How so many college freshmen flunk -- and what's being done about it

John X. was an above-average high school scholar who, in his first three years, easily amassed most of the credits he needed to graduate - including the ''hard'' academic courses. He could even have entered college instead of staying in high school for his fourth year.

But he wanted to earn some money and do a minimum of school work in the year before tackling college. So John took easy courses as a senior, bought a used car, and even put away some funds for college.

Trouble was, when John entered state university the following September he was out of shape scholastically. By avoiding challenging courses in his senior year, he was not nearly as well prepared for college as he could have been. The result: lower grades than expected, an early case of ''freshman blahs,'' and a burden on the university that needn't have been.

John's case is only hypothetical. But it is fairly typical. It's the sort of situation that eight public colleges and universities in the West are taking steps to avoid.

A report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) says these institutions are ''tightening requirements to encourage students and high schools to improve college preparatory studies (and) to lessen the burden of remedial work on colleges.''

Responding to widespread concern that students are not well prepared for college studies, WICHE contacted higher education officials in the 13-state area it serves. Proposed or approved changes it found include required high school courses for admission to the Universities of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Utah, and the California State University; higher minimum grade-point averages by the University of Wyoming, Western Washington University, and all state colleges and universities in Oregon; and more demanding grade, test-score, and other requirements for admission to the University of Washington and Washington State University.

The WICHE report notes that in Oregon and Washington, where budgets have been severely cut because of the current recession, one motive for tightening standards is ''to provide a basis for limiting their enrollments in the face of fiscal cutbacks.''

Although Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, and Nevada reported no recent changes in college admission standards, some of those states have begun consideration of such issues as student competence, remedial education, enrollment limitations, and coordination between high schools and colleges.

Specific actions cited in the WICHE report include:

* University of California. A recommendation that at least 15 of the 16 high school units required for admission be academic units and that at least seven of those courses be taken in the junior and senior years. Academic courses usually are defined as English, math, lab sciences, foreign languages, history, social sciences, and fine arts.

* California State University (CSU). Effective in the fall of 1984, four years of high school English and two years of mathematics will be required for admission to state university campuses. For admissions purposes, the CSU system is considering computing grade-point averages only from academic courses. Current admission standards set no specific English and math requirements and count all credits earned when computing grade averages.

* Idaho. The State Board of Education has appointed a commission to make recommendations for college admission and graduation requirements. At present -- as in many states -- Idaho's public colleges and universities require only a high school diploma for admission.

* New Mexico. The academic requirements for those entering college in the fall of 1983 will be stiffened ''in order to encourage high school students to take courses that prepare them better to succeed in college.''

* Utah. As of next fall, all freshmen at the University of Utah will be required to have four years of English, with emphasis on writing. At the beginning of the 1985-86 school year, one year of algebra will be required for admission.

Assessing the possible impact of such changes, the WICHE report says that ''rising admission requirements could join rising tuition and decreasing financial aid as obstacles to higher education for some students.''

It also notes the adverse effect the new strictures could have on ''minorities and underprepared students.'' But it says state university systems are taking steps to make sure affirmative-action admissions programs are not impaired.

One ripple effect of higher college admission standards, notes the WICHE report, is that ''underprepared students may be denied educational opportunities at community (two-year) colleges as well.'' Most community colleges operate on a ''first-come, first-served'' basis, and it is felt those rejected by four-year schools might be ''better able to handle the hassles'' of registration and be ''first in line'' at the community colleges.

Not least is the impact on high schools. With many school districts facing financial cuts, secondary school officials express doubt about their ability to provide the beefed-up academic schedules -- for instance, finding enough teachers for the third year of mathematics the University of California is planning to add as a 1986 admission requirement.

University of Utah president David Gardner, who has been appointed by US Secretary of Education Terrel Bell as chairman of a National Commission on Excellence in Education, told a WICHE conference last October: ''The mounting national concern for student preparedness, academic standards, and college entrance requirements is an encouraging trend . . . sufficiently widespread . . . to serve as a basis for change.''

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