Minority students rate college prep, problems

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Take a walk on just about any college campus, and you’ll likely see a more diverse picture than ever before. While students of color are still underrepresented, they’ve made significant progress in gaining access to higher education. During the 1990s, their enrollment increased 48 percent, according to a recent report by the American Council on Education.

That means more minorities than ever have the chance to earn a degree, which typically leads to better jobs and higher pay.

But the picture at graduation is much less diverse. Fewer than half of minority students who enroll in college earn a degree—compared to about 60 percent of whites—and many of those who do earn one take longer than the traditional four years.

What stands in the way of success? In a survey and focus group sponsored by Catalyst and Future Teachers of Chicago/Illinois, minority students from Chicago cited problems with finances, academic preparation and juggling school with work. In interviews, minority professors and staff emphasized the difficulty students have fitting into a new environment. (See story on page 10.)

Even though the group surveyed left high school seemingly well prepared, many still described what amounts to a significant “college challenge.”

Who was surveyed

Conducted by the Metro Chicago Information Center, the survey included 350 students at four-year institutions. Most of them graduated from the Chicago Public Schools, but a number of city parochial and suburban public schools were represented. The racial/ethnic breakdown was 63 percent African American, 25 percent Latino and 11 percent Asian American. (While the Asian-American students had higher test scores, this had a negligible effect on the overall responses.)

At 21.5, the group’s average score on the ACT college entrance exam was virtually a match for last year’s Illinois average (21.6) and well above the Illinois average for Latino students (18.5) and African-American students (17.3). Similarly, the courses these students took in high school compared favorably to the curriculum recommended by ACT. And relatively few (24 percent) are the first in their immediate families to attend college.

Nevertheless, many students wished they had gotten a better start.

High school preparation

“Schools need to stress study habits early.”

“Classes in high school could have been a bit tougher. There was a big jump from reading a book a semester to a book a week.”

– Focus group participants

The survey found that students believe their high schools did a good job overall of preparing them for college. Eighty percent said their schools were helpful or very helpful in preparing them to take college entrance exams and in providing a quality curriculum.

Over 70 percent said their high schools were helpful or very helpful in assisting them with choosing courses and finding financial aid. And 67 percent said the same about the help they got choosing a college, while 62 percent said the same about career guidance.

But that leaves between 20 percent and almost 40 percent of students who said their high schools were either “not so helpful” or “not at all helpful’ in at least one of those areas. Those numbers are higher than college students nationwide who completed a survey for ACT.

Nationally, less than 20 percent of students said they were dissatisfied with their high school’s guidance services (18 percent), career planning help (17 percent) and classroom instruction (10 percent), according to ACT’s High School Satisfaction Survey for 2002. And 21 percent said they were dissatisfied with the number and variety of courses offered.

Chicago students who did not substantially complete the core math and science courses recommended by ACT were more likely to say their high schools were “not at all helpful” or “not so helpful” in helping them choose courses to prepare for college. (Catalyst defined “substantially completed” as having taken Algebra I and II and geometry, as well as three of the following four science courses: biology, chemistry, general science and physics.)

In the focus group, students stressed the need for more help with college planning. They also said teachers and high schools need to set tougher academic standards.

“There’s not enough motivation from teachers,” said one young man. “They’re too busy working with the kids who weren’t even ready to go to college.”

Said one young woman: “The counselors didn’t offer help for the schools I was interested in.”

By graduation, the majority of students said they felt somewhat prepared to meet reading, writing and math requirements needed for college work and to use computers and the Internet.

But fewer students said they were “well prepared” to handle math than they were to handle reading, writing and computers—about 50 percent vs. 60 percent. The focus group participants unanimously said math was their toughest challenge in college. That’s a somewhat surprising finding, given that Chicago Public Schools students typically have scored higher on math tests than on reading tests. One possible explanation is that the math tests do not reflect the skills and knowledge needed for college work.

This explanation is bolstered by another unusual finding. Students who substantially completed the math and science core reported better preparation for reading than for math; 71 percent of this group felt well-prepared for college reading, compared to only 59 percent who said the same about college math. (Among students who didn’t complete the core, those numbers fell to 59 percent and 32 percent, respectively.)

Ayana Karanja, an anthropology professor and chair of the Black World Studies Department at Loyola University, says high schools need to require more rigorous coursework in all subjects, but especially in math and science, so that students aren’t shut out of careers that require those skills. Too often, she explains, students have the perception that math is something arcane that only certain people can understand.

“Students need to be familiar with the rigors of math,” Karanja says. “If they’re interested in science, they’re going to have to do math. Math skills need to be treated as something that’s normal and accepted, not something weird or magical, but something they can grasp.”

In another important area, only 59 percent of the surveyed students said their high school provided specific instruction in study skills, leaving a substantial number without training in a skill that is critical to college success. As one focus group participant put it, “Schools need to stress study habits early. The way you study in high school will be the way you study in college.”

Picking a college

“Everything basically was an easy process—if you know what you want to do.”

“It was difficult. You have to know what you want and check out all the schools and see if they have the major you want and everything. It’s difficult, but …very exciting.”

– Focus group participants

Education experts recommend that students, especially minority students, be encouraged to begin planning for college as early as middle school.

Among the surveyed students, almost half didn’t begin until their junior year of high school, and another 13 percent waited until they were seniors; 37 percent started as freshmen or sophomores.

