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Education Reporter

Many Ill-Prepared College Students Never Earn Diplomas
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Fewer than 60% of students attending four-year colleges graduate, even within a generous time frame of six years, according to a report issued by the American Enterprise Institute earlier this year. When the very- to most-competitive schools are not included in the average, the graduation rate of the remaining schools — which matriculate more than half of all students — drops to below 50%. Noncompetitive schools average only a 34% graduation rate, with many community colleges and other schools attracting low-income students falling far below even that dismal rate.

In his first speech to Congress last February, President Obama named low college graduation rates as a threat to American competitiveness and called for improvement. "By 2020," he declared, "American will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." A short time later, the president's first budget proposal included a new line item for $2.5 billion to increase college completion rates. The current rate of return for taxpayers is disappointing, to say the least. According to a 2006 assessment by the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 50 cents of every dollar spent on community colleges goes toward classes and activities that never produce a degree.

One reason for the deplorable graduation rate is that a large proportion of students enter college with inadequate reading and math skills. Before they can successfully complete freshman-level classes, these students must spend time and tuition dollars completing remedial English and math courses that do not earn them credit towards a college degree.

A 2004 Department of Education study reported that 42% of freshman needed remedial classes. While it is common for nontraditional students who haven't been in a classroom for years to require remediation, the same study noted that students 21-years-old or younger constituted 80% of remedial class enrollment. Simply put, many high schools are not preparing students for college-level coursework. As an example, a 2008 report found that 90% of 200 City University of New York students taking their first college math class could not solve a simple algebra problem.

Surprisingly, most of the discussion about how to fix the problem centers on changing the colleges and universities rather than strengthening high school coursework. The Charles Houston Center for the Study of the Black Experience in Education devotes one sentence in its four-page 2009 policy brief to improving K-12 education "to reduce the demand for remedial courses." Most of their report and recommendations focus on improving remedial courses and using them to "increase access to postsecondary education for underserved groups." The Center is, in effect, tasking higher ed to do the job that the K-12 educational system should have done.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation notes the changing demographics of college students and blames post-secondary institutions for not responding to "their students' increasingly complex and diverse needs." The Foundation's "Postsecondary Success Initiative" seems to advocate allowing students to bypass remedial courses and enroll directly into entry-level credit courses as a way to reduce attrition. The report lacks detail, but "revamping 'gatekeeper' courses such as remedial math and reading" and "supporting credit accumulation" seems to mean giving college credit to students for courses that previously were required to be completed in high school.

"Which is better for higher education institutions and the United States?" ask Professor of Education Reform Sandra Stotsky and policy advisor Ze'ev Wurman in an article for EducationNews.org (10-12-09): "Placing mathematically unqualified freshman in credit courses in colleges and universities, or strengthening high school coursework to prepare more mathematically qualified freshman for them? In a rational world, the question wouldn't even be asked."

Stotsky and Wurman surmise that the push to reduce post-secondary admission requirements stems from a "fear that raising high school expectations would increase the dropout rate." They argue for better motivating high-school students with higher expectations to keep students engaged in high school studies. Indeed, the pair contended, in 2008 the state of Massachusetts "meaningfully increased" high school academic standards while also reducing their dropout rate by 12%.

Stotsky and Wurman also recommend more honest feedback for high-school students about the quality of their academic work and their readiness for college studies. Inflated high school grades don't help college freshman pass entry-level college courses. The reform advocates cite 2008 data showing that 57% of California students who had high-school grade point averages over 3.1 nonetheless required remediation in math and/or English during their freshman year of college.

Furthermore, California high school juniors who participated in an Early Assessment Program (EAP) to measure academic readiness for college-level work were less likely to need remedial classes at California State University campuses. The 2009 study concluded that "Rather than discouraging poorly prepared students from applying to Sacramento State, EAP appears to lead students to increase their academic preparation while still in high school."

Though the California EAP students rose to meet the higher expectations communicated to them, many teachers do not seem to share a confidence in student abilities. Less than one-third of teachers surveyed by Civic Enterprises in 2009 believed that "schools should expect all students to meet high academic standards and to graduate with the skills to do college-level work, and provide extra support to struggling students to help them meet those standards." (EducationNews.org, 10-12-09)

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