Chapter 13

Preparation for College & Work


1. From the 18th century, as democracy spread from the United States to Europe, Canada, and Australia, newly enfranchised democratic citizens demanded more access to primary schools, high schools, colleges, and universities.  Today, around 85 percent of young people in OECD countries graduate from high school (OECD, 2012, Table A2.1).  However, just over 60 percent of these high school graduates enter a college or university for higher education (Table C3.3).  This is actually good news.  In 2000, less than 50 percent of young people in OECD countries entered a university.  More and more young people are going to college.

2. But entering college and graduating with a degree is another matter.  Today, only around 39 percent of young people in OECD countries graduate with a college or university degree (OECD, 2012, Table A3.2).  This is up from around 20 percent in 1995.  On top of this, around 11 percent of young people graduate from a college, community college, or polytechnic school with a vocational certificate or degree.  This number is slightly lower than in 1995.  University graduation rates in the United States are slightly lower than the OECD average, outpaced by thirteen other countries, including England, Australia, and Japan.  England has one of the highest graduation rates with over 50 percent of young people earning a university degree.    In the U.S., the most prepared students with the highest chance of success enter a 4-year college or university right after high school, declare a major, and enroll full-time, but on average only 55 to 58 percent of this student population will earn a bachelor's degree after six years (NCES, 2012).


U. S. College Graduation Rates


3. 21st century literacy includes more than just the traditional skills learned in primary and secondary education, skills such as reading, writing, and basic arithmetic.  In order to meet the new challenges of the 21st century, students need advanced skills taught only in institutions of higher education.  Many of these advanced skills apply to everyone, like critical thinking, arguing, and scientific reasoning.  This book will introduce you to these skills.  Some of these skills apply only to certain groups, depending on the specific profession you choose to enter.  But are most people prepared to enter higher education, learn these new 21st century skills, and graduate with a degree?  Sadly, the answer is no. 


U. S. College Graduation Rates, 2008-2013



13.1  Preparation for College

4. Many students do not master the basic skills learned in high school (especially reading, writing, and math), which means they are not prepared for higher education.  But even for those students who do possess basic skills, many are still lacking important knowledge or skills that are needed to successfully earn a degree.  Most students do not fully understand how the university is organized.  They do not know how to choose a major that fits their ability and aptitudes.  And further, most students are not prepared for the difficulty and intensity of higher education.


Why Students Who Do Well in High School Bomb in College


5. If you are reading this book, then most likely you are an undergraduate in a university or college.  While you will be required to master new and difficult forms of knowledge, it is more than likely that you are not prepared for this challenging learning that will be expected of you.  If you are like the typical undergraduate, then you likely have not mastered the basic reading, writing, and thinking skills of high school.  In fact, most students reading this book right now did not learn all they should have in high school, and thus, they are not adequately prepared to succeed in higher education.  Because of this fact, many of you reading this book will not make it to your 2nd year. 

6. How do I know this?  Scholars in the field of higher education have been researching this subject for over three decades.  It is now widely recognized that the prosperity of nations in the globalized world is largely predicated on the ability of people to graduate high school, attend higher education, and graduate with at least a bachelor's degree.  But most people are not prepared to successfully enter higher education and complete a degree.  Here is a brief report on what scholars know about academic preparation in high school and how it affects success in higher education and the labor market.  Because this book is primarily written for a North American audience, and because of the limitations of my expertise, I will mostly be using data on the United States.

7. Around 70 percent of all U. S. high school students go to college, around half to 2-year community colleges and the other half to 4-year universities.  Most students who attend community colleges have the goal of transferring to a 4-year university.  One of the best predictors of success in higher education is whether a student takes academically rigorous high school courses (Long, Conger, & Iatarola, 2012).  However, less than half of high school students take university preparatory classes while in high school.  And those that do don't necessarily learn the actual skills they need to be successful in higher education (Carey, 2011, p. 49; Lee, 2012; Rosenbaum, 2001).  Some critics of high school AP courses call them a "scam" because many of these courses do not come close to meeting college-level standards or work-loads (Tierney, 2012).

