75 Percent of Freshmen Not Ready for College
Most students need remedial classes. Whose fault is that?
American Interest editor-at-large Walter Russell Mead points to a report showing 75 percent of entering freshman aren’t ready for college.
Three out of four graduates aren’t fully prepared for college and likely need to take at least one remedial class, according to the latest annual survey from the nonprofit testing organization ACT, which measured half of the nation’s high school seniors in English, math, reading and science proficiency.
Only 25 percent cleared all of ACT’s college preparedness benchmarks, while 75 percent likely will spend part of their freshman year brushing up on high-school-level course work. The 2011 class is best prepared for college-level English courses, with 73 percent clearing the bar in that subject. Students are most likely to need remedial classes in science and math, the report says.
Although the results are slightly better than last year — 24 percent of the 2010 graduating class met ACT’s four thresholds — the report highlights a glaring disconnect between finishing high school and being ready for the academic challenges of college.
These ACT results are another sign that states need to raise their academic standards and commit to education reforms that accelerate student achievement,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.
The truth is that if American high schools (and middle and elementary schools) were doing their jobs, many students could get all the formal education they need in 12 years.
In any case, we need to move from a ‘time based’ to a competency based educational system. You don’t get a high school diploma because you have spent 12 years in classrooms; you get a high school diploma because you have demonstrated a certain level of core competence.
A fortiori for BA, MA and JD and PhD degrees. American students could learn much more in much less time — and at much less cost — than they now do. Making this move quickly and effectively is one of the keys to American success in the new century.
All this assumes that the primary job of high school is to prepare students for college and that all students are college material. Neither is true.
That a high school diploma should certify possession of a set of skills, rather than a dozen years of attendance, is a given. Indeed, most states have, over the last quarter century or so, moved toward standardized testing as a barrier to moving on to the next grade and to graduation. It’s possible in many states to be a straight-A student and not be permitted to graduate unless and until passing a standardized graduation exam.
While most agree, then, that a high school diploma should mean something, there’s much less agreement as to what it should mean. Surely, the ability to do basic arithmetic, read at a certain level, write a coherent paragraph should be expected of anyone as a minimum standard, and have some knowledge of basic science. But readiness to jump into a college calculus course and succeed? Basic facility with a foreign language? The ability to write a complicated expository essay? It’s possible to succeed in the white collar professional world without these skills; why should we demand it of people going off to work in the trades?
In the mid-1980s, just as I was finishing up high school, dual-tracking for college bound students began to take hold everywhere. Students who had the potential to go on to college were afforded the option to take Advanced Placement courses specifically aimed at preparing them for the rigors of a university education while those headed to trade school or straight to the work force took course aimed at teaching various life skills. It’s certainly reasonable, then, to expect those who graduate with AP or other college preparatory diplomas to be ready for college.
The burden of weeding out students who aren’t ready for college, then, should be on the colleges themselves. The admissions offices should be able to successfully pre-screen for success; if they can’t, they’re a colossal waste of resources. And four-year universities simply shouldn’t have remedial courses. Students struggling with their coursework should have tutoring available to them. If they still can’t cut the mustard, they should be sent off to community college or the work force.
As to speeding up the process so that students learn more in less time, I’m all for it. There’s no reason an undergraduate degree should take more than three years unless the student is working his way through school and can’t devote full-time energy. A master’s degree should take a year and a JD two. The PhD has gone from a two- or three-year program as recently as the late 1960s to a five- to seven-year program almost solely on the basis of keeping grad students around as cheap labor. Accelerating the process would do wonders in curtailing the skyrocketing cost of higher education. I’m not sure, though, how it would help with the problem of students who aren’t ready for college.
via Steven Metz
I am not sure either, but I suspect “Parental involvement” would be close to the top.
A lot of students could attain the high school skill set by 8th or 9th grade. But why would a school want to allow that? It would mean violating the faux egalitarianism of time-based systems. It would also mean fewer teachers and less money going into school systems. Parents would object, too, because let’s face it: a major function of school is to babysit for working parents.
You didn’t address the core reason behind the “too many college students aren’t ready for college” problem until the end of your post, James, and then only obliquely:
If colleges were to admit only students who were actually prepared to attend college, it would severely limit their revenue. The same is true if people who don’t need college degrees to do their jobs don’t go to college.
