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“Look to your left. Look to your right. Two of you won’t be here next year.” Some older folks may recall these words, spoken by a college dean to first-year students at orientation.

A St. Helena student recently told me that his science professor has a coffee cup with the words, “This cup is filled with the tears of my students.”

The message in both instances is that students are either ready for college or they are not; if they fail, their failures are theirs and theirs alone. However, rather than asking are students “college-ready,” more campuses are working harder to be student-ready.

Today, one in three students drops out of college, leading parents, legislators, and taxpayers to question the value of their investments. Byron White writes, “Higher education institutions must abandon a paradigm that allows them to deflect accountability and embrace the burden of being student-ready.”

UC Berkeley Professor K. Patricia Cross, observes, “The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate ‘apparently ordinary’ people to unusual effort,” adding, “The tough problem is not identifying winners: it’s making winners out of ordinary people.”

Harvard, Stanford, or Yale graduate 95-98 percent of the students they enroll. However, it’s not news that these campuses almost exclusively admit students who are already academic superstars. As a former Stanford colleague once told me, “All we have to do is get out of their way!”

Nearly 40 years ago, Dr. Alexander Astin, a distinguished UCLA professor and researcher, concluded that true educational excellence is a measure of the extent to which a college increases students’ intellectual and personal development and makes a positive difference in their lives.

Arizona State President Michael Crow is among a growing number of leaders who endorse Astin’s “value added” view of excellence in writing, “The New American University measures quality by the educations its students receive,” rather than by their entering grades and test scores.

Dr. Patricia Stanley, the first U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges, echoes this sentiment is declaring, “Community colleges care less about who we enroll and more about what happens to students as a result of their having been with us.”

As emerging adults, students certainly must accept responsibility for their own successes or failures. However, institutions, especially faculty members, also bear individual and collective obligations for student achievement or lack thereof.

In the next months, students and their families will be deciding which colleges or universities to attend in fall 2019. My advice is to ignore glossy view books, clever videos, and look beyond US News & World Report’s lists of “America’s Best Colleges.” Among the most important questions to guide decision making: “Do students like me succeed and graduate from here?”

For example, how many students graduate who are the first in their families to attend college, have physical or learning disabilities, or are veterans? How many women or students of color achieve their goals in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields?

While responses to these questions should be available from campuses, some answers can be found at College Results Online: http://www.collegeresults.org/. This website provides information on graduation rates and also allows users to compare data for a group of colleges.

Some institutions are more effective than others in helping students from a wide range of abilities and backgrounds succeed. Many of these campuses offer support programs and services for students who are first-generation, have disabilities, are undecided about majors, LGBTQ, or have other background factors that put them at greater risk for dropping out before achieving their goals.

In my years as a dean, I encountered outstanding students as well as those with low SAT scores and/or average high school grades. Many so-called “at-risk students” went on to become attorneys, businesspersons, college professors, health professionals, Oscar winning actors and more. In every instance they found a professor, advisor, or mentor who supported, challenged believed in, them.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who Martin Luther King Jr., nominated for the Nobel Prize, proclaims, “There are within each of us the seeds of who we might become.”

Students need colleges with educators who give them reason to hope and trust that they can succeed through commitment, determination, and HARD WORK. Students need campuses where they will have the seeds of their goodness watered; places that will empower them to grow and achieve their highest potential. These are truly excellent institutions — laser focused on student success.

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Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: thedean@tbrownassociates.com

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