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Conference examines transition from high school to college

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - July 24, 2006

Helping more students get a college degree will require changes at both the high school and college levels, according to a professor of higher education at Indiana University in Bloomington.

"Almost everyone in high school now says they're interested in going to college," said George Kuh during a conference at UConn on July 12. But many do not complete a college education, he said.

Greater attention must be paid to the factors that lead to student success, said Kuh, who recently completed an 18-month study of the topic for the U.S. Department of Education.

The conference, sponsored by the University's First Year Experience and Early College Experience programs, brought together secondary and postsecondary educators and administrators - including representatives of the State Department of Education, the Department of Higher Education, and Connecticut's community colleges - to address key academic, personal, and social issues for students entering college from high school.

Kuh's keynote presentation was followed by workshops facilitated by UConn faculty and staff.

Morning sessions focused on the quantitative and writing skills needed for success in the first year of college, and student development during the senior year of high school and the freshman year at college.

Afternoon sessions explored topics such as advising, student scholarship, technology competencies, and aligning the curriculum between secondary and postsecondary institutions.

"More and more the continuum of K-16 education is being addressed at all levels of educational policy and practice," said Gillian Thorne, director of the Early College Experience, formerly the High School Co-op program.

"With this continuum in mind, the transition to college is an essential link," added David Ouimette, director of First Year Programs.

Kuh said the percentage of high school freshmen who complete college within six years after their high school graduation is probably not higher than 25 percent.

The chances of students' staying in college are affected by their educational preparation, the kind of courses they take in high school, and the qualities and sensitivities of their family and peers, in addition to their economic status, race, and gender.

"The trajectory for academic success in college is established long before students matriculate," Kuh said. "Students start dropping out of college in third grade."

K-12 educators must have high expectations for their students, align high school curricula with college performance standards, and develop college readiness strategies that address the educational needs of all students, he said.

Kuh noted that 30 percent of ninth-grade students and 47 percent of high school seniors spend less than four hours a week studying.

"And we wonder why, when students get to college, they may not be ready to do the kinds of things we want them to do," he said.

Many students are aware they will have to study harder in college than in high school, he said, but that may not be enough.

He said the percentage of high school seniors with college-level reading skills is just half, and three in five students in public two-year colleges and one in four at public four-year colleges do at least a year of remedial work.

In college, factors that are important for success include how engaged students are, where they live, what they do with their time and energy, and how the institution organizes its teaching and learning resources.

George Kuh of Indiana University speaks about bridging the gap between high school and college during a conference on July 12 at Rome Ballroom.
George Kuh of Indiana University speaks about bridging the gap between high school and college during a conference on July 12 at Rome Ballroom.
Photo by Peter Morenus

Some students are at greater risk than others, he said. Risk factors include part-time enrollment, financial independence, being a single parent and/or having children at home, spending more than 30 hours a week working, or being a first-generation college student.

Kuh said it is important for institutions to recognize who these at-risk students are, and to engage in special activities for them, for example at orientation.

To encourage students to be engaged, he said, faculty need to be explicit about their expectations: "Student success requires that professors explain more things to today's students that we once took for granted, such as, 'You must buy the book, you must read it, you must come to class, and observe deadlines or make special arrangements when you miss one.'

Faculty members need to foster active learning, offer prompt feedback, promote cooperation among students, and ensure student-faculty contact, he said, adding that it is up to faculty to determine whether students ask questions in class, make class presentations, and prepare at least two drafts of an assignment before handing it in.

"If doing something is important, require it," he said. "First-year students don't do 'optional'. Assign course points to the activity, and monitor students' work and intervene when necessary."

Kuh said at the institutional level, there needs to be a focus on assessment and accountability to encourage faculty members to engage in effective educational practices.

Institutions can also support at-risk students by emphasizing the classroom as the "locus of community," especially for commuter students, he said.

"Students who connect with someone or something are more likely to persist," he said.

"For students who take two or three courses, their achievement zooms up, both intellectually and because their network of social connections can compete favorably with their old network."

Extracurricular activities can help, too.

"If a student connects with one thing in meaningful way - such as writing for the student newspaper, serving as a trainer on an athletic team, doing work-study in an office - that can be the single most powerful incentive for staying in school," he said.

Cost is another factor, Kuh said. Many low-income students leave because they don't have enough cash to buy books.

"In the student's mind, they will drop out, work, and come back with enough money to buy the books," he said. "But they don't come back."

Colleges need to offer more short-term loans - as he put it, "a little bit of money at the right time" - to enable such students to stay.

Student engagement is also an issue in high school, Kuh said.

"The more engaged students are, the less alienated they will be, and the more likely they are to get their high school diploma . and have college-level reading skills.

Kuh said K-12 educators and those working in higher education need to talk to one another.

"It's rare that high schools know how their students have performed once they leave," he said. "There should be better-integrated systems."

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