I graded 37 essays this week. Their quality varied from abysmal to fantastic. Still, there was one important characteristic these essays shared: they were all original. Not a single student tried to plagiarize. It is obvious that they did what I asked and abstained from opening their Internet browser the entire time they were writing their essays. The difference between these juniors and seniors on the one hand and the kind of students we get in our freshman classes on the other couldn't be more glaring. Sometimes, as many as 60% of first-year students hand in plagiarized work.
I have written before about the extremely low graduation rates at my university. We enroll a huge percentage of students who shouldn't be in college at all and then both professors and students themselves suffer through their freshman year. These are the kids who don't know the names of continents, don't know which countries border the United States, and don't even consider the possibility that a written assignment can be written rather than copied from the Internet. These students literally have zero cultural capital, which is something that cannot be remedied during the first semester in college. (Here you can find a great post that explains what is meant by the term "cultural capital.") Before their first year in college is over, they drop out and we are left with students who can and will benefit from a university education.
We offer freshman seminars to our students. These seminars are supposed to prepare them to be in college. Next semester (in the Fall) I will be teaching such a course for the first time. I hope that I will be able to salvage a few of the students from dropping out. Many, however, cannot be helped even by the best course in the universe. The cultural capital is simply not there. Those who believe that "Africa is a country in Latin America" cannot be salvaged.