Each year, between 65 and 70 percent of new high school graduates begin some form of postsecondary education. They attend a wide range of two- to four-year institutions, including community colleges, liberal arts colleges, colleges offering specialty preparation in the arts or vocational arts and technical professions, and research universities. Nearly 14 million students are currently enrolled as undergraduates in one of these types of postsecondary schools, reflecting the belief of a majority of Americans that college, not high school, is now the basic educational requirement to be successful in today's world.
But many students who are capable or would like to continue their education do not achieve the goal of entering college, and many of those who enter do not persist and graduate. Fewer than 60 percent of students graduate within six years of beginning a four-year degree program; rates for Native Americans, African Americans, and Latinos are substantially lower. While finances and personal circumstances play a role in these patterns of enrollment and attrition, students' level of college preparation, or “college readiness,” is a major factor in college entry and success. Only about one-third of ninth graders will ultimately graduate from high school college-ready; about 40 percent of whites, 23 percent of blacks, and 20 percent of Latinos will be fully prepared. Nearly a third of all students entering college require remediation in math, reading, or writing in their freshman year, and more than half need remediation at some point in their college education. These students are more likely to drop out than those who enter college prepared for the work.
In addition, lack of information, guidance at school, and personal support from family and peers inhibit students both from being academically prepared and from having the aspirations for and awareness of college opportunities. Beyond the academic aspects of college preparation, therefore, there are social and cultural aspects to being prepared to enter college. Students need to understand the ins and outs of the college testing and admissions process, what skills and knowledge they must acquire by high school graduation to be considered for college, how to obtain financial aid, what opportunities they have for education and careers, and how to self-manage their newly unstructured lives in college. Families, teachers, counselors, and colleges all have a role to play in developing these process knowledge aspects of readying students for college.
Economic and demographic trends are pushing the issue of college preparation to center stage as a public policy concern. Pressure on colleges to improve persistence and graduation rates and efforts to ease the financial burden of college continue, but attention is increasingly being directed toward high school education as the building block of access to and persistence in college—and to an educated workforce. In our knowledge economy, the majority of jobs will require education or training beyond high school education as most students receive it; science and mathematics, areas where the United States currently lags in international comparisons with numerous industrialized and in some areas less-industrialized countries, are considered by business and policy makers to be particularly important for global competitiveness. At the same time, the majority of new college students in the coming years—as high as 80 percent by some estimates—will come from minority, lower socioeconomic status, and nontraditional populations that have historically lagged in academic and social/cultural preparation, college-going, and persistence; about half of these students will be Latino.
There is also a growing trend toward a systemic approach for aligning Kindergarten through college education, or K–16. curriculum, methods of evaluation, and teaching, counseling, and governance are all seen as in need of improvement to first, increase the numbers of students graduating from high school in four years—now less than 75 percent of all students—and second, to prepare all students for college or work. At the foundation of this challenge is the need to address wide disparities in the educational quality of schools, generally tied to geography and socioeconomic levels. Rural and urban public schools frequently cannot match their private and suburban counterparts in the preparation of students for college on any dimension, from resources and curricular rigor to quality of teaching, community involvement, and counseling. Another foundation issue is the question of authority to set standards, curriculum, and evaluation for educational programs. A goal of alignment or systematization suggests less autonomy at the local school level as states, the federal government, and even universities take on the role of coordinator, evaluator, and standard-setter for high schools, pressured in part by economic interests. This challenge will be compounded by social, cultural, language, and religious differences among the states.
Despite growing attention to college preparation, not everyone agrees that college should be the uniform goal for all high school graduates. While many jobs in industry will require training beyond high school, these do not constitute the fastest-growing sector of employment, and only about one-third of all jobs will require a four-year degree. Wages vary widely among people with identical levels of education; college does not guarantee either a particular job status or a particular level of salary. Some critics point out that Americans increasingly possess more education than needed for their jobs, which can depress average wages and breed job dissatisfaction. College for all also suggests disdain for the importance and status of many worthwhile vocations, crafts, and services, and as such may constitute an elitist form of channeling that can mislead students into debt and disappointment. Nevertheless, a push to provide an excellent and equitable high school education for all, regardless of whether the future holds college or work, is an area on which educators and policymakers increasingly agree. Such an education provides the basis for a productive, informed, and satisfied citizenry, as well as flexibility for each individual to pursue additional education and career and vocational change across the lifespan according to his or her choice, life circumstances, and interests.
One of the most consistent indicators of college enrollment is completion of a strong college preparatory curriculum of increasingly advanced courses. Presently, specific requirements for entry into college vary somewhat from postsecondary institution to postsecondary institution, and students still need to check the admissions requirements for each school to which they apply. However, a general, comprehensive outline of recommended courses for college includes
4 years of English (mechanics and American and World literature),
3–4 years of mathematics (geometry, algebra, trigonometry, calculus),
3–4 years of science (physics, chemistry, biology),
3–4 years of social studies (history, including U.S., European, and World; government; cultural studies),
2–4 years of foreign language(s),
1 or more years of arts (music, drama, dance, fine art), and
1–3 years electives (social sciences, computer science, statistics, other humanities).
