Mark Twain told a story about going to Heaven, where he asks to meet the greatest author who ever lived. He contemplated who he might meet, only to be introduced to a farmer who had never written or published anything.
How could this possibly be? Because in Heaven, greatest is defined by what would have been, had the circumstances only been different.
I’ve been fortunate to have many stellar students. As a teaching assistant at Yale, I taught an undergrad who won the Pulitzer Prize three years after he was in my section. I knew at the time that he was bound for great things, and that my job was to get out of the way.
I also had many graduates of elite boarding schools who possessed extraordinary polish and verbal facility.
But many of the best students I’ve ever taught were diamonds in the rough, whose life experience and talent allowed them to read texts and draw conclusions in wholly original ways. Those rough-cut diamonds shared certain common traits: Not polish, self-confidence, or incredible verbal skills, but determination, passion, engagement, curiosity, and imagination.
My responsibility, then, was to teach and mentor: Not simply to convey information, but do everything in my power to refine their skills and provide the kind of feedback that would allow them to realize their potential.
If you truly believe that talent is widespread but opportunity isn’t, then your primary task as an instructor is to help students achieve their promise.
Inequalities exist in every facet of higher education. In terms of per student spending on instruction and support, cost after financial aid, retention and graduation rates, and access to high demand majors and admission to the most selective, well-resourced campuses, American colleges and universities are among this nation’s most stratified institutions.
But of all of higher education’s disparities, among the greatest has its roots in differences in students’ preparation for college. Some students, many admissions officers and faculty members believe, are simply more college ready. They have richer vocabularies, greater cultural literacy, and more fluent writing skills. Their preparation for demanding coursework in math, chemistry, and physics is much more advanced.
This is undoubtably true. But this doesn’t mean that they’re smarter or possess greater academic potential. Nor does this imply that their insights are more acute or their intellectual contributions superior. Rather, they’re rounding third base while their less well-prepared counterparts struggle to reach first.
Lest I be misunderstood: I am not arguing that, given the right support, all students can succeed equally. But I do want to argue along the lines of Caroline Hoxby that many more students have the potential to achieve high levels of academic success; that too often those students miss out on that opportunity for reasons that have nothing to do with innate ability but, rather, because of the high schools they attended and the enrichment opportunities they were denied.
Merit has recently come under attack from both the right and left for reasons good and bad. As Adrian Wooldridge observes in his The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, the idea that success in life should be determined by merit, talent, and effort rather than background, parentage, nepotism, wealth, and connections, opened doors to aspiring outsiders during the 19th and 20th centuries and drove far-reaching reforms in business, education, government, and the military.
But, more recently, a smug “cognitive elite” has used marriage, schooling, residence in exclusive neighborhoods, and various enrichment opportunities for its children to cement its privileged status. By disparaging those who lack its achievements and who are not similarly skilled in management, leadership, and symbolic manipulation, the meritocracy has produced a backlash.
There’s a growing sense that the concept of merit, now equated with test scores and academic credentials, has been defined too narrowly, and has become indistinguishable from social class, denying opportunity, far too often, to outsiders.
What, then, should be done? Wooldridge offers a number of reasonable suggestions: expand pre-school education, abolish restrictive zoning laws, curtail legacy admissions to colleges and universities, and define talent and intelligence more broadly. All worthy and worthwhile ideas, all unlikely to make the big difference that we need.
What else, then, should we do? Part of the answer, and the one that I want to tackle here, is to address the preparation gap head-on.
Our current solution to the preparation gap, traditional remediation programs, too often turns out to be a black hole from which undergraduates rarely surface.
We must ask ourselves: Are these entering students truly unready for college? Or, with proper support, can they succeed in credit-bearing classes
The evidence is now clear: Traditional remediation generally doesn’t work, but co-requisite remediation – enrolling students in standard classes with support – does.
The explanation is simple and straightforward. Many students who are placed in remedial classes have specific areas where they need help. The challenges they face don’t require them to start over. Placing these students in non-credit remedial classes not only stalls their academic momentum but leaves many profoundly discouraged.
Like the Devil, bias takes many forms, and among the most insidious is the tendency to label a substantial portion of low-income students as deficient, and to assert that their deficits need to be rectified before they can enter classes that count toward a degree.
