College Stuns Some Grads

Dallas Morning News
Sunday, August 9, 2009
by HOLLY K. HACKER / The Dallas Morning News

They passed their TAKS exit exams and collected their high school diplomas yet a troubling number of Texas students struggle their first year in college.

At some North Texas high schools, half or more of graduates who go to college earn less than a C average their first year, based on a Dallas Morning News analysis of state data.

And college students who stumble in their freshman year are more likely to call it quits.

"It's a serious problem, and it's not something you can dismiss casually because a lot of students are stunned when they arrive on a college campus," said Raymund Paredes, the state's higher education commissioner.

Paredes and others see a major disconnect between expectations set in high school and those in college. State lawmakers and education officials say new rules, laws and programs should help bridge that gap but there's still more that public schools and colleges can do.

The News analyzed data that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has collected and reported for the first time. The data shows how the Class of 2007 from every public high school fared the first year at Texas public universities.

So, for example, one can see that Spruce High School, a historically low-performing Dallas campus, sent 16 graduates to four-year public universities in Texas. And 11 of them earned less than a C average their freshman year. Spruce graduates at two-year colleges fared better, with only three of 18 earning less than a C average.

And there are surprises: At Dallas' School for the Talented & Gifted (TAG), ranked tops by Newsweek for students taking lots of Advanced Placement exams, five of 12 graduates made less than a C average at a four-year college.

Meanwhile, most graduates of Lake Highlands High in Richardson ISD and Creekview High in Carrollton who went to the state's public universities earned an A or B average, up there with affluent, high-achieving schools like Highland Park High and Carroll Senior High.

Adjustment difficult

Some educators say some students simply have a hard time adjusting to college, no matter how well high school prepared them.

"Even at TAG, they've been used to that closeness, and all of a sudden they're in this big world," said Alice Black, executive principal of Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center, which includes the talented and gifted magnet.

"Once they go off to college, they're not the smart kid anymore."

Rodrigo Echeverria discovered that when he graduated from Skyline High in Dallas, in the top 10 percent of his class, and headed off to Texas A&M-Commerce six years ago.

He found out he wasn't ready for college-level algebra, so he was placed in a remedial math class. He received low marks in English---a stern message that the five-paragraph essays he was used to writing in high school wouldn't cut it in college.

"Just to get out of that mindset, that form of writing, that was the hardest for me," Echeverria said.

But Echeverria was used to challenges. He moved from Mexico to Dallas with his mother and sisters at age 10, knowing no English. He had to figure out the college admissions process largely on his own, because none of his close relatives had ever gone.

At Commerce, Echeverria sought help from the writing and math centers. He found that by getting involved with campus groups and activities, he was more focused on his studies.

Echeverria received bachelor's and master's degrees from Commerce. He starts teaching in a Greenville elementary school this fall.

Remedial classes

Echeverria's experience is increasingly typical. About 60 percent of Commerce freshmen need at least one remedial class.

Mary Hendrix, Texas A&M-Commerce's new vice president for student access and success, says the emphasis on standardized testing in high school means many college freshmen haven't learned to meet deadlines or even take midterms and finals.

She noted that some schools exempt students from finals if they have good grades or high attendance. "They've not had any experience cramming for multiple tests that occur over a two-day period," Hendrix said.

Hendrix says there must be pushes at both the state and campus levels to better prepare students. Some changes ahead: The state will replace TAKS tests with more rigorous end-of-course exams starting with freshmen in 2011-12. Students also now need four years of math and science to graduate, which means they can't blow off the subjects their senior year.

Meanwhile, starting this fall at Commerce, every new student will have a "success coach," who helps with financial aid, academic advising and more. Other recent strategies: Four weeks into the semester, faculty report early grades and any absences.

Even at competitive admissions schools like the University of Texas at Austin, some freshmen struggle. The director of the school's Intellectual Entrepreneurship program wants to expand it to freshmen, especially those who need help picking majors or electives.

The goal: to help students see how the classes they take now relate to potential careers and the larger world. The theory is students will do better if they see how their classes tie into their future.

Paredes said that while high schools can improve their rigor, colleges need to take the initiative as well.

"We tend to let them sink or swim on their own," he said, "and what we need to do is really nurture these kids on our campuses."

How the Data Was Collected

The Dallas Morning News analyzed data collected and reported by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The data shows how 2007 graduates of public high schools performed in their first year at public four-year universities in Texas. The state does not report grade-point averages by individual college campus or major. Therefore, the information is intended to provide an overview of student performance. Only high schools that sent 10 or more graduates to public universities were included in the analysis.

Link: Full state report

Graphic: How freshmen performed