8. ACT is a non-profit organization that administers standardized testing in the United States.  Its College Readiness Standards (2011) are used to gauge the preparedness of elite high school seniors for higher education.  Many students take university preparatory classes while in high school, but they have to pass the ACT test in order to get university credit for the course.  ACT tests basic university subjects in math, science, reading, and English.  A student who passes an ACT test would be expected to earn a C or higher in that subject in a first-year college course.  In 2011, 1.62 million high school seniors took the ACT, representing roughly 49 percent of all high school students in the U.S. (Redden, 2011).  Only 25 percent of these seniors who took the ACT passed all four areas, up slightly from 24 percent in 2010.  Approximately 50 percent of test takers passed at least one area, while 25 percent failed all four areas.  This is not good news.  It means that only about 12.5 percent high school seniors are actually prepared for the full range of university level work. 


More Data: Students Not Prepared for College


9. But this stark figure masks different levels of academic achievement for different groups of students.  These differences can be partially attributed to the lingering effects of racism and institutional segregation in the U.S.  They are also due to disparities of local school funding between urban, suburban, and rural locations, which are highly correlated with the lingering effects of segregation.  Approximately 41 percent of Asian students and 31 percent of whites passed all four areas.  But only 11 percent of Latinos and 4 percent of black students passed all four areas.  Also, it should be noted that only around 52 percent passed the reading section, which means that almost half of these elite high school students cannot read at the university level.


Americans Have a Reading Problem

Americans Have a Reading Problem, Part II


10. The grades you earn in high school classes are a particularly strong predictor of your success in higher education.  According to one study, around 13.9 percent of high school seniors with low grades earned a degree, compared to almost 66 percent of A level students, 41.5 percent of B level students, and 16.1 percent of C level students (Rosenbaum, 2001, p. 66).  Around 69 percent of the highest achieving high school students had either earned a degree or were still enrolled after six years of higher education, compared with only 34 percent of the lowest achieving (Tinto, 1993, p. 30). 

11. But around 40 percent of high school students believe that academic effort and grades do not matter in high school, and many high school students falsely believe that they can still earn a university degree even with mediocre or poor high school grades (Rosenbaum, 2001, pp. 63-64).  Based on his long-term research, sociology professor James Rosenbaum (2001) argued, "The strong predictive power of high school grades is important - it tells seniors how to place their bets.  Although students are correct in believing that they can enter a college with low grades, they are usually mistaken in thinking that they can complete the degree" (p. 68).

12. Based on one long-term study, 95 percent of a 1992 high school class wanted to go to into higher education, but half of these students lacked even 9th grade level math and verbal skills, let alone the more advanced skills needed to be successful at a university (Rosenbaum, 2001, p. 57).  There is strong evidence to suggest that most high school math standards do not adequately prepare students for university-level mathematics (Lee, 2012).  Around 33 to 50 percent of all college freshmen have to take at least one remedial "basic skills" class their first year because they were not adequately prepared for university level work (Barnett, 2002, p. 3; Haycock & Huang, 2001, p. 8).  Around 10 percent of freshmen need to take a remedial reading class and around 39 percent need to take at least one remedial class (but not a reading class), like math or writing (Haycock & Huang, 2001, p. 8).         

13. A lack of basic skills is part of the reason why it takes at least six years for the average student to actually graduate with a university degree.  But many university students do not make it that far.  Around 26 percent of all 4-year university students will drop out before their 2nd year.  This number goes up to approximately 45 percent for 2-year community college students (Beach, 2011; Haycock & Huang, 2001).  More seriously, only a third to half of all 1st year students actually earn a university degree (Rosenbaum, 2001, p. 57; Tinto, 1993, p. 29).

