Ready Or Not, Here Comes College

Jul 16, 2012

Nov. 8, 2007
A high school diploma should mean a graduate has mastered the basics. But that hasn't been the case in Michigan - where many college and university students are learning subjects they should have mastered in high school.

Monique Harris is a freshman at Michigan State University.

As a student at Detroit's Cody High School, she was a member of the National Honor Society, and the president of her class.

So getting placed into remedial math and English classes was not what she expected when she arrived on campus.

But being forced to drop the remedial math class was even worse.

"I used to get 4.0's in school," says Harris. And now I come up here and I'm failing a class. It was, like, devastating to me. I was crying all yesterday."

And Harris is hardly alone. This year, 17 percent of the freshman class at MSU placed into remedial math classes. And a 2000 study by the free-market think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy found that colleges and universities in Michigan spend more than 45 million dollars a year to offer remedial courses.

"It really ends up being, in many cases, a cash cow for colleges and universities," says Jim Sandy, who heads the group Michigan Business Leaders for Education Excellence.

"Because students pay for that, their parents pay for that. They don't receive college credit for that," Sandy says. "I would propose that no student be allowed to enter a college or university if they have to take remedial math or English language arts."

But Edward St. John, a professor of education at the University of Michigan calls that criticism short-sighted.

"The small cost of remedial education for people who move into being contributing taxpayers - man, what a wonderful bargain for the state," he says.

St. John says the belief that all Michigan high school graduates should be ready for college-level classes ignores the hard reality that they're not.

"It turns out that - you know, we don't have a high school system that is consistent with that assumption that if you graduate, you're ready."

St. John says the state's new graduation requirements should help better prepare students for college. But for a lot of kids, being ready for college is about more than just academics. There are financial barriers, and social and cultural obstacles.

Upward Bound is one of the programs that helps students over those hurdles. It was established by Congress in the 1960s to help students from low-income families enter college and graduate.

At Ypsilanti High School on a recent afternoon, about two dozen students gathered in a classroom after school for "college club."

It's one of the projects of Eastern Michigan University's Upward Bound program. On this afternoon, students are learning about different note-taking strategies from graduate students.

This is Antoni McClarty's first college club meeting. He's in the ninth grade at Ypsilanti High School, and he says he's hoping to get a feel for what college is like.

"Things like note-taking," says McClarty. "And hopefully...what's that called...the dorms. Hopefully I'll get used to the dorms."

Mildred McClarty is Antoni's mom. She says she wanted to get her son into Upward Bound after her niece entered the program.

"And we see the difference it's made in her," says McClarty. "Her learning skills, her drive, her motivation. And that's what I want for my son. I want him to know that he'll be a success in college, and that he won't come out between two and four years and have nothing."

Upward Bound programs served about 1,600 students in Michigan last year. But that's just a fraction of the low-income high school students who could benefit from the services the programs offer - such as tutoring, and help with college applications.

Monique Harris, the MSU freshman, says she partly blames herself for not taking school seriously enough in high school. She plans to re-enroll in the math class she was failing until she passes it. And Harris says when she finishes her degree, she'd like to visit her old Detroit high school.

"[To tell] them, like, how serious it is when you get up here. And how when you get in college, everything's going to be like slow motion for you and it's going to seem like everybody else is ten steps ahead of you and you're going to be like, whoa."

Harris says she's happy to know that students in Michigan will soon have to meet more rigorous requirements to graduate - although she says she wishes she had been required or even just pushed to meet similar standards.

This year's high school freshman class will be the first to graduate under the new standards - which require four years of math and English, and three years of science and social studies.

It will be at least four years before it's clear whether those students are better prepared for life after high school.