The Making of a College-Level Writer: An Examination of America’s Writing Crisis

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According to the 2013 National Center for Education Statistics’ report Projections of Education Statistics to 2021, enrollment of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds in postsecondary degree-granting institutions in the United States went up an astounding fifty-two percent between 1996 and 2010 (21). In order to keep up with the growing number of jobs that require college degrees, more and more students are choosing to attend colleges or universities after graduating high school. This increase in the number of college applicants has come despite the rising costs of higher education, and many students that enter college are willing to shoulder the great burden of student loans if they believe that getting a degree will qualify them for higher paying jobs to pay off these loans later on.

However, taking out student loans doesn’t come with the guarantee for future employment or even for a college degree. While America ranks relatively highly compared to other industrialized nations for the percentage of students attending college, it also ranks relatively highly for the percentage of students that attend college but never receive a degree.

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In fact, according to Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, “the United States is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in which the college-completion rate [which was only forty-nine percent in 2009] is lower among younger people than it is among older workers” (11). Unfortunately, this means that a large number of the students that attend colleges in the U.S.A. end up leaving without ever having received their degrees, potentially taking on enormous student loans in the process.

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While the college dropout rate in America is the result of many factors, researchers such as Ronald T. Kellogg and Alison P. Whiteford of Saint Louis University have specifically argued that it is a lack of adequate academic preparation of students for college-level writing that plays the greatest role in students failing academically later on (250). In Kellogg and Whiteford’s 2009 study “Training Advanced Writing Skills,” Kellogg and Whiteford contend that “One’s ability to compose an extended text is the single best predictor of success in course work during the freshman year” of college (250). Much of the literature on the demands of college-level writing agrees with Kellogg and Whiteford and maintains that one of the great failings of the current American education system is its inability to produce quality writers. However, while there seems to be a nearly unanimous call for change, what this change should be—what educators should do to make sure that all high school graduates are writing at an appropriate level—has been a widely discussed and debated topic. In an effort to further understand this complex and yet highly important issue, this paper will examine what educators mean by ‘college-level writing,’ what evidence there is that students are not currently writing at this level, and what some of the proposed solutions are to ensure that more students graduate high school with sufficient writing skills.

What is College-Level Writing?

Given the sheer volume of literature that argues that students are failing to write at a level suitable for college, it seems important to have a set and concise definition of what college-level writing is. However, as pointed out by Patrick Sullivan, an English professor at Manchester Community College, in his article “What is ‘College-Level’ Writing?” a nationwide definition for college-level writing simply does not exist (375). Sullivan explains that there are huge differences in opinion between high school teachers, college professors, administrators, and policy makers on what constitutes college-level writing (375). Although Sullivan concedes that to a certain degree these differences in opinion are natural due to the indeterminacies of language, he argues that this does not dismiss the need for a more concise definition (376). After all, if teachers and professors can’t clearly define college-level writing, they can’t expect to teach students to write at that level and can’t have any sort of meaningful public discussions about whether students are meeting the criteria (377, 380).

At the conclusion to “What is ‘College-Level’ Writing?” Sullivan proposes that educators think of the term ‘college-level writer’ to mean “college-level reader, writer, and thinker” (384). Sullivan supplies his own definition for a “college-level reader, writer, and thinker” as someone that can “write in response to an article, essay, or reading selection that contains at least some abstract content” and be able to demonstrate “a willingness to evaluate ideas and issues carefully, some skill at analysis and higher-level thinking, some ability to shape and organize material effectively, the ability to integrate some of the material from the reading skillfully, [and] the ability to follow the standard rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling” (385). While Sullivan admits that this definition is broad and vague, he insists that it is a good starting place for understanding the skillset involved in college-level writing (385).

Doug Enders, a professor at North Carolina Wesleyan College, creates a similar and slightly more specific definition of college-level writing in his article “Crossing the Divide.” Enders bases his definition on the writing standards provided by Indiana State University and argues that college-level writers should “1) understand the writing process…2) understand how to write for a specific audience…3) write clearly organized, well-developed, focused…essays structured around a thesis…4) understand how and when to apply a number of rhetorical modes…5) evaluate their own and others’ writing; 6) edit for clarity, directness, [and] variety in diction and structure; and 7) express themselves coherently through effective use of grammar, punctuation, and mechanics” (62).

Both Enders and Sullivan emphasize organization, correct grammar, higher order thinking, and analysis and examination of a text as key skills for a college-level writer, and their combined definitions provide a fair estimation of the attributes that many college professors look for when evaluating students’ papers. Thus, while a clearer and more agreed upon definition is still needed as the discussion regarding the inadequacy of high school writers continues nationally, the skills that Enders and Sullivan mention provide a general idea of the rudimentary abilities a writer must possess in order to qualify as college-level.

