Why do Some Community College Students Fail?
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In a world of glass half empty and glass half full people, I have a tendency to lean toward the former. On average, the majority of people who take my classes each year manage to get at least a passing grade. In spite of this apparent fact, I spend most of my time thinking about the ones who do not make it. Teaching is a profession in which it is very easy to beat yourself up because you are so consistently exposed to failure. I can predict, after all, with some certainty, that roughly a quarter to a third of the students who begin a class won’t be around to take the final. So does this mean that I get a “C-“ for my student success grade? If it does, then there are a lot of “C-“ community college teachers out there. Most of the students and teachers that I have talked to over the years, after all, have said that their classes have a similar dropout rate. So I cannot simply revert to my natural tendency to blame myself. Maybe something bigger is going on here.
I think that most of the students who drop or fail can be placed into a few categories. I will start, therefore, with the students who irritate me the most and then proceed through other categories in descending order of annoyance.
Every semester, there are a few students (sometimes more) who should have never signed up for my class in the first place. And when I say this, I do not mean to insult their intelligence or give them that famous label, “not college material.” In fact, I have no idea how intelligent they might be because they don’t do a (damn) thing! Actually, I take that back; they do show up to class on occasion and may even get there on time and stay until the end. Beyond that, they are just a body taking up space.
Now I can understand and even respect someone who does not want to take a college history class or a college course of any kind. What I cannot comprehend is why students would spend their money - or their parents’ money, or maybe the state’s money - and their time - however limited that investment may be - taking a class that they make no effort to pass. Are they going to college because mom and dad said so? Did they go to college under the assumption that it is the next thing that you do? (It’s 13th grade!) Are they talented athletes who view college as a minor league sports organization? There may be a wide variety of explanations, none of which make a lot of sense to me.
What concern me are the implications of these flaky students’ existence. The frightening thought that I am continually forced to confront is simple: most of these people apparently graduated from high school. And if this is true, you have to wonder seriously about the academic standards of some of the schools that produced these scholars. I have gotten to a point where I can often pick out the people who will not be around for long on the first day of class. I think that it is mostly a body language kind of a thing. I see them and I immediately think, “this person is still in high school mode.” Because in high school, or at least in certain high schools, all you apparently have to do is show up to a room for a certain amount of time in order to pass. After all, they have to make room for the next crop of kids.
Students Who Disappear
Closely related to the people in “high school mode” are the “mystery students.” These are people who start off a class doing fairly well – sometimes very well - and then mysteriously disappear one day to never return. They never contact me to let me know that there is any problem. In many cases, they never bother to drop the class. Either they do not mind getting an “F,” or they just assume that I will eventually drop them. In the first community college class that I ever taught, I gave out a large number of “F’s” because I had no idea that I was supposed to drop students when it was clear that they were never coming back. As a student, I would never have even considered quitting a class one day without bothering to drop. To this day, I still have the classic student nightmare in which you have a class, or at least you think that you do, and for some reason you never show up, and you are not sure if there is a final, which of course you may need to take some day. There are apparently thousands of community college students living this nightmare every semester; although I am not sure if it is causing them any stress. Now I have to assume that in most or even all of the “mystery student” cases the individuals have some kind of an excuse for why they quit. I just wish that they had contacted me at some point to see if something could be done to help get them through.
Excuses Bad and Good
Sometimes people do contact me before bailing out, which brings me to the third category: the “excuse makers.” Now that label sounds a bit derogatory, but it is actually not intended to be. In many cases, people have perfectly reasonable explanations for why they cannot complete a class. However, in order to maintain my pattern of going from most irritating to least, I will start with some of the lame excuses. First, I have had students who apparently dropped a class because their significant other or friend was not doing well and decided to drop. So, out of apparent “loyalty,” he or she decided to drop as well. (In cases involving a significant other, I will let you figure out which gender tended to be the one not doing well. To give you a hint, it is the gender that is generally hairier and stronger.) I had a student once who started laughing hysterically in class, causing me to ask her to leave. She never returned, apparently out of embarrassment. Some drop because they “only” get an 88 on the first test and they are afraid that they may be out of range for an “A.” Some students will find themselves in jail during the course of the semester, which on one level is a valid excuse, but in the end, still fits into my “lame” category.
The majority of reasons that people give, however, for not being able to complete a class are actually more understandable. Sometimes work schedules change, and people can no longer attend class. Since community college students are often paying their way through school and struggling just to get by, it is hard for me to tell them to give up their livelihood in order to stay in my class. Often, family problems or tragedies occur, health problems make it very difficult to continue, or in some cases, students in the military have been shipped overseas.
