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Don't Push Uneducated Students into Colleges

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Message Patrick Mattimore

As the new Administration charts its education agenda, voices will inevitably demand that the U.S. enroll greater numbers of students in college. Buttressing those demands are the authors of two recent reports who have called for greater student access to college and suggested that America must also do a better job insuring that students complete college. Should we prioritize getting more students to and through college? Probably not.
Late last year, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education released a report, "Measuring Up 2008".  Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown economist whose specialty is educational issues, was among a panelist of educators invited to discuss the report. In line with the report, Professor Carnevale said that states were dodging their responsibility to get students to college. He claimed that there were 600,000 students who completed high school each year in the top half of their class who nevertheless failed to earn at least a two-year degree in the eight years following their completion of high school.

In a recent critique published in the Teacher's College Record, Dr. Carnevale was critical of a new book "Real Education," written by Charles Murray. Dr. Murray suggested that too many students were already going to college. Professor Carnevale countered that Dr. Murray's view represented "a fundamental violation of the more generous tendencies of the American creed." Dr. Carnevale asserted that a BA is the "gatekeeper to middle class status."

The second recently published report, "Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future," was released by the Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education," a group supported by the College Board. That group hopes that 55% of young Americans between now and the year 2025 will leave school with a community college degree or a more advanced degree.  Currently, only about 40 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have attained some type of post secondary degree or credential, according to the report's authors.

While Dr. Murray's suggestion that only 10-20% of students should go to college is on the low side, recommendations by Dr. Carnevale and the authors of the "Coming to Our Senses" report to markedly increase college access and graduation rates are unrealistic. They are unrealistic because we are already graduating too many students from high school incapable of doing college-level work. Until we beef up our K-12 services, we should not send any more under-prepared students to college.  

Many of the students now going to college are under-prepared, judging not only by low college-graduation rates, but by entrance evaluations. For example,  ACT which publishes a college readiness report each year, based on results of its nationally standardized test taken primarily by students planning to attend 4-year colleges, concluded in 2008, that less than one quarter of students met all the college readiness benchmarks.  

In California, which graduates the largest numbers of high school students each year, the top third of the state's public school graduates qualify for admission to one of the California State University campuses. Nevertheless, a majority- nearly 60% annually- are required to take either remedial English or math courses, or both, as a condition of admission.

Getting more students into college and assuring that they graduate is an admirable goal. However, that's putting an unloaded cart before a malnourished horse. We don't need to send more students to college today or anytime soon; we need to make sure that the students we do send are ready to do college work.

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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