opportunities to gain college credit, work experience, or internships all while working toward high school graduation. It seems that educators post daily articles and blogs about the need to move toward a “redesign” of high schools to increase students’ college and career readiness. And data seems to be backing them up. For example, an October 2012 report from Jobs for the Future did a study in Texas that found high school students who had taken at least one college course while enrolled in high school “were nearly 50 percent more likely to earn a college degree from a Texas college within six years than students who had not participated in dual enrollment.”

 Another study, “Opportunity by Design: New High School Model for Student Success” by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, contends that in order to be prepared to meet the Common Core Standards, many high schools will need to “redesign.” The Carnegie study points to schools that have increased student engagement and graduation rates through smaller schools, real-world experiences with community businesses, more personal attention to individual student academic progress, and a comprehensive academic curriculum as well as dual programs.

 I found, however, part of the statement written by Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation, to be particularly telling: “….while it is important to graduate from high school, high school is not an end into itself, but rather preparation for college as well as life-long learning. It is one part of the path that leads students toward their ultimate potential in any field of endeavor as well as in finding personal satisfaction in their lives.”

 It is, in fact, during those high school years that a student should be learning the skills she needs to be successful in college and career. Redesigning high schools to more fully engage students and offering dual programs are part of moving them toward success, but there is another important component here. I believe parents need to see their role in this whole discussion; parents need to be as involved as the school in moving their teenager toward success. At home, parents need to be teaching time, conflict, and financial management. They need to give their teenagers graduated responsibilities. They need to model an interest in learning, keep communication open, and learn to listen to their teenager. Without these non-academic but important life skills, redesigned high schools will still struggle to prepare students for college and career success. It take parents, schools, and communities working together to move teenagers toward college and career success.

 To read the Jobs for the Future report: http://www.jff.org/publications/education/taking-college-courses-high-school-strat/1475

To read the Carnegie report: http://carnegie.org/fileadmin/Media/Programs/Opportunity_by_design/Opportunity_By_Design_FINAL.pdf

March 5, 2013

Last week I was talking with a couple of friends, one of whom teaches classes at a nearby university, the other who grows and distributes fresh veggies through her community supported agriculture (CSA) business. My teaching friend explained her frustration last year when she was teaching an online course. She missed direct contact with her students and she found problems more difficult to resolve. She also explained that over half the students dropped the class—a percentage that was quite distressing to her, although she was told that high dropout rates usually occurred with online classes.

 She gave the example of a student who turned in a required paper that was full of grammatical errors, unorganized, lacking in citations, and, at times, incoherent. Instructions with the assignment clearly stated that she expected papers to be grammatically correct and properly cited (she is not an English teacher). She wondered how that student was surviving college with such poor writing skills. I wondered how he graduated high school and was accepted into college—who missed that? As I’ve said here before, good writing skills are essential to college success.

 My other friend said poor writing skills are common everywhere. She told us about a business associate with whom she corresponds. She described the woman’s writing as sloppy—full of grammatical and spelling errors. The woman is apparently well-educated—she just doesn’t take the time to produce well-written business correspondence—it doesn’t seem to matter to her. However, my friend noticed and she finds it unprofessional. Not only is it unprofessional, it diminishes the woman’s credibility and she comes across as someone who can’t be bothered with detail. Her poor writing skills can damage her reputation—good writing skills are essential not only for college success, but also for career success.

 I have written before that Dr. David Conley, aProfessor of Educational Policy and Leadership at the University of Oregon and who specializes in researching college readiness, has written that of all academic skills needed for college success, writing is the most important. Being able to compose organized, properly cited, coherent, grammatically correct writing directly influences a student’s ability to succeed in college. Those skills also are greatly appreciated in the business world where, it seems, few employees come equipped to write concise, consistent, well-organized reports, proposals, letters, and emails.

 Written communication is essential to college and business success. How do you rate your writing skills? How do you rate your teenager’s writing skills? Is she getting writing instruction in high school? Middle school? In researching Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?, I found several middle and high school teachers who said they simply didn’t have time for students to research, write, and revise papers. With class sizes of 25, 30, or more, teachers find they don’t have time to carefully grade and give significant feedback to those students. In addition, teenagers often don’t see the relevance in writing. My vegetable-growing friend said writing didn’t click with her son until a high school teacher suggested he write about a subject significant to him. He chose to write about cooking; he is currently a successful culinary arts student.

 Is that the answer? Let students chose the topic? That may be a good approach now and then, but students also need to learn to research and write about a variety of topics—it never happens that a college student or someone in business always chooses their topic. Good writing communicates clearly, is mostly free of errors, and makes a statement about the writer. The teenager that learns to write well will increases his chance of college and business success.