John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Why Don’t We Make Gateway Course Student Performance A Higher Priority: Restated as Why Are We So Tolerant of Such High Failure Rates?

John N. Gardner

Ever since I taught my first gateway course in 1967 I have experienced firsthand the high failure rates in such courses. Quite unobjectively, my retrospective perception of my performance in that era was that I was an effective college teacher. Eight years later I was the recipient of my university’s highest award for outstanding teaching. But I still had unacceptable levels of student performance. It troubled me then. It troubles me even more now.

It is my observation and therefore belief that the great majority of so-called “student success” interventions developed over the past four decades address student issues experienced outside the classroom (advising, orientation, counseling, activities, career planning, etc). But I would argue that the real, common experience that matters most for all entering college students is what we offer them in the way of gateway courses. And, as I have written and argued previously, we are failing a very large number of our students in these courses. I am so disturbed by this pattern that I see it as an order of injustice that is analogous to the failure of our campuses to protect our female students from sexual assault, a tolerated war on women if you will—tolerated largely by men. I better not get going on that soapbox but with the recent revelations about stunning avoidance by campuses to seriously confront abuse of female students I do see an analogy with gateway courses in our tolerance for what clearly should be unacceptable student outcomes.

So why do we tolerate these high failure rates? Why haven’t we done more to intervene and make this a priority? Some possible answers, hypotheses at least:

  1. Many of us don’t even think about this. It is not registering on our consciousness or consciences.
  2. For those of us who do think about it we may be accepting this as a natural order of the academic universe. We have always had high failure rates and always will.
  3. Some of us believe further that this is the way it should be, a kind of academic social Darwinism.
  4. Because these high failure rates have always been with us we have concluded that there is nothing that can be done to alleviate these dismal rates of performance, short of drastically lowering academic standards.
  5. Many of us involved in teaching these courses never even talk with our fellow colleagues who teach these courses about these courses. We don’t believe these courses are important enough to honor them by sharing with colleagues about them.
  6. Many of us dislike teaching these courses and, if we can, don’t teach them at all and offload them to other teachers who are less powerful and established than we are.
  7. We dislike these courses because they are an approach to our disciplines that is the opposite of the way we like to work in our disciplines: these courses are superficial and cursory treatments of the vast intellectual enterprise that represents our discipline’s grand total of knowledge and accomplishment. Only in US higher education do we seem to cherish what we call the “survey” course which provide our students nothing in depth and which are largely forgotten a month after the term’s end.
  8. These courses bore us to distraction and hence create the same response in students.
  9. And some of us do not like the students who enroll in these courses. They are not our majors. They are required to be there and most do not want to be there. They have poor attendance habits and their general indifference to our subject matter offends us.
  10. For some of us as individual educators, and collectively at our institutional levels, high failure rates we believe are a measure of institutional quality and maintenance of high standards.
  11. Most of us received this kind of intellectual hazing as beginning college students and feel it is our duty to pass along the tradition.
  12. And why should we waste our precious time and energy to improve these courses as the faculty rewards system, which we must all live by, does not reward such efforts?
  13. For those of us who might want to tackle this issue of poor performance in gateway courses it means having to deal with long, long traditions of the way these courses have been taught, in addition to what has been taught (but not learned). It also means having to tackle the established norms, cultures of academic departments, who believe they have far more important concerns than gateway courses.
  14. It also means having to tackle very powerful people who set these norms: tenured full professors and academic department chairs. These people are very successful at resisting change they do not want and at punishing those who violate the informal and formal norms.
  15. Some of us believe that the role of first-year instruction is to “sort”, separate, weed out the unfit and filter out from the entering hordes those who do not really belong in our academic community. This is a duty which we dutifully perform.
  16. We tolerate those abysmal performance rates because we do not feel responsible for them. If students are performing poorly it is because of something they did or didn’t do, not because of something we did or didn’t do.
  17. We believe these students are failing because they are underprepared by a poorly performing K-12 system for which we do not accept responsibility even though our institutions educated the teachers in these systems.
  18. Or we believe these students are performing poorly, or worse, deserve to be performing poorly, because they are lazy, irresponsible, immature, and don’t belong here at this time in their lives. They belong instead in community colleges (or whatever might be an alternative to community colleges) and certainly not here.
  19. We tolerate these levels of underperformance because on individual and institutional levels we have not yet accepted sufficiently responsibility for student success and we cling instead to a blame the victim model.

It is no wonder that many of us in the academy both don’t want to tackle this issue and don’t believe much can be done to address it, short of denying the students admission.

So why am I even attempting a capstone effort to improve gateway course performance? Because this is the last frontier of the student success movement. We have been moving in this direction for forty years. We can’t put it off any longer. Everything else we have tried has only gotten us this far. We will never attain our national completion goals unless we confront as a high priority the rates of student performance in gateway courses. To do this we must no longer tolerate American higher education’s best kept dirty little secret: our failure rates in gateway courses.