Thoughts on ‘Becoming a Student-Ready College’

Confessions of a Community College Dean

We have a running joke in the family that when someone asks why a given phrase exists or what it means, I get a thoughtful expression, put a finger in the air and say, “It’s from the French for …” The kids groan. There’s something satisfying about finding out the origin of a common phrase. Sometimes it’s the Bible, sometimes Shakespeare, sometimes a movie or a song, but it can be almost anywhere. Knowing where phrases come from can prevent major social mistakes. For example, I was in my 20s before I learned that the original version of “eenie meenie minie moe” contained a racial slur; that wasn’t the version I learned as a child. Knowing that, I made a point of dropping the rhyme entirely from my repertoire. A colleague once suggested using “drink the Kool-Aid” as a motto at a recruitment event; I politely suggested some quick googling.

“Student-ready college” is one of those phrases I’ve heard so many times that I was surprised to learn that it’s only a few years old. It comes from the book Becoming a Student-Ready College, which just came out in a second edition. (The first edition was in 2016.) The authors, Tia Brown McNair, Susan Albertine, Nicole McDonald, Thomas Major Jr. and Michelle Asha Cooper, position the book as a prod to college leaders to change the conversation on campuses. The idea is to move from the model of “college-ready students” to a model of “student-ready colleges.” The deeper idea is to be intentional about baking equity into the culture and operations of colleges.

The book is structured around sets of questions designed to spur reflection and action. The assumptions underlying the questions revolve around the recognition that students don’t exist in a vacuum. Uneven academic preparation often reflects economic and racial segregation as much as talent or hard work. Real inclusion—not just the absence of conscious exclusion—is a choice that has to be made over and over again. Opportunity gaps are functions of much larger forces, rather than signs of irredeemably flawed students.

The theme of equity underlies most of the analysis. How can we ensure that all students are treated with respect and given a real chance at success, even if they haven’t been treated that way before? Since the book is set in the United States, it focuses primarily on race.

That’s an obviously valid choice, but in order to maintain an encouraging tone, the authors are forced into a certain abstraction. A couple of pages after citing Brookdale’s statement on shared governance, they note in passing that “the literature on higher education reform does not have an abundance of advice for evidence-based approaches that lead with values and community value formation …” (64). Well, yes, and there’s a reason for that. Values are defined differently by different people, even if they use the same words. Words like “equity,” “diversity,” “academic freedom,” “excellence” and “opportunity” carry multiple (and sometimes conflicting) meanings. Mission statements, like constitutions, can be read to serve any number of agendas. That’s particularly true when they intersect with material interests, real or perceived.

I kept waiting for the book to delve into those conflicts, but it didn’t. It did offer a few examples of the kinds of statements that leaders of reform will sometimes hear in opposition, but it didn’t go much deeper than that. I wish it had; it seemed a missed opportunity. It might have made for a much longer and less upbeat book, but also a more useful one. Given that the authors themselves embrace pragmatism—to their credit—I would think an analysis like that would complement the work nicely. To overcome resistance in a respectful way, you need to understand it. Here, the nature of resistance is taken as given and obvious. It’s neither.

To be fair, though, this is almost more of a workbook, or a set of prompts, than an analysis. It’s designed to help “flip some orthodoxies” (177) to help colleges better serve the students they actually have and the ones they will actually have. That’s a crucial task, grounded in an ethical imperative. Going from questions—very good ones—to answers requires a messiness beyond the scope of this book. Our students deserve respect, and they deserve institutions that help them thrive and develop into the best versions of themselves. The phrase “student-ready college” may be largely aspirational, at this point, but it’s a worthy aspiration. As good a phrase as it is, though, I’d love to see it eventually retired on the grounds that it’s redundant.

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Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Wednesday, September 7, 2022
Diversity Newsletter publication date:
Wednesday, September 7, 2022