14. And there are clear differences in who earns a university degree, based on race and class.  Approximately 60 percent of white students earn a degree or are still enrolled in college after six years, compared to only 47 percent for Hispanics and 40 percent for blacks (Tinto, 1993, p. 31).  Approximately 67 percent of the richest quartile of students earn a degree or are still enrolled over the same period, compared to only 42 percent for the lowest quartile (p. 30).  While this is serious news, it is not surprising to scholars who study the history of higher education.  Institutions of higher education have always had to deal with unprepared students, and dropout rates have always been high; however, in our current age of "college for all," this phenomenon seems to be getting worse (Rosenbaum, 2001).    


 13.2  Social Inequality: The Achievement Gap & The Earnings Gap

15. You might be asking yourself right now, "Am I prepared for higher education?"  "Will I be one of the lucky ones to actually graduate with a degree?"  In the United States, if you are a middle-class or rich white or Asian student who went to a private school or a suburban public school, then you are most likely prepared.  If you are poor or lower-middle class, a non-white or non-Asian ethnic minority, and went to a rural or inner-city public school, then most likely you are not prepared. 

16. Historically, high schools were actually designed to separate university-bound students from the majority who were not expected to go into higher education.  This usually included discriminatory policies based on race, class, and gender.  Lower class and ethnic minorities (and sometimes women) were often put on the lower track curriculum away from university – that is, if they were even admitted to the high school at all.  And while many of the older forms of "tracking" and racial or gender segregation were largely dismantled during the 1970s and 80s, dual-level placements continue.  Middle-class and upper-class students still get the better education and leave high schools more prepared for higher education (Brantlinger, 1993; Lucas, 1999; Rosenbaum, 2001). 

17. This is what scholars call an "achievement gap."  Different groups of students in the United States, as measured by class, race and geography, have different overall levels of academic achievement, including earning high grades, passing standardized tests, graduating from high school, entering higher education, and graduating with a university degree.  For instance, in America only about seven percent of lower-class students earn a bachelor's degree compared to 77 percent for upper-class students (The Pell Institute, 2015, p. 31).  These different levels of achievement are mostly a legacy of traditional social values, economic inequality, racial segregation, and disparities in public school funding between rich and poor school districts (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2006, p.3).  In fact, scholars have found that much of the achievement gap can be explained by the unequal funding of public schools, especially in terms of access to quality learning resources, smaller class sizes, and qualified teachers (Darling-Hammond, 2010, pp. 99, 106; Kozol, 1991).   


Handout:  Achievement Gap in U.S.  


18. Once students leave high school or university and get a job in the labor market, there is also an "earnings gap."  This is partly based on the major you choose, i.e. the skills and knowledge you have acquired in school.  But this earnings gap is also based on the discriminatory markers of race, gender, and class, which still stratify the labor market (Grubb & Lazerson, 2004; Rosenbaum, 2001).  In all countries, workers face discrimination in the labor market, some of it is for good reasons and some for bad reasons.  Employers naturally discriminate based on knowledge and skills.  This is generally considered to be a good form of discrimination because it is based on the merit of the worker.  But there still remain many bad forms of discrimination against various groups of people.  According to one economist, racism, sexism, and ageism all cause “inequalities in the marginal benefits" of higher education, which means that a black man and a white man with the same degree from the same university may be paid differently in the labor market due to racial discrimination (Paulsen, 2001, p. 76). 


Handout:  Earnings Gap in U. S.


19. The financial rewards of schooling and degrees reflect deep-set inequality in American society and continuing discrimination in the labor market.  Women still make on average about 20 percent less than men for the same type of work (Closing the gap, 2011).  In 2000 the average earnings of a black male with a professional degree was more than $8,000 less than a white male with a bachelor's degree.  A Latina woman with a doctorate degree earned only $3,000 more than a white male with a high school diploma.  There are also mostly modest returns for community college or trade-school certificates and associates degrees.  Thus, many economists wonder if obtaining only “some college” is worth the financial costs and forgone wages (Grubb & Lazerson, 2004, p. 158; Mishel, Bernstein & Allegretto, 2007; Rosenbaum, 2001).  Likewise, getting a masters degree doesn't always pay off financially, especially in terms of the high cost of graduate school and the lost wages when you are a student; however, some masters degrees do lead to increased earning potential, although not equally for all people.