And it is here that this hub crosses a line moving away from “irritating” to “frustrating.” When dealing with students who face unforeseen circumstances, I experience what may be the most common emotion that I have as a teacher: a sense of helplessness. Teaching is an inherently cooperative exercise, and even if I do everything perfectly, students will only succeed if they are willing and able to put in the necessary effort. Unfortunately, there are going to be students every semester who have the will to succeed, but at this particular point in their lives, they do not have the ability because some obstacle stands in the way. Does this make them a failure? Does this make me a failure?
On one level, I think that community colleges are overly tolerant of failure, and students in community colleges may be given too many opportunities to make up for past bad grades or withdrawals from classes. This excessive lenience can often encourage irresponsibility, and it can also lead people to start a class and then quit in order to have a better shot at an “A” during a planned future attempt(s) in the class. But on the other hand, there are people who face some bad breaks, and for them, an “F” should not stand for failure.
The Academically Ill-Prepared
That sense of helplessness, however, is the most profound for my final category of students who do not make it. These are the students who work hard but simply do not have the mental or academic skills to pass a college level history class. And once again, these students make me wonder about what is happening in both our primary and secondary education systems. How are people graduating from high school who in my mind have not mastered the basic skills necessary to get through a junior high class, much less a college level class? Sometimes, I feel like I am being asked to teach college level history to people who are sixth graders academically. I try to work on study skills during the course of the semester, but I do not have the time nor the training to help people acquire skills that should have been developed over the course of several years. Like the people I discussed earlier who are in “high school mode,” these students who lack basic skills are seemingly doomed from the start.
Now to be fair to both primary and secondary schools, I know from past experience how difficult their jobs are. They are often working with large numbers of students at a time with a wide range of learning styles and ability levels, with many students having various learning disabilities and behavioral problems. They are often working with students who get little or no intellectual stimulation at home and have parents who take little interest in their children’s education, and in some cases, they have no interest in their children period. I am in awe of anyone who can effectively work in this environment, and I think that their focus, especially in the primary grades, on teaching skills as opposed to academic information makes their job especially difficult.
Still, there is something wrong when a high school graduate cannot write a coherent sentence, take notes, or utilize any type of study strategy when preparing for a test. I do not have an answer to this problem. I just have the problem. And at the college level, where taking classes is no longer mandatory and where students are no longer passed just to make room for the next grade, students who lack basic skills or academic discipline have a problem. If an academic degree is going to continue to mean something, students must be held accountable at some point in the process. In the past, when a high school degree was roughly equivalent to what a college degree means today, students may have been held to a higher standard. Now that college has become virtually mandatory for people who want to get a decent job, this is the level where students are finally held accountable. College is the new high school. Maybe colleges will someday start lowering standards in order to make sure that people pass. After all, if a college degree is so essential, it would be inhumane to flunk people and curse them to a life of lousy jobs or unemployment. If this occurs, maybe the Master’s Degree will replace what the Bachelor’s Degree means today. Who knows, maybe they will make the Bachelor’s Degree mandatory some day, and everyone will get to go to school until they are 22 (or longer). Then, if you want a good job, you will have to go and get that Master’s!
In all the categories that I have listed, student success is somewhat out of the teacher’s hands. I cannot control how hard a student will work, the circumstances they might face outside of the classroom, or the academic skills they will have when the class begins. This cannot, however, lead to a defeatist attitude. I need to start every class under the assumption that all students can succeed, and as I said at the beginning of this hub, many of them do. But even those students that end up with grades lower than a “C,” or even those that dropped the class, might have succeeded on some level. Maybe these students learned a few things that they did not know or developed some skills that they did not have. Maybe they learned what it means to be held accountable, and the next time they will try harder. Evaluating progress purely on the basis of grades is a bit too simplistic.
The biggest determinant of success for me, in fact, is progress. If everyone gets an “A” on the first test – which never happens by the way – that would probably be a sign that my test was a little easy, and a test that is too easy, in my mind, is an impediment to actual success. But if people get knocked on their ass a bit by that first test, I will get their attention for the rest of the semester. Often the most gratifying moments for me as a teacher are when I look back at the grade sheet at the end of a semester and see that more people have improved over the course of a class than have gotten worse. This indicates to me that students have increased their interaction with the material, which is the whole point of the class in the first place.
In the end, all you can do is try, and the overwhelming majority of students, if they are paying attention at all, will know when you are trying. They also know when someone is just going through the motions. There are a lot of things that can probably be done to improve our education system as a whole, but in the end, a teacher who cares can do two basic things. First, you must create an environment in which students have an opportunity to do well, both because the material is presented effectively and the requirements are reasonable. And second, a teacher must be a role model demonstrating how a person can try and make sense out of all this material and can enjoy it at the same time. A lot of the rest of it is out of your hands.