Sunday, September 03, 2006

Making It to and through College

Diana Jean Schemo wrote a fascinating story in Saturday's New York Times, "At 2-Year Colleges, Student Eager but Unready." The problem:

As the new school year begins, the nation’s 1,200 community colleges are being deluged with hundreds of thousands of students unprepared for college-level work.

Though higher education is now a near-universal aspiration, researchers suggest that close to half the students who enter college need remedial courses.

That's an astounding figure. What was high school if not the place to get the basic skills? The article continues:

Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford professor who was a co-author of a report on the gap between aspirations and college attainment, said that 73 percent of students entering community colleges hoped to earn four-year degrees, but that only 22 percent had done so after six years.

“You can get into school,” Professor Kirst said. “That’s not a problem. But you can’t succeed.’’

Nearly half the 14.7 million undergraduates at two- and four-year institutions never receive degrees. The deficiencies turn up not just in math, science and engineering, areas in which a growing chorus warns of difficulties in the face of global competition, but also in the basics of reading and writing.

I could understand the need for remedial work if I thought 4-year college admissions were extremely competitive. They certainly are at the most selective institutions, with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton all around 10 percent acceptance rates. But this is not universally true. A quick look at the US News rankings (here's a recent summary) shows that even the top public universities are likely to admit half or more of those who apply.

Low standards--and our high school graduates are still not meeting them. This is a crisis that should be getting more attention.


Carey Heckman '76 said...

FYI, Mike Kirst graduated from Dartmouth in 1951 and from Tuck in 1952. He is a leading authority in K-12 education.

Carey Heckman said...

My bad. I meant 1961 from Dartmouth, 1962 from Tuck.

Tom C said...

Well, where to begin? More college spaces than ever; more people applying to college than ever, from lower and lower levels of scholastic achievement than ever...and we are somehow surprised that many of these people in many of these spaces are not as "prepared" as the imagined and fondly remembered undergraduate of yore? Oh, puh-leeze.

I don't get it...aren't CCs supposed to be a "prep" college that takes almost all of the bottom-rung of candidates and does its best to launch them into a successful 4-year program? Isn't that what we're paying community colleges to do?

Why do they whine so much about their job? Watching Paper Chase one too many times? They're supposed to take the relatively unprepared, and help them straighten out; did they think that the kids who got wait-listed at Cornell were going to be in the front row?

And, what about the personal responsibility of the actual kids in school? By the time someone is 18, 19 years old, they are finally old enough to be told the one pays for "good try", no one cares if you just had to go out with your buds and party last night...and if you want the degree, you actually might have to use your head and study.

I could go on all night. If we are going to live in a world where almost everyone has to accomplish a degree in a system designed for only the elite to succeed, it is not surprising that we will fail more often than not. We all knew people in high school who simply were never going to be successful in college. Now they go to school for a year or two and drop out, and this is a failure of the system. Grrrr.

Anonymous said...

A couple of weeks ago on 20/20 they did a whole segment on high school education in the US. Compared to the rest of the world we are really doing pretty bad. Thier solution? Create a competive environment within the system. Make the schools compete among themselves and give the parents a choice of which school to send their child to.

I think this is a great idea. A perfect example of how this would work? Look at how the cellular phones compete for our business. The schools would get better, we would be sending a more prepared student to college.

Just a thought.

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Aaron said...

I'm from Canada, so differences between our university systems might affect the relevance of my points here.

At my University, the government gives 2 dollars for every one dollar paid by a student in tuition.

So if tuition is $6,000, different levels of government fork out $12,000 for a total of $18,000.

The university gets paid regardless of whether or not the student passes.

And so we see university recruitment budgets swell, while student learning assistance tends to lag somewhat.

The primary purpose of universities then becomes centered on getting students to sign up rather than passing them through.

There's probably some underlying institutional economics at work, because we see most Econ 101 classes with 300 plus students (computer-graded Scantron/bubble sheet multiple choice exams taught by a prof with a Master's Degree) where the 3rd and 4th year classes might have 30 students (who get tons of reading handouts, term papers and tenure-prof-graded exams).

On a per-student basis, the Econ 101 class has a higher "profit" margin, the proceeds of which can be used to fund higher level Senior and graduate classes, assistantships, fellowships, etc.

It almost makes sense for universities to flunk people out, or at least allow them to. I'm not complaining at all; I've already finished my degrees, so they're helping to restrict the supply of them on the market. :)