Episode 71: College Decision Time for Below-Average Students

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Two weeks ago, we started a new series entitled “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions” in honor of the May 1 date that is approaching as many colleges expect to get enrollment commitments from students they accepted. So far, we have talked about college options and decisions that are likely awaiting average and above-average high school students. Today, we want to look at a college path for below-average high school students.

To repeat what I have said before, “below-average high school students” are not necessarily kids who aren’t smart. They could simply be kids who, for whatever reason at school or at home or in their personal lives, did not become the very best high school students they could have been. But, fortunately, there is likely still a path to and through college, if they want to make that their goal.

By “below-average students,” we are going to mean that they are below average in the group of students who are clearly headed for college. They are students with mostly C’s in their high school classes and SAT subtest scores between 400 and 500—though SAT subtest scores, in fact, average (i.e., a mean score) in the mid-400s to low 500s, depending on your race and ethnicity unfortunately. Nonetheless, these so-called average scores in the mid-400s and low 500s are extremely unlikely to get students into great colleges, unless there are unusual circumstances.

Given their grades and test scores, it is likely that these students do not have as wide a variety of college options for next fall as average and above-average students do. They might have as options, however, one or more not-selective private colleges, a public state college or university in their home state or in another state (though likely not the flagship university in either case), and probably one or more community colleges in their home state. These options might be available if they made wise choices when applying. If they didn’t make wise choices when applying, it might be that they can enroll only in a community college near home or in their own state.

1. Needed Remediation?

Before we zero in on which college to choose to attend, let’s take a look at a very difficult issue that often arises with below-average high school students heading into college—remediation. Most colleges, including community colleges, set some kind of standard, typically for math skills and English skills, that students must meet before they can go into regular college courses. Below-average high school students often fail to meet such standards, throwing them into a purgatory of remedial courses from which some never escape. (This is also true for some special education students with IEPs, but that’s a different story.) Meredith Kolodner wrote about college remedial classes from a variety of perspectives in her insightful March 8 article in The Hechinger Report, where she said that “the whole notion of ‘remedial’ classes is being hotly debated. Most colleges still use separate classes that underprepared students must pass before enrolling in college-level classes, while recent research indicates that integrating remedial learning with regular college courses brings better results.”

Ms. Kolodner refers to a study of “developmental sequences” in community colleges—meaning a string of perhaps two or three remedial courses that students are placed into at the appropriate level, depending on their skills, and that they must finish in order to switch over into actual college courses. The study, conducted in 2010 by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, concluded this in its CCRC Brief Number 45, “Student Progression Through Developmental Sequences in Community Colleges”:

Fewer than one half of students in our sample [of community college students] completed their developmental sequences, and only 20 percent of students referred to math remediation and 37 percent of those referred to reading remediation completed a gatekeeper course [that is, a first actual college-level course] in the relevant subject area within three years.

In addition to providing evidence on overall developmental completion rates, this study has presented information about the nature of developmental course sequences and the places where students tend to exit their sequences. Analysis of developmental sequences makes clear that many students who exit their sequence do so even though they have never failed or withdrawn from a developmental course. This pattern extends into the first college-level course: Among developmental completers in the sample, those who enrolled in a gatekeeper course had a good chance of passing it, but about 30 percent did not enroll in such a course within the three-year period of the study. (quoted from the report)

So, parents, why am I telling you all this? Because your below-average high school student headed off to college—even if it is a community college—is likely to end up in a remedial course in English and/or in math and, when your kid does, you need to understand how difficult it might be for your kid to get out. Imagine being faced with a sequence of three math courses the minute you step through the college door when math was never your thing to begin with. That might seem like an insurmountable hurdle to a lot of kids, especially kids who have already struggled in high school. It is no wonder that a third of them never get to the gatekeeper real college course. It just takes too long; they get worn out, and they give up.

If you have a kid in this situation, look for a college that has a different approach to remedial courses—perhaps one that offers an accelerated path to completing remedial work or one that offers extra tutoring for an otherwise remedial student, but in a regular college course. Or get tutoring for your kid in the summer and try to knock out the remedial work before college classes ever start in the fall. Some colleges offer these options and more, and they are likely well worth it.

2. Who Teaches Remedial Courses?

Since I am talking to parents now rather than to college presidents (which I have done), I will spare you a long discussion of the staffing of remedial college courses and how colleges should probably take another look at how they do that. But let me give you the quick version.

Many, many professors or instructors or lecturers or whatever a college calls them who teach remedial courses are part-time faculty members. By part time, I really mean “adjunct” faculty members, who likely teach at more than one college to make ends meet and are, therefore, understandably less available to the students who need them most. Adjunct faculty members simply do not spend the time on the campus that regular full-time faculty members do and cannot engage with students very deeply or frequently as a result. I do not mean to speak disparagingly of adjunct faculty members. Some of my best friends are adjunct faculty members. They have a tough job with difficult working conditions, not much support, and relatively low pay in the world of college professors.