Should You Get a PhD?


20. It is also important to remember that traditional racism is alive and well in the United States, despite the claims of many politicians and some social scientists about a post-racial world (Hollinger, 2000).  Based on research conducted within the last decade, sociologist Devah Pager (2007) documented the "continuing significance of race in employment decisions" (p. 98).  In particular, she discovered that "blacks are less than half as likely to receive consideration by employers than equally qualified whites" (p. 98).  She even found that blacks with no criminal record were hired at about the same rates as whites with "prior felony convictions" (p. 98).

21. While the achievement gap and the earnings gap are connected to broader forms of discrimination in U.S. society, these phenomena are also partly due to individual effort, especially in high school.  The larger racial and class patterns of the achievement gap are influenced by individual factors, such as a student's high school grades, time spent on homework, and achievement scores on standardized tests (Rosenbaum, 2001, pp. 72, 74).  The types of high school classes you took (Long, Conger, & Iatarola, 2012) and your grades (Rosenbaum, 2001, p. 66) are two of the strongest predictors of your future success in higher education.  And, of course, some measures of success will be determined by decisions you make your first couple of years at the university.  For instance, the type of university you enroll in matters a great deal.  At mid-career, a graduate from an elite private university will be earning over $37,000 more than a graduate from a moderately ranked state university (Vedder, Denhart, & Robe, 2013, p. 27).  Also, the major you choose will largely determine your ability to find employment and the income you will earn.  Not all degrees are rewarded equally in the labor market.  Some fields, such as Economics and Engineering, are highly valued, while other fields, such as Education and Social Work, are not. 

22. In order to earn the maximum value from your college degree, you need to find employment in the same field as your major.  For instance, using a degree in Economics to become an economist or a degree in Accounting to become an accountant.  Many students earn degrees in fields for which there are little or no actual jobs and they often have to find work in unrelated fields, such as an English major working as a bartender or a history major working as a waitress.  Such people are called “over-educated” because they have more education than they need for the type of work they do (Vedder, Denhart, & Robe, 2013, p. 30).  These people also tend to become “underemployed” because they often cannot find full-time employment, sometimes working two or three jobs to make ends meet (Vedder, Denhart, & Robe, 2013, p. 30).  Over the next decade in the United States, over 31 percent of Americans will have a bachelor’s degree or higher, but only approximately 14.3 percent of the jobs in the U.S. will require at least a bachelor’s degree (Vedder, Denhart, & Robe, 2013, p. 21).  There will be over twice as many college graduates as there are jobs that require college degrees, which means that many college graduates will be forced to take low-paying work and their college degree will not be financially rewarded.  Did you know that almost 15 percent of taxi drivers in the U.S. have earned a college degree (Vedder, Denhart, & Robe, 2013, p. 23)?  And many of the jobs that currently exist are at risk of disappearing due to the rise of automation, robots, and artificial intelligence.  But it is important to remember that while earning a college degree is more important than ever, there are still many good jobs with high pay that do not require a bachelors degree, and some of these jobs are in high demand.


Handout:  Earnings by College Major


13.3  Prepare Yourself for Success in College

23. Now how does all of this relate to you and your chances of succeeding in higher education?  And how is all this related to reading and writing?  First, the odds are that many students who are reading this book were not fully prepared in high school to be successful in higher education.  And because the United States remains a highly unequal society (Jilson, 2004), there are some larger sociological characteristics, like race and class, which also are connected to both success in higher education and in the labor market.   For instance, racialized minorities and the poor often go to impoverished schools lacking important resources, like trained teachers, and they often live in socially and economically challenged environments (Beach, 2010; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Hochschild & Scovonick, 2003; Grubb & Lazerson, 2004).  These same groups also face discrimination in the labor market. 

