Students face a long list of obstacles on the way to college degree

BACK TO SCHOOL READY OR NOT / First of a series

Nobody plunks down thousands of dollars in college tuition hoping to fail.

Yet as the school year begins, many college students are going to face hurdles that will slow them down or stop them altogether.

Some students' lack of academic preparation, poor study habits and overactive social life may lead to their undoing. Others will find themselves in courses in which a third -- or more -- of the class fails or quits.

To help students succeed, many colleges are offering more first-year programs and academic help. Some are even redesigning courses to make them more effective. In a seven-part series this week, the Post-Gazette examines some of the obstacles to success in college and what both students and schools can do to overcome them.

Ready or Not
An index to the series

The obstacles can be so daunting that, if the current pattern continues, 1 in 3 of today's freshmen won't have earned a bachelor's degree from any four-year school 81/2 years from now, according to federal data.

For those entering a community college, only 17 percent will earn an associate's degree or certificate in three years, although nearly half will still be enrolled.

In Pennsylvania, 1.2 million of those age 25 or older -- about 1 in 7 -- have some college but no degree.

For some high school graduates, the journey is difficult from the first day because they are not prepared for college-level courses.

"It's pretty clear academic preparation is the single most important thing prior to college," said Vincent Tinto, professor of education at Syracuse University.

About two-thirds of the new students at Community College of Allegheny County require at least one "developmental" class below college level.

Nearly all of the 14 State System of Higher Education schools and at least some campuses of Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh list at least one developmental class.

Even students with good high school grades can struggle in college. In Georgia, about a third of students who win Hope scholarships -- based on 3.0 grade point averages in high school -- at least temporarily lose their awards after the first semester in college because their averages fall below a B.

Gregory Paulson, biology chair at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, said some who received good high school grades by studying just a few hours a week weren't challenged and therefore don't know how to study or work hard.

"They come to college and they think they can do that again. I tell them you can't do it that way. You will fail if you think you're going to study two hours a week and get A's and B's in college," he said.

Traditionally, higher education -- particularly at bachelor's degree-granting institutions -- was for the best students, with some schools following the philosophy of weeding out students in a make-or-break atmosphere.

But as many middle-class jobs requiring only a high school education have disappeared, post-secondary education has been transformed into a must-have for many who want a middle-class, or better, standard of living.

Interest has grown such that about two-thirds of new high school graduates nationwide --up from less than half in the 1970s -- go on to higher education. In Allegheny County, about 82 percent of graduating high school seniors in 2006-'07 planned to go on to post-secondary education.

However, the growth in the percentage of students continuing to higher education has been bigger than the growth in the percentage of students earning bachelor's degrees in 8 1/2 years.

Even so, education researcher Clifford Adelman is heartened by the increase in success. "I don't think we could push it higher than three out of four without passing out a lot of cheap degrees," he said.

Colleges have had to adapt to a wider range of students, swapping a sink-or-swim approach for different instructional techniques, tutoring and other supports aimed at success.

"The old notion of survival of the fittest, and we'll weed students out, is not the prevailing notion in education anymore," said Donald Heller, director of the Center for Higher Education Research at Penn State University.

"That doesn't mean there aren't individual faculty members out there who feel the gate-keeping courses, those first-level courses, should be used as a way of weeding out students who aren't academically tough enough to cut it in their major."

Alexander McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, sees "weeding out" as "an old-school attitude that is in fact dying out as we take increasing responsibility for the success of our students."

At some public colleges and universities in Pennsylvania, the number of students failing or withdrawing from required courses ranges from a small number to more than 40 percent.

Students can increase their chances of success in college by taking a challenging academic load in high school.

The highest level of math reached in high school, for example, is a key indicator of momentum toward a bachelor's degree, according to a 2006 federal study reviewing transcripts through December 2000 of more than 12,000 members of the high school class of 1992.

Just taking one course in high school above Algebra 2 can double the odds a student will earn a bachelor's degree, according to the transcript report.

"You've got to get beyond Algebra 2 in high school," said Dr. Adelman, who wrote the transcript report.

The math difference is dramatic: 83.3 percent of those who took calculus earned a bachelor's degree compared with only 7 percent of those who took no more than Algebra 1.

One of the reasons is that math -- or quantitative reasoning, which sometimes includes logic or computer science -- is a common core requirement for any degree at many schools.

"The world has gone quantitative," said Dr. Adelman, now a senior associate with the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Yet many public universities in Pennsylvania list at least one math-oriented class as among those in which students are most likely to struggle.

If students do get into academic trouble at college, they are most likely to do so in their first year.

At Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, most of the students who go on academic probation are freshmen.

"You don't have a lot of juniors and seniors who go on probation," said James Meek, assistant to the president for planning and assessment at Lock Haven.

About 1 in 6 freshmen at Lock Haven have grade-point averages that dip below a 2.0 or C average and go on probation during their first 30 credit hours -- equivalent to a year of credits, according to Mr. Meek.

Some students recover quickly and turn their grades around.

But ending up on academic probation or being dismissed significantly lowers a student's chances of graduating, according to the federal transcript study.

Using the transcript data, Dr. Adelman figured that only 17 percent of those who at some point were on academic probation or were dismissed earned a bachelor's degree in 81/2 years. Three-fourths of them didn't even earn an associate's degree or a certificate.

Some measure the chance of success by college graduation rates.

It's no surprise that students are most likely to stay and graduate at the most selective schools, such as Harvard University, which posts a six-year graduation rate of 97 percent.

This plays out at public colleges as well. Students who start at Penn State's most selective campus, University Park, have a better chance of earning a bachelor's degree within six years than those who start and finish at its commonwealth campuses: 84 percent at the main campuses and 54 percent on average at the branches.

In the State System of Higher Education, the six-year graduation rate ranges from 67 percent at Millersville to 29 percent at Cheyney.

Graduation rates, though, don't tell the whole story. They count only first-time, full-time degree seekers who started in the summer and fall at a particular institution.

Many students who leave one school transfer to another, but graduation rates don't track their progress at their old school or new one. About 90 percent of traditional-age students return to school somewhere -- not necessarily their first school -- during their second calendar academic year, according to federal data.

By not counting transfer and part-time students, said Randy Swing, executive director of the Association for Institutional Research, "What that does is to cut out the vast majority of students who enter college every year and don't do it full time and often have dropped out and come back."

Whatever the odds of success, as students start this school year, they need to concentrate on getting a good start.

"If we allow negative momentum to start early, the consequences will snowball," the transcript study stated.


TOMORROW: College remedial courses
TUESDAY: Mistakes students make
WEDNESDAY: Improving first year
THURSDAY: Courses often failed
FRIDAY: Making courses better
SATURDAY: Dropout stories

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at or 412-263-1955. First Published August 31, 2008 4:00 AM


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