How Do High School Students Compare?

Although there may not be one definition of a college-level writer that every researcher and educator agrees upon, there seems to be fairly unanimous consensus between those involved in education that high school graduates aren’t entering college with the appropriate writing skills. In Kellogg and Whiteford’s study “Training Advanced Writing Skills,” Kellogg and Whiteford cite high school students’ scores on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress as proof of their lack of adequate writing abilities (250). As Kellogg and Whiteford point out, “Nearly 7 out of 10 high school seniors failed to achieve the benchmark of proficient writer based on their NAEP score” (250). This seventy percent figure is startling, and to prove that these numbers weren’t solely due to the NAEP, Kellogg and Whiteford also distributed opinion surveys to college professors and found that faculty believed at least fifty percent of incoming freshmen were writing below the level required of them (250).

Similar to Kellogg and Whiteford’s findings, research done by the California State University system has also discovered serious shortcomings with regards to students’ writing abilities. In the article “The California State University Early Assessment Program” by CSU professors Ruth E. Knudson, Carol Zitzer-Comfort, Matthew Quirk, and Pia Alexander, Knudson et al. found that “approximately 46 percent of the 45,961” college freshmen in 2006 were in need of remedial reading and writing courses (227). Of these 45,961 total students, 21,000 maintained a B equivalent GPA in the required college preparatory curriculum in high school, leading Knudson et al. to disturbingly report that “it is obvious that maintaining a B average in high school does not guarantee proficiency in college-level English and writing courses” (228). This is an especially worrisome finding as it suggests that the expectations for writing in high school are either far below what they should be or that high school teachers are not grading their students appropriately (Knudson et al. 228).

Even more alarming than the findings by Kellogg and Whiteford and Knudson et al. are the results of Doug Enders’ eight-year-long survey of his freshmen composition students. When asked what high school activities best helped them prepare for writing in college, a full twenty-five percent of the students reported that nothing they learned in high school adequately prepared them (Enders 66). Of these students, ninety percent “said that they wrote twenty or fewer papers in four years of high school English, with 60 percent of them writing ten or fewer papers” (Enders 66). Writing papers frequently in high school is essential for students to learn to write well and to prepare them for college writing workloads, and it is unsurprising that students with this little practice found themselves completely unprepared for college-level writing (Enders 66).

As data from Kellogg and Whiteford, Knudson et al., and Enders show, an overwhelming number of students are graduating high school ill-equipped for the realities and expectations of college-level writing. College students looking back on their high school experiences agree with professors and universities that the levels of writing accepted in high school are not matching up with those expected in college, and as a result, a huge number of students are flooding the workforce and post-secondary education institutions without proficient writing skills.

What Are Some Possible Solutions?

As is to be expected, researchers and educators examining this writing-skill deficiency have proposed a myriad of different possible solutions and remedies. While there are many viable and interesting solutions that could potentially be discussed, this paper will specifically focus on the following four suggested solutions: 1) change state standards, 2) develop remedial college courses, 3) develop remedial high school courses, and 4) align high school writing standards more closely with college writing standards.

Change State Standards

In Robert Rothman’s article “A Common Core of Readiness,” Rothman argues that one of the logical solutions to fixing the problem with high school students’ writing abilities is to change the state standards (12). As Rothman points out, “If standards are too low, K-12 students may do everything we expect them to do but still come up short when they get to college or begin a career” (12). Instead, Rothman pushes for programs such as the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS), which was started in 2009 to redesign and rethink state standards (13). Instead of simply creating general standards, the CCSS leaders attempted to develop standards that would mimic those expected freshman year of college so that “students who met the standards [would] be able to enroll in postsecondary education without needing remediation” (Rothman 13). As Rothman reports, the writing standards developed by the CCSS leaders included changing the current high school emphasis on narrative writing to an emphasis on the more analytical and research-based writing that is found in college (14). Although these new standards still need to be confirmed by post-secondary institutions as accurate in their abilities to predict readiness and implemented by schools to test their effectiveness, Rothman believes that they represent a promising first step to reverse the trend of underprepared graduates (14).

Naturally, changing state standards to positively influence education is a controversial solution and not one that is accepted by many educators. Rick VanDeWeghe, a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver and editor of the column “Research Matters” from the English Journal, states in his article “Writing Policy and School Reform” that many educators resent any sort of reform that requires the standardization of a curriculum (97). VanDeWeghe suggests that emphasizing set standards often comes at the cost of teachers neglecting to spend as much time teaching concepts that may not qualify as standards but are still important to develop for skills such as writing (97). Feeling as though they must touch on each and every standard is overwhelming for many teachers, and VanDeWeghe argues that an education system built around standards can easily deviate from the type of personal and flexible teaching that is essential for students’ learning (97). Thus, although raising state standards may be a theoretically good idea to improve high school graduates’ writing abilities, it also has the propensity to negatively backfire and do further damage to K-12 writing instruction.

