We Aren’t Ready

Following the conclusion of the school year, students across Canada make the transition from high school to postsecondary education. The overwhelming excitement of being independent and making new friends clouds our judgement as we leave home while there is a much more serious reality to this time in our lives. If you really think about it, no one has ever really told us what to expect. Sure, we know all about the application process and how hard we need to work to get the grades required for the programs we want to get into but is that really enough? We go directly from having our hands held every step of the way to being almost completely on our own. There is absolutely no middle ground. While change is to be expected, there are so many ways in which high school students can be better prepared far before they make one of the biggest decisions of their lives.

I found in my research that many students in their first year of postsecondary education feel the same way. First-year students at the University of Western Ontario described to me their struggles with the adjustment to university. Cam S. explained, “I never did anything in high school. I would just push everything off until the last minute and I could get away with it. It’s a different kind of work here than in high school. Here, a few tests make up your whole mark and they’re mostly multiple choice. They never really teach you proper study habits and how to stay on top of things.” His sentiments were echoed by Arija S. who said, “In class in high school I would just sit there and not understand anything so now the same thing happens in lectures. It’s a lot of self-teaching.” Parker R., a first-year student at Niagara College says, “High school didn’t really prepare me for the reality check I got in September when I first got to school. In high school, there were ‘no late marks,’ which could allow for students to be less motivated, less caring, and ultimately hinder their marks in the end. I found that I would procrastinate on almost every assignment because the due date was not truly set in stone. In college, there are strict deadlines for assignments that we must reach or else it will not be accounted for. It has only been a few months for me, but so far college is this: real independence and real life.”

So what should the high school education system be doing to fix this ever-prominent issue? Tessa M., a first-year University of Western Ontario student says, “To better prepare students, teachers should assign a greater number of assignments where students are forced to learn the materials on their own rather than learning it before doing the work. In high school, I would do three to four hours of homework every night but now I usually do work from 9 in the morning until 2 in the morning.” By giving their students work similar to that that is given in postsecondary institutions, high school teachers would be doing them an enormous favour. Being more ready both academically and mentally could make such a substantial difference to the experience that students have in their decisive first year. According to the 2013 Youth in Transition Study by Statistics Canada, 14% of first-year students drop out of their university program. Even though that’s not a massive percentage in the grand scheme of things, I’m sure this number would decline substantially if students were aware of what they were getting themselves into.

Senior high school students haven’t even reached postsecondary education and already have major concerns about the pivotal transition that is to come. The general consensus from grade twelve students at Waterloo Collegiate Institute is that they will get to postsecondary and feel utterly overwhelmed. The ‘no late mark’ policy that is common in high schools was also a considerable topic of discussion. Wade Genter, a grade twelve student at the school, shared his thoughts on the topic: “We have no late marks here but in university if you don’t hand assignments in on time it’s game over. The system really doesn’t teach us how to work well and I feel like I’m going to be totally overwhelmed and stressed.” Emma Payton, another grade twelve student at Waterloo C.I. says, “I feel like I’m going to be alone and not ready to be on my own and have responsibilities.” These opinions have proven to make up the majority of those of senior high school students.

Believe it or not, it’s getting increasingly worse. A survey conducted by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations in 2009 found that 55 percent of university professors and librarians said that first-year students were less prepared than students just three years earlier. In my opinion, the major discrepancy between the two is the drastically different learning styles and the grades that are awarded because of them. Deanne Fisher, the director of student life at the St. George Campus at the University of Toronto, would agree with me on this point. In a 2010 article for Maclean’s, she said, “We’re dealing with students who are overachievers in high school. They often have never had anything worse than an A. So, when they come to U of T and find they might have gotten a C+, or worse on their first mid-term that can have quite an emotional impact on them. We do know from our surveys that the primary barrier to success for our first-year students is not financial, it’s their own academic performance.” It’s a known fact that the majority of students experience their grades dropping significantly after enrolling in postsecondary and this is something that most do not expect. 

Economics student Felice Martinello at Brock University coauthored a study with Ross Finnie, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s faculty of social sciences, on the changes in grades between high school and first-year university using data from Statistics Canada’s Youth In Transition Survey. Their study found that almost half of all students surveyed saw their marks decrease by one letter grade. About 23 percent saw their grades plummet by two letters or more. Around a quarter of students maintained averages consistent with their high school marks and only 2.5 percent of students saw their grades improve from their high school marks.

Leanne Hagarty, business professor at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, says that taking a fifth year of high school is potentially a great way to make the transition easier for students. She comments, “A little more life experience usually leads to a broader and more mature perspective. Even if a fifth year student is still in a high school system that is lax on deadlines, heavy on teacher and family support and strict on attendance, that student is still that little bit older and wiser.” Although a fifth year certainly isn’t for everyone, it could be the right fit for you.

Postsecondary institutions simply cannot expect their students to succeed if they were being taught in an entirely different way. This is also the case in high schools across North America, not just within Canada. Sonja Brookins Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools says, “If we’ve been giving kids worksheets with simplistic answers for years and then get upset when they can’t write a five-paragraph essay or recognize subject-verb agreement, that’s not the kids. That’s us.” While this might be a tad dramatic, the point still gets across: high school students are not being prepared adequately and something needs to be done about it.