It’s painful to read about students whose determination to excel academically exceeds their ability to barely survive academically. This is particularly so when the students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I have reference now to a front-page story about Kashawn Campbell (“South L.A. student finds a different world at Cal,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 16).
This young man was the senior class salutatorian at Jefferson High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. With a student population almost entirely of disadvantaged Hispanics and blacks, the school has an appalling academic reputation, with less than 13 percent of its students proficient in English and less than one percent in math. Yet Campbell compiled a 4.06 GPA in his senior year. He was accepted by UC Berkeley, widely regarded as the nation’s most prestigious public university.
But Campbell’s freshman year threw him for a loop. He barely passed an introductory science class, and was given an “In Progress” in College Writing 1A. This meant that the course wouldn’t count against his GPA, but he would have to take it again. The only bright spot was the A- he got in African American Studies 5A. The latter lifted his GPA above a 2.0, which allowed him to return for his sophomore year.
It’s impossible to know how Campbell is processing his freshman year experience. Would he have chosen Berkeley again if he knew then what he knows now? I don’t want to speculate. But it’s apparent from his statements that he was shaken to the core by his lackluster performance. If it were not for the A-, he likely would have flunked out.
Which brings me to my main point. In our attempt to democratize higher education, we too often do a terrible disservice to students. In light of Berkeley’s and Jefferson’s respective reputations, I think that Campbell’s counselors should have advised him to enroll in a community college for two years. He would have received the remediation he desperately needed at an affordable cost. Equally important, he would have been spared the frustration and hurt that resulted from the mismatch.
Campbell is hardly alone in this regard. More than 70 percent of high school graduates in the U.S. matriculate at a four-year institution, but less than two-thirds graduate. Something is terribly wrong about these numbers. As I’ve written often before, college is not for everyone. Determination is indispensable because not all learning comes easily. But it is not enough. Not all students possess the ability to succeed in an academic environment. There’s no shame in this. It is a statement of reality. Nevertheless, we persist in the fiction that perseverance is enough. I don’t believe it.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.