College student challenges columnist, college and high school faculty

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by Joe Nathan, 5/3/08 • Ashley Luginbill, a 2007 Elk River High School graduate recently wrote a wise and thoughtful challenge to my column about remedial courses in Minnesota universities. She began, “I agree with all your main points; however I think it isn’t just about the students needing to challenge themselves more.”

In the column, I explained that 49% of Minnesota’s public high school graduates, 2003-2006 had entered Minnesota public colleges or universities within a year of graduation. However, 38% of the Minnesota graduates who entered our 2 or 4 year public post-secondary institutions took at least one remedial course. This costs them and taxpayers millions of dollars. I provided the percentages of graduates from each district or charter public high school, who entered a Minnesota public university, along with the percentage of their graduates who took one or more remedial courses. (For details, please see www.mnscu.edu/media/publications/pdf/gettingprepared08.pdf

Ms. Luginbill questions both high school and college faculty. First, “I am paying a ton of money to attend a four-year private college to have a well-rounded education. But when half my classes are just a follow-through of what I learned in high-school, I question the justification of my tuition when I’m paying to learn things I already learned.”

Some colleges do an excellent job of assessing entering students’ skills and assigning them classes that will challenge them. But apparently that’s not always the case. Before applying to, and selecting a college, students should ask how this works.

Then Luginbill urged high school faculty to consider how they work with students: “…it is not just the responsibility of the students to challenge themselves, but also the responsibility of the faculty to make it understood why students should take higher-levels of education in high school, so they can transfer with them to college.”

She’s absolutely right. Over the last year the Center for School Change, where I work, studied Minnesota high schools with a HIGH percentage of graduates entering Minnesota public universities, and a LOW percentage of those graduates taking remedial courses. In every case, faculty in these high schools strongly encouraged their students to take challenging classes. In many of these high schools, low-level math and reading courses were not offered except for students with special needs.

Luginbill also compared attitudes in high school and college toward assignments: “…in high school when homework wasn’t done, it wasn’t really a big deal, and there were usually extensions. In college, late work or unfinished work is unacceptable and you receive zero credit.”

Neither Luginbill nor I will generalize about ALL Minnesota high schools. But I’ve certainly heard, anecdotally from college students, that at least some of their high school teachers were much more lenient about late assignments than are college faculty.

Luginbill is a classic example of why it’s important to listen carefully to young people. Like adults, they are not always right. But if we are open, we can learn a lot.

Joe Nathan, jnathan@umn.edu, directs the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.