Defining College Readiness from the Inside Out: First-Generation College Student Perspectives

Article excerpt

This study provides understanding of college readiness from the perspectives of older first-generation college students who transferred from community colleges. Results indicate that life experiences contribute to academic skills, time management, goal focus, and self-advocacy. Research is recommended to improve nontraditional student advising and placement, community college-to-university transfer, and college reading instruction.

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College readiness is one of seven national education priorities (U. S. Department of Education, 2000). Meanwhile, according to McCabe (2000), in a national study of community college education, 41% of entering community college students and 29% of all entering college students are underprepared in at least one of the basic skills of reading, writing, and math. Since the 1980s, colleges have increasingly required placement testing to determine college readiness and offered or required developmental or remedial education for students placing below college level (Amey & Long, 1998: King, Rasool, & Judge, 1994). While the rise in developmental programs and courses at community colleges might indicate that the problem of underpreparedness is growing, underpreparedness for college-level work is not a new phenomenon: rather it is a historical problem (Maxwell, as cited in Platt, 1986).

Even as a college education becomes increasingly imperative for social and economic success (Day & McCabe, 1997; Lavin, 2000; Ntiri, 2001), access to college is problematic for nontraditional or high-risk students. This situation is due to issues of academic, social, and economic readiness (Hoyt, 1999: Valadez, 1993). Increasingly, decisions about college readiness are made by standardized assessments. In the recent past, some colleges maintained open-enrollment policies that allowed nontraditional students to enter the system, but that is changing. Standardized-test-based admissions may overlook nontraditional students' historical and cultural background that might include strengths as well as deficits related to readiness for college.

This study explored the nature of college readiness from the perspectives of first-generation college students. The participants of this study had transferred to a university from a community college, were older than 25, and were of the first generation in their families to attend college. From the standpoint of successful degree-seeking students who fit this definition of nontraditional, the researchers explored these four general questions: (a) What does it mean to be ready for college? (b) What do successful nontraditional students bring to their college experiences that contribute to their success? (c) How can nontraditional learners be seen to have strengths and not just deficits? and (d) How are students prepared or not prepared for college in ways not measured by standardized tests?

Background

Prediction and College Readiness

College readiness involves prediction. Placement tests and other standardized measures are often used to predict students' readiness for college. Armstrong (1999) and King et al. (1994) concluded that the predictive value of standardized placement tests is questionable. In addition, Armstrong's (1999) study showed "little or no relationship between [placement] test scores and student performance in class" (p. 36). This current study attempts to explore the challenge set forth by King et al. (1994): "If scores do not predict success, then we must consider alternative explanations for student success" (p. 7).

Developmental Education Programs

Developmental education courses at community colleges help to provide underprepared students with math, reading and English, and study skills to succeed in college. Research findings from studies conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of such programs are predominately positive (Amey & Long, 1998; Hennessey, 1990; Hoyt, 1999; Kraska, Nadelman, Maner, & McCormick, 1990; Napoli & Hiltner, 1993). …