On Campus

Let's make first year free

Students need to be able to test out university

Students at Bishop's University (Roger LeMoyne)

The worst-kept secret in academia is that students come to university with inadequate intellectual preparation. They don’t know the basics. They don’t know how to write. They’re not prepared for how much work it’s going to be.

So when professors like me see studies like this one which suggests that one of the main reasons for students dropping out is a lack of preparedness, well, let’s just say we’re not shocked. It’s nice to have the hard data, but still.

The real question is: what can be done? One answer might be to get secondary schools to do a better job of preparing students for university in the first place. Many of my students regularly report that their high school English classes, for instance, are not just lacking in challenge—they’re a joke.

But the prospect of changing the priorities of the public education system to make students better prepared seems so unlikely as to be a fool’s errand. Teachers are too hemmed in by curricula, bureaucracy, and parental entitlement. Good teachers couldn’t change things if they wanted to.

On the other hand, is it really such a bad thing for a student to find that university is not well-suited to him? Surely there are many things in life where you can’t judge it until you’ve tried it. If a student comes to university and finds it’s not right for him that in itself is a good learning experience.

In fact, the only real problem with students trying and failing at university—besides bruised egos—is that the students in question will have spent a lot of money with nothing to show for it. Indeed, they may even be saddled with thousands of dollars in debt.

So here’s a better solution: make the first year of university instruction free.

Students take their first year of study without paying tuition fees and get a chance to see if the university environment is right for them. They may pass their courses but still decide to pursue other options and do so as somewhat better educated citizens. Or, they may fail and learn from that experience. In either case, the path is clearer and the bank account is not too depleted.

Better still, they might do very well, and then put down their money in later years with the confidence that comes with early success.

Of course, money would have to be found. Immediate possibilities include creating larger first-year classes, or charging higher tuition fees in the upper-years to compensate, though neither of these solutions would be ideal.

At some universities, the reform might help pay for itself in higher enrollments if some students who were uncertain about university give it a try and then continue in later years. Indeed some students who would otherwise have dropped out after one year, might do better in their first year if they are less distracted by financial stress.

The best option, of course, would be to fund the project through better government support, and taxpayers might be willing to get behind it when they see that their students—perhaps even their own children—will have a better chance to find direction in life. In Quebec, where students are demanding free tuition for all, a free first year might be a good compromise.

In any case, the problem of unprepared students is not going away. Something needs to be done.

This, at least, is doable.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University. Find us on Twitter @maconcampus and like us on Facebook.

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