But, you might respond, haven’t we all read the claim that an astonishing number of entering freshmen aren’t college ready.
This doesn’t mean that these high school graduates are unmotivated or lack a sense of direction or a clear understanding of college’s value. Rather, we are told, these students literally lack the basic skills in math, reading, and writing needed for college success.
They are not just financially poor, we hear; they’re linguistically and mathematically impoverished as well.
According to the ACT, the testing firm, in 2019, the percentage of students who met English and math benchmarks was the lowest in 15 years, with just 37 percent meeting three of four College Readiness Benchmarks, and 36 percent not meeting any.
If this is indeed the case, it’s no surprise that roughly 40 percent of first-time, full-time students fail to graduate from a 4-year college and university and even higher proportions of community college or transfer students never earn a degree.
If so, the failure to graduate more students isn’t higher ed’s fault. Blame should be cast at high schools or the students themselves or their families.
But is it true that such a substantial percentage of entering college students lack the basic skills required for academic success – and, at a minimum, should be required to take remedial courses to bring them up to speed?
The answer is “no.” What we are learning is:
1. Customary ways of assessing college readiness are marred by inaccuracies and relegate many students fully capable of college-level work to remedial courses.
2. Traditional remediation rarely works. As Professor Alexandra Logue points out, currently, two-thirds of community college freshmen and 40 percent of their counterparts at public 4-year institutions, take at least one remedial course – but most never complete it.
3. With proper support, many more students are primed to achieve.
An initiative organized by the National Education Equity Lab enrolled more than 300 11th and 12th graders from high-poverty high schools in 11 cities in the Harvard course, “Poetry in America.” All told, 89 percent passed the course and earned four credits from Harvard Extension School.
They keys to the students’ success: Challenging them, building their confidence, and providing the support that they needed.
So what might we take away from this example?
What we face in this society is a lack of opportunity.
The preparation gap is, in reality, an opportunity gap. At the K-12 level, structural barriers to equality include inequitable levels of funding, unequal distribution of quality teachers, differences in teacher perceptions of student abilities, and gaps in access to advanced coursework, outside of school enrichment activities, and gifted and talented, advanced placement, and early college programs.
To these factors we should add the concentration of all too many low-income and non-white students in highly segregated, high poverty schools, which, in turn, contributes to profound differences in school cultures, campus climate, and learning environments—and to differences in opportunities to learn.
The answers seem obvious, if politically fraught:
- Greater investment in under-resourced schools in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
- More K-12 school integration, which can be accomplished through expanded magnet and vanguard programs, abolition of attendance barriers like district or school enrollment boundaries, dispersing lower-income housing.
- Vastly enhancing new enrichment opportunities, like the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s Saturday Academies or Columbia University’s afterschool programs, or the Teagle Foundation’s Knowledge of Freedom summer enrichment programs, and similar programs in STEM.
Recognize that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Gaps in college preparation are real, but can be rectified. Supplemental instruction sections, peer-to-peer tutoring, peer-led study groups, and learning centers in math, science, and writing can make a big difference.
Redesign curricular pathways to bring more students to success in high demand fields.
Our institutions need to look closely to see if degree pathways, especially in STEM fields, are designed in ways that privilege students with exceptionally strong high school backgrounds and are biased against students who need time to develop essential mathematical or writing skills.
We can reorganize course content and sequences in ways that give students more of an opportunity to acquire those skills.
Create many more enrichment opportunities on campus.
Mentored freshman research programs, funded internships, campus employment as faculty assistants, learning communities and interest groups in high demand areas, and expanded funded study abroad, civic engagement, co-curricular and leadership opportunities, preferably for credit – each of these initiatives benefit historically underrepresented students far more than their more privileged classmates.
Although educational inequality can be a product of bias, prejudice, racism, and malevolence, it’s often a product of policies and practices that, at least on a superficial level, appear even handed and well-intentioned.
If we’re serious about equity, let’s take two principles to heart:
- If our institution accepts a student, it is our personal responsibility to do whatever we can to help that student succeed.
- In our role as teachers, we have a professional obligation to do everything in our power to help our students develop their God-given skills and abilities.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.