Just like every other business, colleges want to expand, which increases all sorts of good things. The increase in bad things (students and their parents wasting money on unneeded schooling and the demand for instructors increasing the number, and likely the percentage, of incompetent teachers, for example) is almost always ignored.
I did, and spent my 3 yrs in HS bored out of my skull and hating every minute of it. My senior yr, the only classes I didn’t skip were the ones I had a test in. I did not fail a single class. By the time I graduated, college was just not an option.
Boyd, while I completely agree with what you wrote, I want to point out that the vast majority of Universities, Colleges, and Institutes are all “Not-for-Profit” entities (and therefore get a number of related benefits, in particular tax-exemptions).
Just like every other business,
The vast majority of colleges are not businesses at all. And the ones that are for-profit businesses provide their graduates with little to help them get a better job than they could have with no degree.
colleges want to expand
While it’s true that some schools will take any and all students they can get, colleges that don’t have open admissions want to expand their enrollment of qualified students. They aren’t interested in accepting just anyone, because their rankings and reputation are significantly influenced by things like retention and graduation rates. Open admission schools have lower such rates than more selective schools, and as such they are less desirable for quality students.
So, you’re right, colleges want to expand, but it’s not so simple as you make it sound.
Hasn’t the increase in the cost of college education very closely tracked in the increase in spending for college educations?
This is just basic sense. If the price at which the number of students enrolling matches the number of positions is $10k/year and the government offers to subsidize $8k of that, that means the market clearing price is now $18k/year, not $2k/year.
Hell, given that liberal Democrats took over public K-12 education decades ago I’m surprised that only 75% of college freshman are not actually ready for college. That seems low to me. I would’ve estimated around 90% need remedial courses.
Ah, the non-profit fallacy. All not-for-profit means is that there is no return to investors. Any excess over costs are used to expand pay and perks for management and permanent staff. If a careful balance between pay and expansion of the enterprise is maintained, few complain and the expansion justifies ever increasing pay and perks for management and permanent staff.
@Boyd to avoid confusing those with bias against profits, I would suggest substituting the term “enterprise” for “business.”
My own experience with my stepson suggests that colleges will indeed accept students who are clearly not qualified to increase the body count and secure whatever additional funding comes with it.
My stepson, who had abysmal SAT scores and middling grades, got into a major state university even though he was in the very lowest 25 percent of students accepted. Why? He was out of state and they could charge him out the wazoo for out-of-state tuition. At least one-quarter of the entering freshman class was out-of-state. Predictably, my stepson lasted all of a year before he dropped out and went to an easier in-state college.
College is big business and lots of students should not be there as they are not prepared for the work. We would be much better off with some kind of competency based education system, which recognized that not all students are college materials and prepared those students for other types of work.
I think the problems are much more basic than this. Can an average person perform the average job? What amount of education is required for that? What should it pay? How much should the education cost?
When the average job requires more education than the average person can master and the education costs more than he or she can pay, we’re going in the wrong direction.
Historically, a percentage of the victims of a liberal education have been able to survive relatively unscathed. Is that percentage decreasing? It would be of value to know the percentage of freshmen in past decades who were unprepared for college.
It should be noted that one of the difficulties in evaluating the value of a college education is separating out those graduates who would have been successful and gained good salaries even without the benefit of college. And determining whether their vacation on the quad sped their achievement of success by increasing their ability to learn.
This, I think, is at the root of many of the higher education problems we (mostly James) have written about here at OTB, whether its this issue or the “higher education bubble”, or the phenomenon of a bunch of underemployed college graduates.
The problem is that no parent is going to stand for a teacher or guidance counselor who suggests that maybe little Johnny or Jane (although I guess today it would be little Dylan or Brittney) might want to consider something other than going to college.
The average job doesn’t require more education that most can muster. But many do require more credentials than many could achieve if traditional standards were held, nor can afford. For the bulk of jobs requiring an undergraduate degree, the degree requirement is a filter and a prestige symbol for the enterprise.
Does the average patrolman need a college degree? No, but most departments require a degree to become an officer these days. Mostly because it permits departments to avoid some of the risks inherent in hiring by cutting out some of the riskier applicants even at the expense of losing some good applicants who’ve not attended college.