A substantial minority of students—45 percent—said they made decisions about college on their own; 43 percent got help from their family, 14 percent cited counselors, 11 percent got help from teachers, 9 percent cited mentors or tutors, and 7 percent turned to friends. (Students could give more than one response.)

In a 2001 report on some 300 minority high school seniors in Chicago and four other cities, the Council of Great City Schools and ACT stresses that parents—many of whom did not attend college themselves—may not be equipped to adequately help students make college decisions, leaving schools to play a larger role.

The report, “Creating Seamless Educational Transitions for Urban African American and Hispanic Students,” recommends that urban schools beef up counseling and college-planning assistance so that students receive more help from professionals.

Currently, Chicago high schools have a student-counselor ratio of 360-to-1; the American School Counselors Association recommends a ratio of 250-to-1.

Asked about factors that influenced their decisions about college, 96 percent of the Chicago students said academic reputation was “very important” or “somewhat important.” Next in line: courses offered (94 percent), followed by cost (88 percent), reputation for diversity (84 percent) and location (83 percent).

The college experience

“I was taking a psychology class with 300 kids, and it was intimidating asking questions.”

“I couldn’t go to a big school. In a big lecture, nobody knows or cares if you’re there.”

“My hardest challenge in college was getting to know people and participating in group discussions.”

“The hardest thing about college? Going to bed on time, getting enough sleep.”

– Focus group participants

Time management was the biggest problem reported by students in the survey; 75 percent said it had “some impact” or “a major impact” on their ability to succeed in school. Students who substantially completed the core were more likely to say that time management was a major problem, raising the possibility that they may have taken more or harder courses.

As one focus group participant said, “The biggest challenge in college was disciplining myself to set a schedule each day.”

Time management was followed by financial difficulty, with 63 percent saying it had at least some impact on their success; personal or family problems (51 percent); lack of academic preparation (49 percent); and social isolation (40 percent).

Students who were the first in their immediate family to attend college were more likely than those who were not to cite lack of academic preparation and personal problems as having at least some impact on their ability to succeed.

And 28 percent of students reported having to take remedial courses or labs once they enrolled in college—virtually the same as the national percentage, 27 percent, according to “The Condition of Education 2000,” a report from the National Center for Education Statistics. There was virtually no difference in remedial course taking between students who did and did not substantially complete the math and science core.

Despite the difficulties reported by students, many are reaching out for assistance. Asked who they turn to for help with problems in school, 45 percent said someone at school, such as an advisor, instructor or counselor; 39 percent turn to family; 25 percent rely on friends; and 7 percent said other sources. Only 7 percent said they tried to work out problems on their own.

Focus group participants said they were likely to turn to older students, such as graduate teaching assistants or resident advisors in dorms.

Many students in the focus group also said they felt intimidated asking questions or requesting help with work when they attended large, lecture-hall classes. But the majority of surveyed students said they sought help in the classroom.

As one young woman said, “If I had something to ask, I’d ask. They’re just going to have to think I’m stupid ’cause I’m not going to pay my tuition and leave not knowing what I need to know.”

Asked how often they did ask questions in class, 87 percent said “often” or “sometimes;” 69 percent said they “often” or “sometimes” meet with a counselor to plan courses they need to meet career goals; and 58 percent said the same about meeting with a tutor or instructor for extra help.

As for studying, 60 percent said they “often” or “sometimes” study with friends—something educators say can help boost achievement. Ninety-four percent said they typically study alone. (Note: Students could give more than one response.)

A Roosevelt University professor says that intensive instructor-student mentorship would help minority students overcome problems.

“Real mentorship programs for minority students … are very scarce in predominantly white or private universities, and even in community colleges,” says Sonia Delgado-Tall, an English professor at Roosevelt University. “Clubs, black student unions, cultural associations, student activities offices or multicultural programs cannot be substitutes for academic mentorship, where minority students could be paired with instructors . . . with whom they may feel [more] cultural kinship.”

Career plans

Most surveyed students appear to have their post-graduate goals firmly in mind. Only 4 percent say they didn’t know what type of career they wanted to pursue once they finish school, and over 90 percent already have declared a major.

About 46 percent of the surveyed students plan to work after college, and 43 percent plan to attend graduate school. Only 2 percent plan to join social service or volunteer groups, such as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, and 9 percent have other post-degree goals. Those percentages are similar to post-graduate goals cited by students across the country who took the SAT college entrance exam in 2001. (That year, more than a third of test-takers were minorities.)

As for careers, the top choice of the Chicago students was education. (However, this number is inflated because 23 percent of the survey group were members of Future Teachers of Chicago/Illinois.)

The next two choices were business (19 percent) and health care (17 percent). In comparison, students in the SAT national survey chose health care (15 percent), business (14 percent) and social sciences (10 percent) as their top three career choices. Education and engineering tied for fourth, at 9 percent each.

What next?

Overall, the survey results show that many minority students are working steadily toward a college degree. The responses also point to a need for high schools and college outreach programs to do more to help students navigate the college decision-making process and better prepare themselves for higher education.

For example, a 2001 study by a researcher at the University of California-Davis found that outreach programs did little to help minority students achieve at the highest levels and become eligible for admission to the country’s top tier of colleges and universities.

Delgado-Tall has advice for students and parents, too: “Minority students should learn very early to identify their strengths and their weaknesses, to set their goals, and finally to voice their needs. (College) should not just be about the degree they get in the end, but the type of education and respect that they are justly entitled to.”