24. These general trends are important to understand for many reasons.  You need to recognize that these trends will be affecting your future success, whether you realize it or not.  You need to think hard about your background experience, especially your high school academic record and socio-economic background.  Psychologists call this type of critical thinking "reference class forecasting" (Kahneman, 2011, p. 251).  In order to better predict what will happen in the future, you need to think about the "reference class," or general group, to which you belong.  You need to research the relevant statistics about the reference class to which you belong in order to see how the average member of this group performs.  For instance, if you visit a doctor, this professional will likely explain how your personal characteristics fit into general patterns that may be associated with a disease, and thereby, the doctor will warn you about modifying your behavior so that you can live a longer life. 

25. I am trying to do something similar in this chapter.  I have just given you some basic trends that help predict a major marker of social success (i.e. earning a degree) for various students with different backgrounds.  You need to use this information to think about your experiences and socio-economic status in order to gauge your "baseline" (p. 251) chances of success in higher education.  Then you need to use this information to modify your behavior accordingly.  

26. Most importantly, you need to realize that you cannot succeed in higher education without the foundational skills taught in high school: reading, writing, and math.  Many students do not have these skills when they enter higher education.  If they do not, then they have to learn these skills at the same time that they are required to learn the new, higher order information and skills of the university.  Learning both basic and higher order skills at the same time is incredibly difficult and time-consuming.  It also puts disadvantaged students even further behind because they have to learn high school and college skills all at once.  If you are one of these unprepared students, then you will have to work twice as hard than more prepared students in order to succeed in higher education. 

27. More importantly, you will most likely need extra help in order to succeed.  But unlike in high school, you will be treated like a free adult at the university.  Everyone will expect you to direct your own education.  Your academic advisers will be overseeing hundreds, if not thousands, of students.  Your professors will be busy with their primary job, which is not teaching, but conducting and publishing their research.  If you need extra help from these busy people, then you will have to ask for it. 

28. There are many people at the university who want to help you.  But they will not know that you need help, or know the type of help that you need, unless you ask for it.  You need to approach your professors with questions during class.  You need to go to professors’ office hours to ask for additional help.  You need to make appointments in the Writing and Learning centers on campus to meet with a tutor.  You need to study with hard-working peers.  If you were lucky enough to enroll at a very good, selective school, then most likely there are a lot more resources available to help you succeed.  But not all institutions of higher education have the same types or amounts of additional resources available to help you succeed in your classes.

29. You need to realize that one of the most important predictors of your success in college will be having a clear goal and taking the steps needed to achieve that goal (Tinto, 1993, p. 38).  However, as this chapter explained, your previous educational preparation in high school is an important mediating variable affecting your ability to realize your goals, especially if you have set very high and ambitious goals, like earning a bachelors degree (Rosenbaum, 2001, p. 72).  Rosenbaum (2001) found that a clear goal has about a 27 percent correlation with bachelor degree attainment, while high school grades have about a 31 percent correlation (p. 73).  Thus, while having a clear goal is important, it is more important to adequately prepare yourself to reach that goal and to have the motivation to succeed.

30. In higher education, you are in charge of your learning.  Unlike high school, most university professors will not reprimand you for missing assignments or failing tests.  If you are struggling to learn, in classes with fifty to two hundred students, most likely your professors will not notice.  If you fail a class, most likely no one will seek you out to council you.  Besides maybe your adviser, no one will be checking up on you.  No one will be pushing you to work hard.  No one will be coaching you to succeed.  You are largely on your own.

31. Higher education is an optional activity designed to train only the best and brightest students.  You will have to motivate yourself.  You will have to push yourself to learn and succeed in this tough environment.  There is a strong statistical correlation between high levels of motivation and academic success (Wise & Demars, 2005).  In order to pass a class, you have to do all of the assigned work for a class (and usually much, much more), and you have to demonstrate expertise on exams and course projects.  If you fail a class, this means that you become more likely to drop out of higher education and could fail to earn a degree.  You will need to organize your life.  You will need to find ways to motivate yourself to do every assignment.  You will need to meet the high expectations of each and every professor.  You will need to push yourself towards your goal of earning a degree, and later finding a rewarding job.             