Remedial Classes in College

Another frequently proposed solution to address the issue of underprepared college writers is to create more remedial college classes. These courses could help take some of the pressure off of high school teachers while still ensuring that college students receive whatever extra help they need. Furthermore, if coupled with changes at the high school level as well, these classes could help the next several years of freshmen transition to college before the high school reforms take effect and the remedial classes no longer become necessary. Remedial college classes could also help those students that have managed to ‘slip-through the cracks’ by successfully passing high school English classes and meeting state standards without ever having actually learned to write well.

However, many educators and policy makers have condemned remedial college classes. In Patrick Sullivan’s article “What is ‘College-Level’ Writing?” Sullivan points out that some “taxpayers and political leaders have argued that by funding developmental programs we are, in effect, ‘rewarding incompetence’ ” and that “we shouldn’t have to ‘pay twice’ to educate the same student” (380). Opposition to these remedial college courses has become so strong that as of the publication of Sullivan’s article in 2003, at least three states—Florida, Missouri, and South Carolina—had banned developmental courses from all four-year post-secondary state education institutions (380). Many of those outside of the education field simply do not understand the complexities of fixing a problem as large as the issue of underprepared high school graduates and view college remedial courses as encouraging inadequate high school instruction instead of preventing it. Therefore, while college developmental courses might be a good solution for directly helping students once they reach college, the opposition to college remedial courses by policy makers has almost guaranteed that they will never be accepted as a long-term solution.

Remedial Classes in High School

Fortunately, proposals to enact high school remedial courses have been met with much less resistance. In the article “The California State University Early Assessment Program,” Knudson et al. examine the Expository Reading and Writing Course or ERWC, a remedial class for high school seniors offered in California (227). High school seniors are given the opportunity to take an ERWC if they do not pass the California State Universities’ Early Assessment Program: an optional additional fifteen questions and an essay at the end of the junior year California Standards Test English Language Arts (CST/ELA) section with the specific purpose of measuring whether students are ready for college-level work (Knudson et al. 228). According to Knudson et al., so far the results from the ERWC program have been positive. An early pilot study showed that after taking an ERWC course, ERWC students outperformed students who took regular senior year English courses on the CST/ELA (227). As these results were found both in urban and rural schools and in ERWC classes taught by teachers with varying degrees of experience, Knudson et al. conclude that the ERWC program is “robust across a range of schools and instructional settings” and may be replicable in other states (229, 230).

Still, the success of programs such as the EAP/ERWC depends strongly on how they are implemented and are not necessarily failure-proof. Schools planning on implementing remedial high school classes based on state standards must determine whether these standards accurately reflect college expectations, and this will involve lots of time, communication between college professors and high school administrators and teachers, and money. Knudson et al. argue that the success of programs such as the EAP/ERWC depends completely on adequate teacher training and teacher attitudes, and they caution that implementing remedial courses in high schools nationwide will have to involve a large-scale effort to retrain teachers (229). As a result, while remedial high school programs may be effective, the success of these programs may depend on the combination of too many factors to make them an easily implementable solution.

Refocus High School Classes

Lastly, one very popular solution to fixing the problems of underprepared college writers is to refocus high school English classes to be more like college English courses. In college professors D. R. Ransdell and Gregory R. Glau’s article “Articulation and Student Voices,” Ransdell and Glau summarize the results of their survey asking college students what suggestions they would make to improve high school student preparation for college-level writing (17). Unsurprisingly, one of the first suggestions that many college students made was that high school students should have to write more essays similar to those written in college (Ransdell and Glau 18). Ransdell and Glau also found that students recommended that high school teachers stop emphasizing the five-paragraph essay, assign harder assignments, encourage students to revise their papers more often, and grade papers in a more strenuous way in order to make high school classes more like college courses (19-20).

Like Ransdell and Glau, Doug Enders also surveyed students to find out what high school writing activities helped prepare them for college. In his article “Crossing the Divide,” Enders writes that “it isn’t surprising that over a third of my students identified writing practice as the activity that best prepared them for college” (63). Furthermore, like the students surveyed by Ransdell and Glau, the students surveyed by Enders also emphasized the importance of high school teachers evaluating students in clear and thorough ways and making sure that students understand how to edit and revise (64-65). These findings led Enders to suggest that high school teachers “provide abundant writing practice; give writing assignments that ask students to go beyond reporting and summarizing to analyze, develop, and interpret their own ideas as well as those of others…provide clear grading standards/criteria and thorough feedback…[and] give students opportunities to edit and revise their writing” to more adequately prepare them for college-level writing (67).

