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Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success

reviewed by Mark Rohland - August 10, 2012

coverTitle: Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success
Author(s): Mandy Savitz-Romer & Suzanne M. Bouffard
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 161250132X, Pages: 256, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

We know that despite the increasing importance of a college degree, too many students fail to get to and through college. Educators have made insufficient headway in eliminating the barriers to college faced by today’s youth, particularly those from underrepresented groups such as first-generation college students and ethnic minorities. In Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success, Harvard researchers Mandy Savitz-Romer and Suzanne M. Bouffard suggest a new approach to this problem. They hold that current college-access practices overlook the importance of adolescent development in college preparation and persistence. They propose a significant shift of effort to a developmental approach that can help youth prepare for college more autonomously and thus become more likely to succeed. The book examines current efforts to get underrepresented students to and through college and envisions how a developmental approach would complement and transform those efforts.

The authors first review the problem of inequity: persistent gaps in college enrollment and completion between underrepresented youth and youth from traditionally college-going backgrounds. The authors address challenges to equity, not least “a lack of attention to the personal resources and capacities that actively engage young people” (p. 31) in preparing for college. These obstacles should be addressed, the authors contend, with developmental interventions that “meet students where they are and help them get to where they want to go” (p. 40). Such interventions should be based on educators’ understanding of key principles of adolescent development relevant to college-going. Education policymakers can promote developmental understanding by committing to policies that support preservice and inservice training in adolescent development as it relates to college-going. Developmental understanding allows for holistic assistance more likely to increase college access than traditional guidance based on information-giving. Using Vygotsky’s notion of scaffolding—support that helps youth develop on their own—the authors call for educators to scaffold development through an involvement that stimulates youth to find their own paths to the competencies needed for college success. 

The authors present solutions to the problem of inequity by examining developmental features pertinent to college-going. They turn first to identity and self-concept, advising educators to view students as engaged in a process of identity discovery and shaping. Many youth “do not already embody a college-going identity” and “may therefore not be living up to their academic potential or planning for their futures” (p. 67). The authors suggest meeting these youth wherever they are on the road to forming identity, and working to discover whether their future travels would benefit from college-going. They also suggest giving youth chances to try on the role of college-goer, as through dual enrollment courses, and to discuss with peers and adults how college might fit with their aspirations. Related to identity is self-concept: young persons’ beliefs about what they can accomplish. A college-going self-concept develops through youths’ believing in various futures and exploring how actions that include college-going might lead to those futures. To foster self-concept, the authors suggest helping students capitalize on existing strengths. Educators can help youth transfer strengths from one area to another more relevant to college-going. For instance, the discipline needed for athletic success can be transferred to academics; adult help in pointing out this strength and suggesting how to transfer it is essential. 

Savitz-Romer and Bouffard next examine the related developmental features of goal-setting and self-regulation. They discuss the advantages to college preparation of setting mastery goals based on learning over setting performance goals based on demonstrating ability to others. While both types of goal can motivate college-going, youth focused on mastery goals react more productively to adversity. Educators can scaffold development of mastery goals by providing opportunities to link current passions and future aspirations concretely, such as independent studies or internships. College-going students must be able to plan actions towards goals and to carry them out through self-regulation, which is underdeveloped in many college aspirants. The authors suggest that educators structure academic experiences to foster the self-regulatory skills needed for college, such as focus, delaying gratification, planning, and critical reflection on one’s plans and actions. 

Finally the authors examine the developmental value of peers and families. Peers who are successful in college preparation can be role models to youth. Such peer influence can work in more ways today than ever before, as social media permeate peer relationships. Educators can scaffold positive peer influences through experiences such as collaborative learning projects. Families can also have positive effects by supporting college plans and providing an environment that values mastery goals. Family involvement in homework has been shown to relate to improved academic outcomes, and the authors suggest that family involvement can similarly benefit college preparation. To help families connect with youths’ college-going efforts, educators can reach out to families as partners in planning and leading events for their young relatives.

On the whole, this is a persuasive book that should be required reading for those interested in new ways of improving college access. One fault deserves mention. Though they conscientiously cite and explain relevant development research, the authors lack evidence of positive effects from applying developmental understanding to college-access efforts. To be fair, they don’t claim to have such evidence, and logic plausibly substitutes for it. For instance, as mentioned, they point out that family involvement in homework relates positively to student efforts that lead to academic achievement. Then they reasonably assert that while they “don’t know of any studies that have specifically followed this chain of events to college enrollment and success,” nevertheless “this is a logical next step” (p. 193). Readers might agree with such logical connections but be reluctant to adopt the proposed changes without empirical evidence to support the reasoning, which might prove to be too optimistic.

Counterbalancing this evidential fault are the book’s many enlightening case examples and sensible suggestions for practice. Especially valuable are suggestions for helping students transfer nonacademic strengths to college-going efforts. However well educators know students’ strengths, they tend to focus on academic ability, thus risking neglect of the personal assets that can be brought to bear on academic problems. Also valuable is the challenge to educators, posed throughout the book, to think more about students as developing selves and to interact with them more on matters that have importance beyond the classroom. This challenge is likely to inspire in readers the critical questioning of practice that is necessary for effective change. What can educators give underrepresented youth, beyond academic enrichment and college information, to help them succeed? The answers that Savitz-Romer and Bouffard provide will give readers committed to equitable college-going much to think about and to transfer to their own work. 

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 10, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16845, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 10:47:10 AM

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About the Author
  • Mark Rohland
    Temple University
    E-mail Author
    MARK ROHLAND is an academic advisor in the College of Liberal Arts at Temple University. He has been a college English teacher and an editor and writer of education research for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory at Temple and for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written and edited publications on many aspects of K12 education, including evidence-based research, the school-to-work movement, and teacher professional development. He is currently researching the effects of strengths-based college advising on academic outcomes.
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