As recently as the 1980s, only about one-half of all high school graduates went on to college. And that was fine—students with a high school diploma had many good career options open to them.
Today, things are different. Because the rapid pace of technological and economic change has transformed the workplace, today's students need far more knowledge and skills than before to compete and thrive. In most cases, that means a college degree.
Unfortunately, even those students who aim toward higher education—who take responsibility for their learning by working hard and completing their assignments—too often find themselves woefully unprepared for college. That's the conclusion of Diploma to Nowhere, a recent report from Strong American Schools, a nonpartisan group supported by the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education on college enrollment and completion rates suggest the scope of the problem: Only 56 percent of students who enroll in four-year colleges receive a degree within six years, and only one-third of students who enroll in two-year colleges finish within three years.
Another measure of lack of college preparation is the proportion of students who find themselves in remedial college courses, often because they fail a readiness exam after they have been accepted. According to 2004 Department of Education data, 43 percent of all students attending public two-year institutions and 29 percent of those attending public four-year colleges said they had been required to enroll in a remedial course. And these data, the report points out, do not include the approximately 1.2 million students who dropped out of college that year.
The costs of entering college unprepared are high. Students who take remedial courses in college are far more likely to drop out than those who do not. Only 19 percent of students in the high school class of 1992 who took three or four remedial courses in college had received a bachelor's degree by 2000.
To gain insight into the experiences of students who enroll in remedial college courses, the authors of Diploma to Nowhere surveyed 688 of these students in spring 2008. The most surprising finding of this opinion poll, one that "should cause our nation's leadership a great deal of concern," was that even the most motivated high school students find themselves in remedial courses. For example,
- 95 percent of the students in remedial courses reported that they did all or most of the work that was asked of them in high school.
- Most of the students said that they had taken the most challenging courses offered by their high school.
- Most of the students had earned As and Bs in high school; nearly four of five students listed a grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 or higher.
- Nearly 80 percent thought that they were ready for college when they graduated from high school.
As the report sums up the situation:
In many ways, our education system has been perpetrating a terrible fraud, because the high school graduates who require college remediation are often the ones who did everything that was expected of them. They went to good schools, they posted high GPAs, and they took difficult classes. Teachers and parents told them that they would do well in college. But when these students enrolled at their local flagship university or nearby community college, they failed the math placement test. [Or] they were shunted into remedial reading.
Looking back, students responding to the opinion poll wished that their high schools had challenged them more. About 40 percent said that their high schools had done a poor or fair job of helping them understand what knowledge and skills they needed for college success. Almost 60 percent said that their high school classes were easy, and one-half said that they were bored almost all the time or most of the time in high school. Eighty percent said that they would have worked harder if their high school had set higher expectations.
These findings, says the report, demonstrate the need for more engaging and rigorous instruction in high school. In addition, high schools should provide direct and focused remediation for high school students who need it. And perhaps most important, secondary and postsecondary schools should collaborate to align standards and create a more efficient K–16 pipeline to college graduation.
Diploma to Nowhere is available on the Strong American Schools Web site at
Deborah Perkins-Gough is Senior Editor,
Educational Leadership; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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