While the suggestions made by Ransdell and Glau and Enders are not particularly complex, they would require teachers to rethink how they are currently teaching their classes and to be more open to understanding how they can teach in a way that fits in with college-level standards. Furthermore, aligning high school classes with college classes would require a more standard understanding of the expectations of freshmen year college writing courses and an open dialogue between college professors and high school teachers. Like all of the other possible solutions, refocusing English classes to be more like college-level courses would require a large-scale national effort in order to be successful. However, given the scope of the problem and the sheer number of underprepared students, it’s clear that a large and dramatic change will be necessary to get America’s schools back on track.


The idea that nearly half of all high school graduates are writing at levels below college standards and almost three quarters are writing below the NAEP benchmark for proficient writers is more than an issue; it’s a crisis for the American education system (Knudson et al. 227; Kellogg and Whiteford 250). In Robert Rothman’s article, he points out that the U.S. ranked “15th among 20 major industrialized countries in the number of adults ages 25-34 with bachelor’s degrees” in 2011, and Rothman argues that this ranking has been directly influenced by the number of students that have been dropping out of college because they are unprepared (11).

Furthermore, graduating inadequately prepared writers from high schools not only negatively influences colleges (which are then forced to choose whether to offer remedial classes or let the burden of the students’ lack of proficiency fall on the students personally) but also impacts the students’ abilities to get jobs and become capable employees. In “Training Advanced Writing Skills,” Kellogg and Whiteford state that “According to the National Commission on Writing (2004), 35% of employers believe that only one third or fewer of their new hires have the writing skills most valued by their companies” (251). Kellogg and Whiteford go on to point out that the National Commission on Writing has estimated that $3.1 billion is being spent on remedial writing instruction yearly for American employees (251). Being able to write well is a skill that will impact a student’s chances of success throughout his or her life, and the lack of adequate writing instruction in American schools is not only impacting students and their abilities to get into college, get a job, and have job stability, but also the nation’s high schools, universities, colleges, businesses, and international education ranking.

While there has been much discussion about the inadequacy of students’ writing abilities and how educators should fix the problem, the nation still has a long way to go to implement changes that will be long-term, effective, and beneficial. Just as there may not be one single reason behind why students are not learning to write well, there is certainly no one single solution to fixing the problem, and educators and policy makers must understand that multiple changes must be made to reverse the current trend. Whether those changes involve altering state standards, enacting college or high school remedial courses, making high school English classes more similar to college courses, or none of the above, it’s clear that American policy makers and educators must start to give this issue the attention that it deserves. The United States simply can’t afford to graduate any more students without the necessary writing skills to succeed in college and in life, and America must change how students are taught to write in K-12th grades or face the harsh realities and consequences of another generation of Americans ill-equipped for the demands of the modern world.

Works Cited

  1. Enders, Doug. “Crossing the Divide: A Survey of the High School Activities That Best Prepared Students to Write in College.” Clearing House 75.2 (2001): 62-67. Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 11 June 2013.
  2. Kellogg, Ronald T., and Alison P. Whiteford. “Training Advanced Writing Skills: The Case For Deliberate Practice.” Educational Psychologist 44.4 (2009): 250-266. Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 11 June 2013.
  3. Knudson, Ruth E., Carol Zitzer-Comfort, Matthew Quirk, and Pia Alexander. “The California State University Early Assessment Program.” Clearing House 81.5 (2008): 227-231. Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 11 June 2013.
  4. Ransdell, D. R., and Gregory R. Glau. “Articulation And Student Voices: Eliminating The Perception That ‘High School English Doesn’t Teach You Nothing.’ ” English Journal 85.1 (1996): 17-21. JSTOR. Web. 11 June 2013.
  5. Rothman, Robert. “A Common Core of Readiness.” Educational Leadership 69.7 (2012): 11-15. Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 11 June 2013.
  6. Sullivan, Patrick. “What Is ‘College-Level’ Writing?” Teaching English In The Two-Year College 30.4 (2003): 374-390. NCTE. Web. 11 June 2013.
  7. United States of America. U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. Projections of Education Statistics to 2021. By William J. Hussar and Tabitha M. Bailey. 40th ed. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2013. Projections of Education Statistics to 2021. Institute of Education Sciences, Jan. 2013. Web. 11 June 2013.
  8. VanDeWeghe, Rick. “Writing Policy and School Reform.” English Journal 96.4 (2007): 94-98. JSTOR. Web. 11 June 2013.

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The Making of a College-Level Writer: An Examination of America’s Writing Crisis. (2021, Sep 13). Retrieved from

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