Unlike the highly selective acceptance process of years gone by, today’s universities find themselves admitting large numbers of students from vastly different backgrounds. These students enter college with many different expectations, from the desire to better their life circumstances to the wish to extend the period of relative ease before adult life and responsibilities face them head-on. Students may enter college with a specific goal or interest in mind, or they may begin their careers without any idea of what major to declare. All of these circumstances have led universities and the students who attend them to a critical situation; the failure rate among college students has increased, despite the promise of greater financial benefits for college graduates. While there is debate over the reasons for so many students’ inability to find success in college, there are some facts that surely contribute to the state that universities find themselves in today: the aforementioned shift in student composition, the dependency today’s students have on constant feedback, and the false over-confidence with which many of today’s high school students enter universities.
To begin, today’s university population looks dramatically different from the student body of 50 years ago. Students who would never have considered a four-year degree are now encouraged to apply to universities, and a considerable number are accepted each year. Students enter unprepared to face the academic and intellectual challenges facing them. Universities have attempted to bridge the academic gap for these students by implementing writing and math remediation workshops, but rote memorization and the acquisition of particular skills do not bridge the gap. Rather, it is the lack of intellectual reasoning, the inability to transfer knowledge from one area of learning to another, that leaves these students behind the general student body. High school often demands a great degree of regurgitation and mimicking of instructors’ opinions, whereas college requires real critical thinking. The freshman facing a blank blue book at exam time finds himself unable to construct a single meaningful sentence. The sophomore asked to discuss the relationship between a certain character’s actions and the war era in which the character lives finds herself unable to understand the question. These students do not necessarily lack intelligence, but they carry a heavier burden than students who were more academically prepared upon college acceptance.
If some students enter university life unprepared, most enter college today with too great a dependence on feedback. This feedback, encouraged more and more in high school classrooms, leaves students incapable of motivating themselves. Leaving the constant praise and guidance of the high school teacher for the one-exam-per-semester reality of many college survey classes, students find themselves at a loss. What begins as a challenge at the beginning of the semester quickly becomes a pointless exercise when the student is assigned chapter after chapter to read, take notes on, and retain without so much as a quiz to gauge progress. The effect of losing frequent feedback is often quick and deleterious; the student fails to read the required material and ultimately fails the semester exam. The same student who excelled in high school may fail in college simply from an inability to become self-motivated.
If students’ reliance on feedback causes them to fail without its constant rewards, an even greater problem may be the over-confidence ingrained in them by America’s secondary schools. The feedback high school students enjoy is often inflated as a result of the “everybody wins” attitude promoted by these schools. Students then enter university with an unrealistic assessment of their skills and cognitive abilities. Unlike the students who understand and accept that they need remediation, these students offer shallow interpretations of texts and are astounded when they receive low grades. Combine this fact with the lack of consistent feedback, and the situation is enough to enrage the over-confident student. The end-of-semester exam arrives, the student offers shallow responses that reveal that he has barely paid attention to the textbook and cannot synthesize the information he has learned, and he fails the course. Sometimes the effect of receiving the failing grade is disastrous for the student. Certain that the professor has wronged him, he confronts him angrily. No matter how the professor explains what was lacking in the student’s responses, the student can only compare the professor’s assessment of his skills to the undeserved praise of his former high school teachers. The student is likely to take the professor’s remarks personally because the praise he has received all the years before has become linked to his self-esteem. Today’s student is bewildered by this change and, after an initial period of shock, becomes angry and drops out.
The major causes of students’ failure in university—the change in the student population, the reliance on feedback to motivate the student, and a crippling overconfidence—have led to a greater failure rate among America’s college students. Although attempts have been made to bridge the gap between students prepared or not to meet the challenges of university, these gaps at times may be great enough to warrant a closer look at what community colleges may have to offer. Furthermore, a look into what high schools can do to ease the transition to college by slowly lessening the amount of feedback in the last two years of school may be a partial answer. As to the problem of the overconfident student who lacks humility when faced with the expectations of the university classroom, an entire culture shift may be the only answer. The “everybody is a winner” attitude prevalent in secondary classrooms across the country may be creating generations of lazy thinkers who cannot perform at the level expected in the university setting. Therefore, only through the efforts of the higher education establishment, the secondary school, and the student herself will there be a solution to the increasing problem of failure among university students.