College Readiness: Laying Blame

The phrase college-ready has dominated discussions about K-12 education for the past decade. The familiar story goes something like this.

Today’s college students struggle because they are no longer prepared for college-level work … the way they used to be. Because of failing schools and incompetent teachers, a high school diploma no longer means much as a credential for college.

It’s a story that gets people’s blood boiling, and it’s used routinely by reformers, pundits, and politicians to show that public education is failing. It’s a compelling story … except for one thing–it’s wrong.

During the past forty years, high school students have graduated with roughly similar academic accomplishments, distributed across a spectrum, from high to low. In mathematics and English, this is confirmed by steady scores on the long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)–a test specifically designed to make comparisons not only across the nation but across time as well. For 17-year-olds, scores have held roughly steady in all categories. And while SAT and ACT scores are not a good way to make comparisons over time (because the composition of students taking the exam changes), they confirm this observation. Graduates are roughly the same–except, of course, a much higher percentage now graduate.

Yet enrollments in college remedial courses have increased, and anecdotally there seem to be more students struggling. How can that be?

The answer is simple: Over the past forty years, the proportion of high school graduates going to college has exploded. From 1970 until 2010, fall enrollment in post-secondary institutions increased 145 percent, from 8.6 million to 21 million, while the college-age population (ages 15-27) increased only 20 percent. If enrollment had merely kept pace with population, there would have been about 11 million enrollments in 2010–about half the actual number. And many of the additional enrollments are not traditional students, who move directly from high school to college, but rather part-time students, who attend college while working.

Should anyone be surprised that many of these extra 10 million students are struggling?

Should we blame K-12 schools for their struggles? Perhaps. Perhaps schools could have made courses more rigorous as they were dramatically increasing graduation rates. Perhaps they could have found novel ways to transform mediocre students into stunning scholars. Perhaps they could have increased academic accomplishment rather than merely maintaining it. And indeed, they must have done some of these things because since 1970, college degrees awarded–associate and bachelors–increased 2.5 times while full-time college enrollment increased only 2.2 times.

It seems far-fetched, however, to expect schools alone to double the proportion of students who succeed in college, and it is foolish to make schools responsible for struggling students who return to college years after graduating high school.

Colleges are partly to blame. Over the past decades, they brought in many more students in order to bring in many more tuition dollars. (Enrollments in private for-profit 2-year colleges increased a hundred-fold during this period, from fewer than 20 thousand to two million.) Many of those extra students did not meet previous standards, especially at 2-year schools where enrollments tripled.

But the blame falls mainly on society, which naively set out to increase (enormously!) the proportion of students who went to college without creating the necessary infrastructure to help them succeed. A meaningless term like college-ready demonstrates that naïveté. Given the great variety of post-secondary institutions, does anyone believe we can precisely define what it means to be ready for college? Schools play a key role in preparing students for college, but so do family, friends, and culture. Students are not widgets that can be treated with some intellectual coating to withstand the rigors of college. Education is not magic.

Colleges themselves determine their admissions standards, which often change over time, and colleges themselves can enforce those standards–if they want to. Around 1900, when enrollments similarly exploded, colleges faced a similar dilemma. They created new admissions standards along with institutions like the College Board, and they enforced those standards. Sometimes, they created their own preparatory schools to supplement what schools did. They worked with schools to find solutions rather than merely blaming them.

The good news is that things are nowhere near as dire as the pundits claim. In 1970, 11 percent of the population over 25 had a bachelor’s degree or higher; that figure is now 32 percent and climbing–nearly triple. Although many college students struggle, many students succeed. We can do even better if we work together–schools and colleges–rather than merely using this as one more opportunity to bash public education.

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Source: Black Voices Huffington Post
Link: College Readiness: Laying Blame