Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

Many UC, CSU students aren't ready for college-level writing; USC tries to help

USC instructor Brandon Martinez reveals the simple mysteries of good writing to a dozen students in need of remedial writing help before they begin college.
USC instructor Brandon Martinez reveals the simple mysteries of good writing to a dozen students in need of remedial writing help before they begin college.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

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As California’s universities welcome freshmen for the fall term, administrators and students must deal with a problem that won’t go away: significant portions of these young people aren’t writing at the college level.

For 10 years, the SummerTIME program at USC has tried to make a dent in the problem. The 94 students in this year’s program competed to get in from Los Angeles urban high schools with low college attendance rates. For half of their six-hour days, they concentrate on intensive writing courses that offer what few of them have experienced before: one-on-one instruction, peer assistance and revision, revision, revision.

On one day during the program’s last week in July, students are critiquing the title and the arguments of Jazmine Kenny’s essay-in-progress about childhood obesity, her subject for the required 10-to-15-page essay in the course.

Instructor Brandon Martinez also teaches them how to organize their writing. It’s a few days after the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings. Martinez uses a Web application to help students organize into eye-friendly bubbles their brainstormed ideas about gun control, the Second Amendment and related issues.

“You as the writer have not necessarily decided which way you’re going to go with this, but you’ve at least thought about viewpoints of gun control and what’s out there,” he said.

Weeks before, that would’ve seemed like a lot for Alexandra Morales of Echo Park. She was a high-achieving student — editor of the newspaper at Belmont High School, member and initiator of several campus clubs. Those activities and her grade point average helped get her into UC Berkeley. But as she approached college, she admitted to herself that she wasn’t ready for the writing assignments to come.

“I think, that was for me overwhelming knowing that at some point I was going to have to write more than 15 pages for college, because we could barely do two to three pages and be like, 'OK, that’s a lot of writing for high school,'” Morales said.

Students like her, said USC researcher and program founder William Tierney, risk dropping out of college or taking longer to finish if they don’t get targeted help during their freshman year.

“They work hard, they get good grades, they work through four years and they may end up in the top 10 percent of their class, and they get accepted to a UC and they think they’re pretty darn good students, but they’ve never been told, you’re not working at college-level writing or math,” he said.

The USC program’s structure evolves from 10 years of research about what helps improve students’ ability to write, said instructor Brandon Martinez.

“We’re focusing on some of the nuances that they may not necessarily have mastered that would be expected at the college level. So throughout high school they are writing essays, but there’s some sophistication in terms of their tone, their writer's voice and really how they integrate resources and evidence into their papers,” he said.

They also get a preview of college life; students in the grant-funded program take a daily, one-hour course on financial aid, notetaking and getting the most of campus life.

David Lira, who’s headed to UC Berkeley this fall, said the workshop revealed to him the power of little-used punctuation.

“Using dashes, semicolons and all that stuff in order to, like, phrase your work that was one of the things that I wasn’t right quite sure how to do it,” Lira said.

Last year, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office sounded an alarm about college freshmen in Lira’s position. He and more than half the students in the writing workshop plan to attend the state’s public universities.

A quarter of entering freshmen at the University of California weren’t ready for college level math or writing, the analyst’s office concluded. At UC Merced, the proportion was nearly two-thirds.

The problem’s much worse at the 23-campus California State University. Systemwide, more than half the incoming freshmen needed remedial writing help. At Cal State’s Dominguez Hills and Los Angeles campuses, 9 of 10 incoming freshmen needed that kind of help with writing and math.

USC writing workshop coordinator Tierney contended that it’s in all Californians' interest to solve this problem.

“We have a fiscal double whammy. We know that if you are prepared when you enter college, you’re more likely to graduate than if you are not prepared. So we’ve got one problem, which is that it’s going to take longer and it’s going to cost the state and the student more to graduate,” he said.
Four years ago, the Pacific Research Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank, estimated that California’s higher education remedial problem costs the state between $4 billion and $14 billion a year. Suzanne McEvoy, who helps evaluate incoming Cal State L.A. students for college-readiness, said the problem lies mostly with public schools.

“I think the public education in K through 12 has deteriorated to such a point that students in certain communities are not getting the academic background they need in English or math, let alone critical thinking, or history, or anything like that,” McEvoy said.

Alexandra Morales from the USC writing workshop said she knows her classmates at UC Berkeley will include graduates of suburban and private schools with advantages she didn’t enjoy at Belmont High. That’s not going to keep her down, she said.

“My ultimate goal, it’s very ambitious, I want to be mayor of L.A. one day. My ultimate goal is to change my community. I go by the philosophy that if you don’t like something, you do something about it,” she said.

One thing the mayor of Los Angeles has the authority to do something about: the city’s partnership with 22 L.A. public schools like the one from which she graduated.

Correction: The original version of this story said that the students spend July on-campus, which is incorrect; it's not a residential program.