The recently concluded holiday break wasn't much fun for those very bright but struggling freshmen students who got their first taste ever of academic failure.
These students were often tops in their high school classes and had high SAT scores. They're now working hard but can't seem to get any traction. They may struggle to wake up in time for class, leave long-term assignments until it's too late, and neglect to complete work without the kinds of reminders and cues their parents used to provide. Unlike in high school, where performance is closely tracked and notice is quickly taken, it may not be until the end of the semester that the final reckoning comes due—failing grades and academic probation or suspension.
These are not isolated cases. There is a large, growing group of bright kids whose brains aren't wired right for a demanding college routine. Strategies and supports that worked while living at home are not adequate to the new demands that college places on the executive functions of the brain.
According to current theories of the brain, executive functions are located in areas of the frontal lobe and serve as a kind of orchestra conductor, regulating other areas that control planning, goal-setting, language production, and motor activity. They operate beyond the control of will and motivation, although the behavior that results when they fail to operate effectively is often judged in moral terms.
Researchers believe executive function capabilities vary widely. Many also believe that, in about 10 percent of cases, the difficulties are severe enough to be classified as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, a learning difference increasingly seen as lying in the self-regulation systems of the brain. But even those without an AD/HD diagnosis can and do have significant challenges, especially in a demanding academic environment.
Executive functions are challenged in any significant life transition. While research is not yet conclusive, many believe first-generation college students, or those from different cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds, experience the same kind of executive function challenges that students with AD/HD face in college. Unfortunately, colleges have not yet learned how to deal with the mismatch between the ways some students' executive systems have developed and successful management of college coursework.
Even the best college support systems are often inadequate, and the number of students who slip through the cracks is very high. Even students who manage to muddle through by using support systems and getting extra help from instructors may still not develop the kinds of executive strategies essential to success in the workplace.
Prescription medications can have positive effects, but many students report that meds also carry a cost. I would rather see more colleges address the problem by working directly with students to develop self-management and academic strategies. It works beautifully here at Landmark College (Vt.), where students learn to develop strategies to use their strengths and overcome their challenges.
Every year, about half of the students who come here have failed at other postsecondary institutions, including some of the most selective colleges in the country. Their stories are nearly always the same: good grades in high school, good SATs, and a failure to launch when it came to the new demands of college work. By learning to master "executive functioning skills," these same students can go on to achieve academically and take their place in the world feeling a sense of pride in their accomplishment.
Ours is a special mission, but any institution can emulate what we do with sufficient resources. The stimulus money being used to increase college access for low-income students is certainly money well spent. But the question of college completion is equally important. Perhaps some stimulus money should be used to improve results on that score. Until we address the causes that lead to one out of two students dropping out before receiving a degree, opening higher education’s doors wider may be an empty victory.
MacLean Gander is a professor of English at Landmark College, Putney, Vt., which serves students with learning disorders, with a primary focus on executive function challenge.