The Challenge Of Under-Prepared Students

Reference work may occasionally live up to its glamorous reputation. For every experience with a student of high potential that challenges the reference librarian’s skills and knowledge, there are more interactions with students who give the impression of being under-prepared for college-level research. So we academic librarians may groan a bit, but we ultimately dig in and use our skills to bring those students up to speed. But I never gave much thought to the anxiety that the under-prepared student causes for the faculty. Apparently that anxiety is far reaching.

A recently issued report titled Campus Commons: What Faculty, Financial Officers and Other Think About Controlling College Costs revealed the extent to which faculty are troubled and frustrated by students who get admitted yet are not ready for college-level work. What I found most unexpected was that the report, based on the description of its authors’ focus, at first appears to have little to do with the issue of how well prepared students are for college. The study was designed to capture information from college presidents, financial officers and faculty about ways in which higher education could improve its quality and achieve greater affordability. As I read the report in more detail I discovered that from the faculty perspective an important factor in improving quality is improving the students.

Here’s a summary of what the college presidents were most concerned about:

Instead of viewing higher education as a private good that benefits individuals, many presidents argue that the country must come to understand and act upon the idea that higher education is a public good that benefits the entire society. As a consequence, they believe it should receive a significant infusion of public reinvestment.

And the state financial officers had a somewhat different perspective:

They share the presidents’ concern that higher education is caught between declining state subsidies and rising internal costs, but many state financial officers interviewed for this report feel that colleges and universities can be more cost-effective. Many emphasize the need to graduate more students, and their first priority is often to increase the retention rates for those already enrolled.

The college financial officers did little to surprise with their mostly practical concerns:

Many of those interviewed were interested in increasing higher education productivity and were willing, at least in confidential interviews, to ask hard questions about higher education’s assumptions, especially about class size and teaching loads. Many were also interested in greater use of technology to save money.

The faculty brought a different perspective to the discussion about the challenges of higher education. For them the problem was mostly a lack of preparedness among students:

For the faculty members we interviewed, the major problem facing public higher education is declining quality. They often believed strongly that many incoming students are not ready for college, that they have weak academic skills and are not yet mature enough or self-disciplined enough to take advantage of what is offered. Although there is little indication
that faculty are unalterably wedded to the status quo, it is important to emphasize that most begin the conversation from a somewhat different mind-set. They may be eager to look at measures aimed at improving student preparation for college and open to those that focus on administrative

So what exactly did the faculty have to say about the challenges of higher education? Here are a few examples:

* To some degree it’s amazing that some of these students are actually given a high school diploma. You wonder what it was that they studied and learned and what was the whole basis other than seat time.

* I don’t know if they’ve been over-parented, or if they’re the millennium students who have
had the helicopter parents who hover and are there to take care of any little problem, but they just don’t really seem to be ready for the college atmosphere.

* Yep. We’ll be forced to lower standards and graduate more numbers. That’s why you get paid. You know what? You’re going to find ways to get that done.

There are several pages of this and it leaves one feeling that faculty, at least those interviewed for this report, are genuinely cynical about students and the future of higher education. Not only do they see under-prepared students as the problem, but they are skeptical about almost any plan to correct the problem. It all surprises me because I’ve come to know many faculty who are eternally optimistic about the potential of their students or who acknowledge that many students are under-prepared but that it’s the responsibility of the faculty, working collaboratively with librarians, tutors and other teaching and learning professionals, to help the students rise above their lack of preparation.

Academic librarians see their share of under-prepared students as well. They ask you questions at the reference desk or attend your instruction session. Who hasn’t encountered a student in an instruction session that doesn’t understand the difference between an article title and a journal title or has difficulty understanding the concept of a synonymous term. Do you silently cringe in disgust at the student’s lack of preparation or do you commit yourself to achieve a teachable moment? At my institution I understand that many of our students come from school districts where there are no libraries or librarians, where cut-and-paste Google research was accepted and even encouraged and that the joy of reading, owning books and visiting the public library may not have been family values. I’d like to think that academic librarians can participate in this debate about how to improve the quality and productivity of higher education. But when we do let’s be mindful that the issue of the under-prepared student is our challenge and opportunity – not our burden.