In many ways, these requirements remain unchanged from the college-preparation curriculum recommended for nearly 50 years by those public and private high schools with a tradition of sending high percentages of graduates to college. Most changes are best characterized as redefinition and updating of the precise content or sequence of courses, and a movement toward the higher end of the range, particularly in the converging areas of science and math, so that students take at least one “advanced” course beyond the introductory level. Such additional courses have been associated with increases in college completion levels. The electives area, with the “newer” subjects of statistics (increasingly seen as a basic math requirement) and computer science are the most marked changes from tradition, along with the notion that this college-preparatory curriculum should be the standard for all students.
In addition to the basic curriculum, some schools provide more intensive curricular options to capable or ambitious students. These include Advanced Placement (AP) courses and the International Baccalaureate Curriculum, both of which have their own testing components. In recent years, students at all levels have been encouraged to take the most difficult courses available in their schools, including AP courses. The existence on paper of a curriculum that contains all the right elements is not a guarantee of quality, however. Schools with large numbers of low-socioeconomic status and minority students do not generally have access to a high-quality curriculum even when the appropriately titled courses (e.g., “Algebra II”) are available. The intensiveness of the courses themselves in any curricular framework and the teaching and learning that takes place are the determinants of preparedness, and what will ultimately be evaluated. Beyond the meeting of subject-matter requirements, for example, rigorous curriculums are expected to result in the acquisition of skills in areas such as critical analysis of texts, numerical and graphic data, or media; written and verbal communication; logical reasoning; and research and problem solving. These richer details about what constitutes a rigorous preparatory curriculum are increasingly embedded in educational standards that can be used to develop and enhance courses, teaching, and methods of evaluation. Recently, governments, university associations, foundations, and business groups, sometimes in partnership, have developed standards for what high school graduates should know and be able to do prior to entering college.
Although increasingly challenged, the SAT, begun in 1926, is the dominant standardized measure of preparation to do college work. It has been designed and tested to be a valid predictor of a student's educational attainment in the freshman year. Beginning in 2005, the two traditional SAT components, math and verbal (renamed critical reading), are joined by a third, writing; changes have also been made to both of the traditional sections (e.g., most notably, the analogies section is being dropped from the verbal section). Each section is scored from between 200 and 800. While section scores are reported and intended to be interpreted separately, it has been common to talk about a student's “combined score.” A perfect combined score on the old math and verbal tests was 1600, with a current average of 1026; the College Board, the test's administrator, expects these older scores to remain comparable with the scores of the new critical reading and math tests. In the future, a perfect combined score would be 2400 if schools decide to give equal weight to the new writing test. Many students also take SAT Subject Tests, formerly known as SATII or achievement tests, in specific subjects of their choice, and Advanced Placement tests (AP), which may be taken whether the student has had an AP course or not. In 1959, an alternative to the SAT was introduced by American College Testing Program (now ACT, Inc.). The ACT provides a composite and individual scores for four areas, English, mathematics, reading, and science, plus a new optional writing test. ACT composite scores can range from 1 to 36; the national average is currently 20.9. Some students take both tests, and most institutions will accept either test, as percentile ranks can be used to equate test performance.
The use of testing in college admissions, particularly the basic SAT, has both supporters and critics. Supporters of the SAT argue that it provides perhaps the only standard measure of preparation across widely diverse schools, students, and states, and that this measure has been demonstrated to predict the performance of all groups, with minimal exceptions, equally. Critics, on the rise in recent decades, disagree that the tests are fair to all racial and ethnic groups; in particular, higher SAT scores are generally associated with whites and Asian Americans, and with higher socioeconomic status and parental education. Given the proportion of minority students in lower socioeconomic schools, this can bias scores for racial and ethnic minorities downward. Critics also assert that a student's high school grades, class ranks, and tests of achievement are better predictors of student performance, and argue that eliminating the use of aptitude-type tests would eliminate a source of bias in admissions, especially for African Americans. Another criticism is that scores can be improved through test preparation, which again favors those who can afford it to the detriment of those who need it most.
The SAT's association with innate mental ability or aptitude has plagued the test (despite renaming as a “reasoning” test in 1993). Objections from a major user, University of California, likely contributed to its recent revision, along with the College Board's own continuing efforts to evaluate and improve the tests. However, as competition among institutions of higher education grows, fueled by changes in economics, public policy, and college rankings, high average test scores are increasingly relied upon as one measure of a college's prestige, despite awareness by educators and admissions personnel of the tests' shortcomings. For the present, most schools will continue to use one of the major admissions tests as one input to admissions decisions. The College Board itself now provides free preparation materials, and most students can benefit from prior familiarity with the nature of the tests and practice at doing test problems; score gains themselves are not well established.