32. Finally, you need to realize that your professors will be very difficult to understand.  Much of what professors know will remain "tacit" knowledge (Polanyi, 1962).  This is a type of "inarticulate intelligence" (p. 71) based on a lifetime of learning.  Your professors have read thousands of books and articles.  They have argued with hundreds of other professors during their career.  They cannot always explain all that they expect you to know.  As strange as this may seem, professors don't often realize how much they actually know and they can overwhelm students with floods of information.  They don't always appreciate how difficult it is to understand the complex issues that they have spent a lifetime studying.  Also, most of your professors will not be very good teachers (Grubb, 2003, p. 30).  They will only lecture about important information, but you will have to memorize, understand, and demonstrate mastery of this information through exams.  Your professors will not always explain subjects clearly.  Your professors will assume that you understand all of the words they use and the concepts they explain.  They will assume that if you don't understand something, then you will make the effort to ask a question or to look it up yourself.  These are the basic unstated rules of higher education.  You must rise to level demanded by your professor, and if you need more help, then you must help yourself to learn.

33. In order to succeed at higher education, you will need to develop what the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi (1962) called an "educated mind" (p. 103).  He defined this as "the capacity continually to enrich and enliven its own conceptual framework by assimilating new experience" and information (p. 103).  As the Nobel Prize winning physicist Albert Einstein explained, "The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think"  (Isaacson, 2007, p. 299).  If you have not done so already, you will need to develop an educated mind in order to be successful in higher education and in life (Bain, 2012).  You will need to learn how to become an autodidact, which is a self-educating person.  You will need to know how to learn on your own and how to teach yourself.  You will need to learn how to ask questions and discuss issues with knowledgeable peers.  But more importantly, you will need to know how to read at an advanced level.  You will need to find the best sources of information so that you can learn independently and fill in the many gaps that your professor will not fully explain.  You will need to learn how to read and think like an academic. 


How Do You Learn?  An Introduction to Learning Theory


34. Almost all of the learning you do in higher education will be done outside of the classroom on your own, as you read sources, think about complex ideas, and write papers or complete course projects.  Class time will be used mostly to disseminate information, often in the form of lectures, and also to take exams, which will test how much you have learned.  But your actual learning, the most important part of the process, will be done on your own time outside of class.  You are in charge of your own learning.  You will ultimately decide how much effort you want to exert on your education, how much or little you want to know. 

35. There is no secret to success.  Expertise is not magic.  As the noble prize winning psychologist and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman (2011) wrote, "The acquisition of expertise in complex tasks such as high-level chess, professional basketball, or firefighting is intricate and slow because expertise in a domain is not a single skill but rather a large collection of mini-skills" (p. 238).  The journalist Malcolm Gladwell (2008) surveyed the scientific literature on successful achievement and found that there is one key factor behind every successful person, around 10,000 hours of sustained practice in a specific domain.  That's the secret: practice and hard work (p. 39; Sennett, 2008, p.172).  Gladwell (2008) writes, "The thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.  That's it.  And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else.  They work much, much harder" (p. 39).

36. It is a great responsibility and a terrible burden to be in charge of your own success.  For many young adults, it is simply terrifying.  You've been told what to do by parents and teachers for years, but in higher education nobody really takes notice if you succeed or fail.  Nobody will make much of an effort to help you unless you ask, and even then, they will only be able to give you some guidance.  In order to succeed, you must have the motivation to learn (Liu, Bridgeman, & Adler, 2012).  You must learn how to read, think, and develop an educated mind.  You will need to spend hours a day practicing the skills that you will need as a professional.  You will have to supply the intellectual tenacity and sustained effort to master and apply these skills.  You are in charge of your own learning.




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