In university – and life

With orientation sessions over and several weeks of classes under their belts, first-year university students realize they face a challenging academic year. Unfortunately, several recent studies reveal what many of us already know: too many high school graduates are unprepared for university.
Using data from Statistics Canada, the Persistence in Post-Secondary Education in Canada report found about 14% of university students drop out in their first year. Reasons cited for quitting include failure to meet deadlines, poor academic performance, and inadequate study habits. Almost one million students participated in the survey, so there is little doubt these results are representative of the general student population.
This report comes as high schools continue to lower their academic standards and focus more on promoting student self-esteem than covering academic content. Considering the large number of students who enroll in post-secondary education after completing high school, it is disappointing that schools do not place greater emphasis on preparing students for life beyond their walls.
Many schools do not allow teachers to deduct marks for late assignments or academic dishonesty and make it almost impossible to assign zeroes for incomplete work. As a result, students who achieved high marks in school with minimal effort find out the hard way that things are quite different in university.
In a separate survey conducted by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, professors made it clear that they do not believe high schools do enough to prepare students for university. More than half of professors surveyed stated that students were less prepared now than students from just three years earlier.
Among other things, professors cited lower maturity levels, poor research skills, and expectations of success without the requisite effort as areas of concern. Sadly, none of this should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with educational trends in Canada since these are the type of graduates often produced by our system.
The problem begins in the early grades where social promotion - the practice of passing students to the next grade regardless of their academic achievement - is commonplace across the country. Personal self-esteem receives a higher priority in many schools than actual performance.
Because of that, large numbers of high school students find themselves unable to handle the academic material at their respective grade levels. Although failure occurs at high school, teachers are still strongly encouraged to do everything possible to ensure students graduate. This often means watering down the curriculum content under the overused slogan, “We're teaching students, not subjects.” As a result, classroom teachers see their subject matter expertise downplayed and replaced with an emphasis on “holistic” learning.
The problem with this approach is that it undermines the academic integrity of a high school diploma. While employers and post-secondary institutions assume students possess a certain amount of academic skill and knowledge when they receive a diploma, graduates who lack these skills find that the real world is considerably less accommodating of their unique learning styles.
The president of the Ontario faculty association, Brian Brown, made his opinion about the lack of preparedness among high school graduates very clear. “It is very troubling that a majority of respondents are witnessing a decline in student preparedness. Study after study shows that success in university is linked to the preparedness of students for the rigours of the university curriculum.”
Despite Professor Brown's perceptive analysis, provincial education departments consistently give low priority to university preparedness. In provinces such as Manitoba, all provincial standards tests except those in grade 12 were eliminated over the past decade while Alberta's education minister, Dave Hancock, recently mused about overhauling the School Act to place less emphasis on teacher instruction and more on student-initiated learning. These are not the type of reforms our students need.
Education ministers must pay attention to survey results showing how woefully unprepared high school graduates are for university. Provincial education departments should not reduce the number of standardized tests administered, discourage teachers from lecturing to their students, or downplay the importance of learning content. These are the very things students need if they are going to be successful in their academic studies beyond high school.
We've spent enough time focusing on the self-esteem of our students. Let's raise our standards and make sure students get the education they deserve. This may make high school more challenging to complete, but students will benefit in the long-run. And they'll feel better about their real, as opposed to imagined, accomplishments. 

Michael Zwaagstra, M.Ed., is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy ( and a high school social studies teacher.

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