The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another

December 17, 2009

British readers of this interesting and easy-to-read book exploring the US community college system are likely to see a number of parallels with undergraduate education in the UK. Community colleges’ closest British counterpart is, arguably, the further education sector, and thus you might think that The College Fear Factor offers few useful insights for higher education institutions. But you’d be wrong; it provides many valuable ideas and lessons.

A useful and informative introduction explains the background and thinking behind the book, and briefly describes its rationale and structure. Here we gain initial insight into the nature of the community college system. It has not seen the high levels of attainment it was expected to achieve, echoing the widening participation programme in the UK, which has arguably fallen short of the massive increase in graduates that was its aim. Similarly, there are parallels in terms of UK higher education’s history: traditionally a place for the rich and elite, the sector is now trying to expand to serve

a greater proportion of the population, but is not necessarily succeeding – as is the case for community colleges on the other side of the Atlantic. This, Cox argues, leads to gaps – for example between what students are willing to do and what they are expected to do – and she considers these in detail.

Using a wealth of real-life examples, Cox examines community college students’ expectations, and again we see analogies with the UK, for example in foundation degree courses. Students often see the foundation degree as a stepping stone into full bachelor degrees in higher education; just as US students regard community college qualifications as a gateway to higher attainment. It seems likely that the outlook of US students – their anxieties, fears and aspirations and their ability to cope with student life – is not dissimilar to that here. The introduction of undergraduate fees in the UK also allows for further correlations to be drawn with the financial pressures faced by less-wealthy American students.

Another similarity is the concern with “making the grade”. Students in US community colleges, like undergraduates in Britain, have become highly focused on getting the right grade in a system that has arguably conditioned them to do so, right from primary school days. It is well worth reading further through Cox’s examples and case studies to see if you recognise your students in there.

So what of the teachers in all this? In the second part of the book, Cox turns to the gap between what students think is “appropriate” and “good” college teaching, and what they believe they actually get. This section is of value to anyone interested in the transition of students from school to university in terms of their expectations about teaching and learning.

In the third part of the book, student literacy is examined and this again has much in common with the British system, in which many students who enter university do so without strong reading, writing or research skills (particularly critical and analytical skills). The details here make interesting and realistic reading.

My only criticism, and it is a minor one, would be the book’s user-unfriendly referencing system of using numbers within the text, and obliging one to go to the back of the whole book, rather than the end of each chapter. Sometimes the references do not provide actual sources – for example, with some of the statistics quoted – and this is a drawback. Overall, however, this is a worthwhile read that enables the reader to reflect on what and who exactly higher education is for, and also about how best to achieve this for those who choose to take this path.

The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another

By Rebecca D. Cox
Harvard University Press
216pp, £18.95
ISBN 9780674035485
Published 26 October 2009

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