I imagine other states have programs similar to MN. My 17 year old son will to to college with 50 credits earned through AP and courses at our local community college at state expense. Our recently passed educ. bill includes college scholarship money for students who graduate high school early. I don’t know what this means in the big picture it just seemed relevant. I do agree with James that 4 year universities should have tougher admission standards, as my experience as a parent and teacher is that many students are slackers.
I think Reynolds’ observation hits it pretty much on the head.
“The burden of weeding out students who aren’t ready for college, then, should be on the colleges themselves. The admissions offices should be able to successfully pre-screen for success; if they can’t, they’re a colossal waste of resources. And four-year universities simply shouldn’t have remedial courses. Students struggling with their coursework should have tutoring available to them. If they still can’t cut the mustard, they should be sent off to community college or the work force.”
Its called government subsidy. Loans, grants the, ehem, “student-athlete” scholerships. More money and power for the profs and staff. Any wonder college profs tend to be liberal?
Oh, I forgot. You described the facts wrong from the original report:
American Interest editor-at-large Walter Russell Mead points to a report showing 75 percent of entering freshman aren’t ready for college.
75% of high school graduates are unprepared, not 75% of college freshman. Not all high school graduates go on to college.
A little under 70% of high school graduates go on to some form of higher education. About 60% of those go to four-year universities, while the rest go to community colleges and technical schools.
We have no way of knowing how many of those students going to some college, or to four-year universities, include the 25% deemed as ready, and how many are from the unprepared 75%. But we do know that only about 41% of high school graduates go on to four-year universities. What percentage of those are unprepared? My guess is it is far below the 75% mark, as most of those students either don’t go to college or go to a CC or technical college.
Ahh @Drew, spoken like a true partisan who has absolutely no experience with modern private, not-for-profit college/graduate level schools.
First of all, the majority of students at Private NfP uni’s are on a mix of loans — some government, but many private. Next, the vast majority of that money is going to pay for facility upkeep and staffing rather than profs. The simple fact of the matter is that high-ed administration has been the fastest growing part of the university (to the point that Higher Ed Management is now a legit area of study).
And I can tell you, from my experience, that the majority of people in the management position at most private colleges are not the traditional “liberals” one imagines. In fact, the rise of academic managers has often been tied to “controlling” the liberals on campus.
Ironically, this has typically been accompanied by the idea of running a college like a “business” which often leads to a caveat emptor attitude which is “if they can pay for the education — through whatever means — what right have we to deny it to them.”
And as endowment have been decimated through market losses and poor investing, and college giving at lower tier national and regional colleges has dropped, that means that enrollment has to be maintained in order to keep the colleges (and the management structures running).
The liberal dominance of university culture, at least when it comes to the running of most universities (outside of the Elite schools) is really a thing of the past.
I disagree that “All this assumes that the primary job of high school is to prepare students for college and that all students are college material.” The majority of students who go to college were in the college prep program at high school. The essay assumes that college prep programs should prepare students for college.
Today is back-to-school day here in Marin County, so I’ve just dropped my son off for 9th grade after he’s sat out almost all the last 3 years. It was his decision to go back, and his approach seemed logical to me: he’s going back purely for the social aspects.
He wants to be entrepreneur in the computer/tech field. He refuses to take AP courses, and won’t take the offered “extra period,” because he doesn’t see the point in busting ass to get into Stanford when he can phone it in and get into a state college, should he decide to go that way at all.
He’s far better informed on issues of the day than the average high schooler, is widely knowledgeable (within limits of course) about history, uses English quite well, and what he doesn’t know he learns with a few key strokes. From his point of view HS is a waste of time, a sort of archaic, irrelevant place useful only for its large population of exotic creatures called “girls.”
I can’t really argue with him. Girls were definitely the best part of school. Or would have been if they’d paid any attention to me.
Just another “social justice” success story, I guess.
Back in 1993, almost 20 years after receiving my first B.A. degree, I returned to college to study printing management. As an older and self-supporting student, I was on a compressed schedule and wanted only to take courses that I felt had a specific benefit to myself. Unfortunately, there was a college requirement that I take an English Composition class and I preferred to take a computer course instead. So, off I went to see my guidance counselor.
When I arrived, I laid out my case and presented samples of my previous academic and professional writings. Regrettably, my counselor remained not only unconvinced but also somewhat didactic. “Well, you know” she began, “we cannot let you graduate from Cal Poly not knowing how to write.”
“Well, then,” I replied, “things have changed since the last time I went to college. Back then, you didn’t get into college not knowing how to write.”
