PROF. ELLWANGER: Low expectations in high school undermine college success

Anything less than 40 pages of formal, revised, graded writing over the course of the senior year will probably ensure that a student struggles with the workload of the freshman year of college.

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston - Downtown. His primary areas of expertise are rhetoric and critical theory. He writes political and cultural commentary for outlets like Human Events, Quillette, American Greatness, The American Conservative, New Discourses, Minding the Campus, and many more.


I am one of the few tenured English professors at my university who still teach freshman writing courses. This is a task that many faculty avoid: the writing is often very poor, making for demanding teaching and grading. For these reasons, the freshman sequence is often taught by lecturers, graduate students, and untenured faculty. This trend holds across the nation.

I continue to teach the course because I enjoy being around new students. They tend to be highly optimistic, inquisitive, and animated in a learning environment that is often less structured than what they experienced in high school.

But even if the class proceedings are slightly less formal, the work that the course requires is much more demanding than anything they tackled before college. This is a major problem because freshmen must complete the general education requirements before they can access upper-level courses.

These freshman courses often pose a barrier that many students cannot overcome, ensuring that they are washed out of the university before their pursuit of a degree even begins in earnest.

[RELATED: University writing instructors are no longer grading students’ writing]

I work at a large, urban university in Texas, where a high proportion of our students are from minority groups. As the freshman course begins each semester, I ask the students for the total number of polished, revised, typed pages of writing they produced during their entire senior year of high school. In the years prior to the pandemic, the answers typically ranged from 10 to 20 pages across all their courses over 9 months of schooling. Students admitted after the beginning of COVID-19 have reported even less: generally between 4 and 12 pages.

Anything less than 40 pages of formal, revised, graded writing over the course of the senior year will probably ensure that a student struggles with the workload of the freshman year of college. In practice, college freshmen are being asked to produce four times as much writing as most did during their last year of high school…in one-third of the time.

It should come as no surprise that for many students this is an impossible task. Consider also that instructors’ expectations regarding the quality of writing is significantly higher in post-secondary institutions.

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And on top of all that, many American high schools adopted policies that banned penalties for late work in the wake of the pandemic. This ensured that the minimal writing that high school graduates have done over the past few years was completed piecemeal and at their leisure.

These policies set students at a marked disadvantage in college, where falling a week or two behind in a course can result in a failing grade in the course. Needless to say, writing proficiency is arguably the critical skill in predicting success in higher education.

Teachers could put lower expectations on students, but that ensures that students with average and better-than-average skills learn nothing new. The most under-prepared students get a shot at getting a passing grade, but they also learn very little. Ultimately, removing any rigor from the course simply incentivizes mediocrity.

There are really only two ways to address these issues: either rehabilitate high school curricula to ensure college readiness or make college admission much harder to achieve. For a variety of reasons, neither of these solutions is practicable at this moment. The catastrophic consequences of our pandemic-era policies continue to compound.


Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.