Not college material.

I’m trying to understand why this common phrase which I once used freely strikes such a discordant note with me now. It has me thinking of a student from twenty-five years ago.

My very first teaching experience was as a developmental English TA at McNeese St. University in the mid-90’s, essentially an open-admission undergraduate institution at the time. One of the functions of the course was to sort the college material from the not college material. 

Can’t pass the 5-hour, pass/fail, no-credit-toward-graduation course pitched at a basic level? Clearly not college material.

What choice did I have but to join the system of sorting? I was warned that passing a student through Eng 090 who wound up in a tenured prof’s Eng 101 clearly unprepared would come back on me. Besides, there were roughly twice as many students in Eng 090 as there was space for in Eng 101, so push most definitely had to come to shove.

Attrition happened “naturally” through several routes. A small handful were enrolled to collect the Pell check and run – something no longer possible – while others had enrolled from having nothing else better to do in a region depressed by the oil bust.[1]

Failing grades on early assignments drove away some. Others who seemed reasonably on track melted into the ether. This is in the days before email, when at best you could ask a classmate where so-and-so was and get shrugs in return. By the end of the semester, there were usually very few students who turned in all the work that didn’t get a passing grade.

Very few, but not zero. Some students were fully diligent, more than diligent, but the gap between their pre-college preparation and what was necessary to pass was too great a bridge to cross in a semester’s time.

Even at the time I recognized that what made these students “not college material” had more to do with the education system in which they’d been forged than anything to do with their abilities or drive. They’d been given a raw deal for a lot of years and it took an uncommon amount of grit to overcome. One of those raw deals was to wind up in a developmental English course with the least experienced instructors in the entire department.

These things gnawed at me a little, but I tried not to worry too much over it. I did the best I could while trying to preserve sufficient time for my own studies. I did what was expected of me by the system.

I think about it more now, though, how in a lot of ways when I started college, I was not college material. Oh, my high school grades and standardized test scores marked me as college-ready, but I had many students in developmental English who outstripped college-ready me in terms of effort and grit. My second semester freshman year, I skipped 80% of my class meetings (a perverse point of pride) and still managed straight B’s. My privileged background had prepared me to negotiate a flagship university’s system with minimal effort. 

The material which made me college ready had little to do with any of my independent choices or actions, but  young people from backgrounds like mine are provided lots and lots of slack. Even if I’d really screwed around and gotten D’s and F’s, I would’ve been given a 2ndor 3rdchance, no doubt.

It was rare, but not unheard of for a student to take a second swing at English 090. It was even rarer to see the same student two semesters in a row. It seemed sensible that having failed to pass with one instructor, a student should try another. 

But there was Darius[2]taking my English 090 course for a second time. After the first class period that second time around I asked him if he didn’t think it would be better to try a different section, but he said something like, “I got close with you last time,” suggesting he thought he could get over the top.

He had gotten close, moving from very below proficient work to proficient by the end, but the early grades were so low, the averages didn’t work out to passing.[3]

But even in his “failing” semester, he was hugely engaged in the course, particularly in class discussions. He had a sharp mind, but simply had not had sufficient opportunity to practice putting his ideas on the page. I couldn’t have been greener as an instructor, but I stumbled on a technique I’ve made use of since, having Darius explain what he wanted to say to me verbally and then telling him to write that down, just as he’d said it. Once the idea was on the page, it could be shaped. Without the idea, nothing much mattered.

He crushed English 090 the second time around. I have little doubt he would’ve passed English 101 even without it. Toward the end of the semester he told me that he’d set a goal of going to Tulane Law School. 

He did it, graduated and it’s been awhile since we’ve been in touch, but last I heard was practicing law. 

Darius wasn’t college material, until he was. 

Why are we doing this stuff if not to find the Darius’s?


[1]The Lake Charles population roughly doubled between 1950 and 1970 and had dropped over 10% from its peak by the time I lived there. 

[2]I’ve changed his name to preserve privacy.

[3]In hindsight, I sort of can’t believe my adherence to averaging grades over the course of a semester to determine a grade, particularly in a pass/fail course. Why couldn’t I have recognized that a proficient student at the end of the semester was ready to move on? I couldn’t see even a millimeter past the system I worked in at the time.

Inside Higher Ed