Lee McClain: June 2008 Archives

Summer Reading

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My seven-year-old daughter is having a blast reading this summer.  She's newly literate and devouring series books (The Pet Fairies, Puppy Place, Katie Kazoo) with a passion.  Between library fines and Barnes and Noble expeditions, I'm going broke!  But, of course, I love it.  And I'm not the only one supporting her habit; the library has a reading program for kids in the community, Barnes and Noble is offering a free book to anyone who reads eight books, and her school is awarding "special prizes" to kids who complete a certain number of books. 

So here's the question:  what are college students reading this summer?  I asked my magazine-writing students this question on the last day of class.  Some are reading teen novels, like Stephanie Meyer's  TWILIGHT series.  Some are reading A. J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically.  But some of them--English majors!--admitted that they didn't have much time to read in the summer.

And given that these students are among the most literary on campus, I wonder what students at the lower end of the reading spectrum are reading, and how we could encourage them to do more of it. 

I wish Barnes and Noble would give college students a free book for completing eight novels over the summer.  I wonder if my university would spring for some tacky prizes for those who complete a certain number of books.  Or how about a weekly book club, the college-aged equivalent to the library programs my daughter attends every week? 

Seton Hill does have a summer reading program, in which all freshmen are given a book we then discuss en masse and in small groups.  Many other schools do the same.  Is there more we could be doing, though, to promote reading among upperclassmen and all students? 

Tom Mortenson, a higher ed policy analyst, offers these sobering statistics on his Postsecondary Education Opportunity blog:

By any conceivable measure students from families with incomes of more than $100,000 are doing extraordinarily well in the education pipeline. They have the highest high school graduation rates (92.5%), college continuation rates for those that graduate from high school (87.0%), and bachelor's degree completion rate by age 24 for those who start college (90.1%). As a result they earn bachelor's degrees by age 24 at far higher rates (72.6%) than do students born into lower income families (27.9% in the third quartile, 16.6% in the second quartile, 12.3% in the bottom quartile).

The common statistic that 50% of those who enter college don't graduate is misleading.  Actually, 90% of wealthy kids who enter college graduate.  Meanwhile, only 12% of the poorest kids earn bachelor's degrees.  That means--yep--the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, given what we know about how a college education improves one's chances of earning a high income over a lifetime. 

A key reason poorer kids don't graduate from college--indeed, a reason some don't enter college--is that they're weak readers.  Through no fault of their own, most heard a smaller spoken vocabulary as preschoolers, had fewer books in their homes, and attended weaker public schools.  When they arrive at college, they're overwhelmed by the requirements of background knowledge, comprehension of difficult texts, and the sheer volume of reading required.  It's been said that 80% of college learning comes through reading.  If you're a weak reader, you're not passing the tests, earning the degree, nor achieving the professional and income advantages of your wealthier peers.

Lots of work is being done on this situation at the Pre-K - 12 levels, but that doesn't help our current students who are dropping out of college at alarming rates.  Can we make up for reading weakesses in college reading classes or through some other type of intervention?  What do you think?   

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