You might argue that full professors, who might prefer to do research and write books and have little interest in underprepared students, aren’t great remedial course teachers, either. And you might be right. Either way, if your child will have to take remedial courses at a college he or she has been accepted to, the staffing of those remedial courses is a real issue. As a parent, you should understand that and ask questions about that staffing if you need to in order to help your child make the best college choice.

You might also want to ask for the statistics from the college of how many students actually complete the remedial sequence they are assigned to and move on to real college-level work successfully. As we have said repeatedly, it is one thing to get into college and another thing to get out. Getting out of the remedial sequence successfully is the first step toward graduation.

3. Selectivity of the College

Now we are ready to discuss the selectivity of the colleges that have accepted your child. We are going to assume that, if your child has acceptances from two or more colleges, that those colleges are not necessarily equivalent in terms of their selectivity. In other words, your child might have been accepted at both public and private colleges and at both two-year and four-year colleges. These are very different options.

Let’s put the financial aspects of this decision aside for a minute because there is plenty of time to worry about that. Let’s look first at your child’s options in terms of the selectivity of the colleges. Let me start with the conclusion, and it’s the same conclusion we offered last week and the previous week to parents with average and above-average high school students: Your child should go to the most selective school that accepted him or her. With any luck, that college will not require your child to take remedial courses. But if it does, you know what to look for and what to ask.

The most important reason for this advice is that graduation rates are higher at academically better colleges. In other words, as we have said before, your child is more likely to finish a degree if he or she attends a more selective college, and your child is more likely to finish that degree on time. That might be especially important for below-average students, who might need a bit more support to keep moving through their courses at the correct pace.

You might want to go back to your deal breakers in choosing a college for your child—whether you picked those using our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students) or using our discussion of them way back in Episodes 9 and 10. But I am saying here that the selectivity of the college be moved to the top of your list of factors to consider when making this decision with your child.

By the way, the most selective college your child was accepted to could be one of your state’s public four-year university or state college campuses. As we have said many times, there is no prestige in attending a private college that is not as good as a respected public college.

It is likely that a community college is not your child’s most selective option, unless it is the only option. In other words, it is probable that if a four-year state public college or university accepted your child, that institution is more selective and likely a better choice than a two-year community college. As we have said throughout these episodes, we understand that there might be financial reasons to attend a community college. We understand that there might be family reasons to keep a child close to home and within commuting distance and that a community college might fit those circumstances very nicely. Nonetheless, as we have also said several times, the transfer rate of students from community colleges to four-year colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees is shockingly low (The Hechinger Report, “Volunteer ‘Pushy Moms’ help community college students transfer to four-year schools,” February 8, 2016, online):

According to a recent report from Teachers College, Columbia University, 80 percent of entering community college students say they intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about a quarter actually make the transfer and 17 percent eventually get the degree. (quoted from the article).

Below-average high school students headed for college do not have a great chance of making that transfer and getting that four-year degree. So few students manage to do it that I think it is a big gamble if you have another choice.

4. Your Choice for Your Child

Here’s a question we asked and answered in each of the last two weeks: What if your child has just been accepted by the college that you really want him or her to attend, but that college is not your child’s first or even second or even third choice? Who wins?

I am simply going to refer you to Episode 69 or 70, because this problem is the same regardless of whether your child was an above-average, average, or below-average high school student. And my answer is the same: As a parent, I wish you could win, but I don’t think you can win without convincing your child first. Your child is the one who is going to have to do the work and be content while doing it.

5. What About the Cost?

So, now let’s talk about money. It is likely that you will be looking at a public option or two and perhaps a private option or two. If your child’s high school grades and test scores weren’t as high as they might have been, I am guessing that your private option(s) are not high-ranked schools. The question might boil down to this: Do you spend a lot of money on a private option that is not a great school, or do you choose a public option?

If money is not a major concern for you or if some other factor is of great concern—like you want a faith-based college—and it can’t be gotten in a public college, then go ahead and make the private college choice. However, a decent public option might be your most cost-effective choice. If your child can post some good grades over a year or two at a public college, then transferring to a better private college or a better public university is an option down the road. Either way, you save money at a public option for a year or two, while waiting to help your child move into a more selective private option next.

But, as I always say: Do what it takes to send your child to the best college that will take him or her, because the best possible college education is something worth investing in—even if that means loans for you and your child. If that’s a four-year public state college rather than a two-year public community college, then find a way to pay the difference.

We are going to do an episode about finances next week, but it’s not a magic bullet. If only it were.

6. Next Steps

So, here is what I have been saying. Call me and tell me what your child’s choices are and what your circumstances are. I will give you my thoughts on what might be the best choice from the college options your child has. It’s just our thank-you for listening. What could be more important for your family than making the right college decision now?

Learn more in previous episodes…

  • Episode 9: What Are Some of the Decisive Factors in Putting Colleges on Your List?
  • Episode 10: What Are Some More of the Decisive Factors in Putting Colleges on Your List

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

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