You mean…. those weren’t my children???? What the heck did I feed and house them for all those years for then????
A bit more detail on your premise of ever expanding college costs due.
It isn’t cheap keeping university presidents and professors in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed.
Perhaps tenured, full professors. But the for the majority of individuals teach on the majority of college campuses — associate professors, adjunct faculty, post-docs, and graduate teaching assistants — these folks are no where near pulling down the salaries you imagine.
Now as for the administrators — that’s a slightly different story.
Nor are they in charge of deciding the admissions policies of the school, and other similar policies. You have to admit, Matt, that the President of a university with 30,000 students has a higher salary and nicer digs than the President of a college with 3000 students, right?
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not against fair compensation of administrators. And as the job responsibilities increase, so should the amount of compensation (this isn’t necessarily the case with professors).
My beef is with the growth of middle management at colleges and the fact that much of that recent growth has not been tied to much related to academics.
Additionally, I should note that as campuses embrace the college as corporation model, there has also been a disproportionate growth in compensation packages for top administrators. As with CEO’s there’s been a move to “we can’t attract the top flight administrative talent without paying top flight prices.” So… at least in the north east, it’s not unheard of for those two President’s salaries to be not all that far apart from each other.
Ultimately, what I’d like to see is an end to the “not-for-profit” charade… for example a “campus as corporation” should pay property taxes.
No one is suggesting, ’75 Percent of Freshmen Not Ready for College’, is something new, right?
BTW Boyd, generally speaking, those policies — once set, rarely change or change incrementally at best. In recent years, the perhaps the most important function of a College President is to grow a school’s endowment and represent the school off campus.
And, while professors are not typically responsible for setting the final policies, Assistant, Associate, Full Professors, and often Visiting Professors, are often expected to serve on the committees that propose and review the policies and, at least at the graduate level, often chose the students who are admitted to the schools.
Beyond all of that, again, while I may disagree with their decisions, I don’t have a huge beef with the idea of academic and policy administrators. It’s once colleges get into the business of, say, building upscale apartments (that house non-students), retirement communities, and outdoor malls — with an associated “business development” administrative wing (not related to chasing research patents — where my problems start.
You are correct. I should have qualified it as “tenured” professors.
It is somewhat amusing to see academia enslave itself. Sure there is cash now as the government takes over but once they have control, our find socialist professors will toil under the lash of bureaucrat control.
Here, Milton Friedman is discussing the government takeover of medicine but substitute the university for medicine, professor for doctor and student for patient, you’ll see the future of higher education. Once the government controls all student loans, how long before they start dictating prices, levels of service and offerings as measures to control the burden placed upon students?
Even there, there is a big difference between what an Associate and a Full Professor bring home. And there are fewer and fewer Full Professors now adays.
Here is again where you lose credibility JKB – namely imagining that a college isn’t already a Bureaucracy par excellance. I’ve worked in both corporations and now at two Universities (and studied at a third). The current college environment is as, if not more bureaucratic, than anything I encountered in the business world.
The socialist university you keep describing really hasn’t existed in decades (at least not outside a select few liberal arts schools). But don’t let that stop you from claiming otherwise.
As far as the “government take over” sorry, don’t see it happening. But feel free to continue believing that it’s just around the corner.
What’s the Plan B in the 99% case he’s not the next Bill Gates?
Some maybe, but I’m not sure that ‘a lot’ is accurate – enough students have problems with fairly simple algebra and geometry that I’m not sure that many could handle calculus and trig by 8th or 9th grade (I recall most having problems with them even in grade 12), and I remember a lot of students having problems with Newtonian physics (even simple projectile motion) and circuits.
But I agree the problem is that ‘one drummer fits everyone’ syndrome: some kids can handle calculus, trig, etc by grade 8 (a few geniuses by grade 4 from what I’ve read), some won’t be ready for it even at grade 12. Sending everyone together as a single class probably made more sense in the past, because of resource limitations.
Ever since I was in school, it was “go to college” advice for everyone, so the school systems in this country spend a majority of time and resources treating every student as college prospects.
Is this realistic?
If you haven’t steered him to them, you kid sounds like he could benefit from reading Paul Graham’s essays. Many have to do with tech entrepreneurship, which is how he made his money and now runs a group to help startups. This one is targeted right at high school kids.
Well, first of all, we are an Apple family so it would be Steve Jobs.
I assume his back-up plan is to live off me until I die in the traces and he can collect my insurance.
Al of which are far better plans than I ever made.
@JKB: Thanks for that, I just forwarded it to him.
There is an error here. It stems from treating the “75% unready” as a status quo issue, one which the high schools are unsuited, and surprised, to face.
That’s not the critical issue at all. This story is really about the decline in quality of high school graduates. It is not about a surprise increase in college entrance requirements.
James, and many of you above, have hit the other problem. That is that the college entrance net has broadened a bit, and colleges have been indiscriminate about who they let it.
I am very big on reinventing higher education, but I don’t think we should let lower off the hook. This shouldn’t be another one of those “of course Europe or Asia do better” failures to even try.
Just to highlight, when you are “about average” and “Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.” Then the “average” isn’t really a win.
To a competitive sort, “14th in reading” means that 13 countries are kicking our ass.
Kind of a rant, but with data:
James, I notice you have not bothered to correct your headline or the text to reflect that the study actually looks at high school graduates, not college freshmen. As I noted days ago, only about 68% of high school grads go on to attend college, so there is no possible way that 75% of college freshmen are unprepared according to the study’s metrics.
This is not an insignificant detail.
@JKB: Thanks for sharing Paul Graham. I had not come across his stuff. I was really impressed with what I saw in a quick scan of that article
As long as colleges are profit making enterprises with a non-profit veneer, they will always “expand their missions” to bring education to those unprepared for it. Like any organism, a college will grow as long as its food supply is unrestricted. In the case of a college, it is the availability of tuition dollars that feeds the school. If colleges paid the opportunity risk of insuring their graduates would get jobs upon graduation, there would be a lot less students registered in schools – except for those schools who cater to those people with excess money who could afford a classic liberal arts degree for the sake of being “well rounded”.
Unlike Fiona’s stepson, I was an academic overachiever and graduated 3 years early from HS. (The schools did nothing for my social education – that’s a different issue that should be discussed in a different thread.) Yet, when I eventually applied for Masters programs (at two periods in my life, 25 years apart), both schools accepted me with mediocre grades in my Bachelors program. All they wanted was my cold hard cash….
I agree with Fiona – we need a competency based education program to graduate from public education *and* we need private financing of college to keep the higher education system in check. Most students do not need a classic liberal arts education – they need career skills. And for that, we need businesses to get skin in the education game and take responsibility to train Americans for jobs that businesses expect they will need to fill in the future. Does it take “that much” to train people to be flexible enough thinkers to fit in to most corporate environments, and be trainable in job specifics as those skillsets are needed?????
When comparisons are made between US and schools of foreign countries, many factors are left out, not the least of which is the great respect that teachers hold in those countries. Compare that to the way they are treated in this country, not only by students, but parents, administrators, politicians, judges, and bureaucrats. As one educator put it, in some states teachers are treated the same as unskilled labor.
I think the author has the wrong idea about public education in America. It is no longer to prepare people for the workforce or to be good citizens. Public schools are for socialization not education.
Hope that’s not a shock to anyone. It’s the truth. Students learn to submit to authority by carrying clear plastic book bags and passing through metal detectors. “Teachers” are too often affirmative action hires that could not compete in the job market except for being a member of the priviliged racial minority. Sex ed and acceptance of homosexual rights and culture are crammed down kids’ throats regardless of what parents want.
If you want your children to have a worthwhile education and grow up to be good people then homeschool them or send them to private school. Otherwise you’ll take whatever end product your county school system turns out and if that’s a pregnant dropout or a cultural illiterate then that’s what you’re stuck with.
I don’t disagree with you that there should be some adjustment from time-based to skill- based. But I do disagree – strongly – with a blanket statement that a Masters should take a year and a PhD should take 2-3. ANd then you mention a JD. You’re completely ignoring science, which is not atypical from a liberal arts bias. You can’t take organic chemistry until you take basic chemistry. You can’t take calculus until you’ve had algebra, trig, and geometry. You can’t do a master’s degree in a year if you need to have a full year of experiments before data analysis, and let’s not forget the classes you have to take along with doing your field work or lab experimentation. And I’d like a medical doctor who followed a complete progression of classes, internship, and residency, please. There’s probably some compression that could happen. But don’t equate the time it takes for a master of science or a PhD in science with whipping through in a year.