With the movement toward better coordination of levels of education and curriculums, there is also a movement to redesign assessment at the end of high school to verify mastery of defined high-school goals specifically designed to prepare students for college. If this movement were successful, comprehensive exams of achievement, perhaps even a single exam for college preparedness, could potentially replace or minimize the importance of current college admissions tests such as the basic SAT. The benefits and risks of a single, college-preparatory high school curriculum and evaluating all students on that curriculum will likely be a subject of intense policy debate in the coming years.
Despite the focus on and debate over testing, tests form only one element in the admission decision, and as such suggest a broader definition of what is meant by being prepared for college. Indeed, the concept of “comprehensive review,” first established in California with the elimination of affirmative action, is becoming widely accepted as a way of thinking about preparation. While some large institutions still use formulas based on test scores, grade point averages, and class rank to select students for admission, and others have open enrollment, comprehensive review reflects the way many institutions, particularly the more selective colleges and universities, try to approach the complex task of putting together a class. The challenge for the school is to achieve a balanced and diverse group of talents, achievements, potentials, and interests in service of its educational mission and desire to build a community of contributing members, while maintaining the ability to report the quantitative measures that will be used in rankings, to satisfy enrollment management goals, and to address the demands of both internal and external constituents. Public as well as private colleges and universities face this challenge.
Colleges and universities evaluate, as available, a student's grade point average, or grades; number and difficulty of courses taken; class rank; standardized and achievement test scores; written answers to application questions, including essays; recommendations and ratings from teachers, advisors, and coaches; extracurricular activities at school, particularly leadership roles and level of involvement in those activities; outside interests such as work, hobbies, or involvement in community, political, or arts groups; summer activities including travel, work, internships, study, and camp; and student backgrounds as reflected in student profiles and essays that communicate personal stories. In addition to academic potential to do college work, admissions committees are looking for evidence of leadership, maturity, organization, humor, persistence, motivation, resilience, creativity, curiosity, intellect, skill or talent in an endeavor, a diverse perspective or experience, engagement, communication and interpersonal skill, and many other tangible and intangible characteristics. College preparation is therefore associated with personal and developmental traits and skills, sometimes referred to as social and cultural capital, as well as with academic record. Social and cultural inputs to college preparedness, like academic ones, may be associated with socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity. Comprehensive review and affirmative action help assure that students with unequal levels of academic, social, and cultural capital are evaluated as individuals in the admissions process.
In some states, affirmative action has been outlawed and replaced by programs such as percent plans, which call for automatic acceptance of students from throughout a state that has a grade point average or class rank in the top x percent. While these plans can create other kinds of disparities in admissions and often require significant investments in outreach to achieve their goals, they represent an operating alternative in some states.
Money appears to play an important role at all stages of the college decision process. Financial aid offers can play an important part in deciding where students will enroll, whether and to what extent they will need to take on debt, or whether they will enroll or not. Many low-income students believe they cannot afford college and lack information about how to obtain aid. Preparedness for the financial aspects of going to college is particularly important for these lower-income students, who enroll at lower rates than students of equal ability who have higher incomes.
Combined with other direct measures, increasing social and cultural preparedness for college can be an important contributor to overcoming the two principle barriers to access, finances and academic preparation. Components of social and cultural knowledge for college include confidence in and aspirations for the goal of getting a college degree; habits for learning; knowledge about careers and postsecondary options; and knowledge needed to plan for college, including what courses to take, how to identify and evaluate schools, apply, and finance a college education through aid, loans, and scholarships. Many researchers believe that this kind of preparedness must begin early, perhaps as early as preschool. Because it is transmitted primarily through parents, teachers, and school counselors, the possession of social and cultural knowledge about college attendance varies enormously according to factors such as school quality, socioeconomic status, parental education level, primary language, and cultural practices and attitudes (e.g., regarding education, child rearing, or borrowing money). African American, Latino, and low-socioeconomic status students generally require more support, and receive less, in obtaining this process knowledge, than higher socioeconomic status students and white and Asian American students. For example, in private schools where most students expect to go on to college, counselors are focused on college placement, while in many pubic schools with high proportions of poor and minority students, counselors divide their time among myriad tasks and a single counselor may serve over a 1,000 students.
A growing number of pre-college outreach and intervention programs provided by colleges, universities, private organizations, and governments help supplement school efforts. Some, like the federal GEAR-UP program, take a systematic approach that involves not only students but also schools, community groups, and families, whose early support and ongoing reinforcement for college aspiration and preparation is absolutely crucial to college attendance and success. “Early college” programs, in which students simultaneously finish their high school education and take college courses that in some cases can lead to jointly receiving their diplomas and an associates degree, represent another initiative to encourage, prepare, and ease the transition of student to college. There is still a need for more information on which programs work best. Many observers agree, however, that if all students are to receive the benefits of social and cultural preparation, public schools themselves, through internal changes in governance, teaching, and counseling, will need to adopt the attitudes and procedures now offered largely through specialized programs available to only a portion of students.
See also Academic Achievement; Assessment; Assessment in Reading and Writing; Career Development; Curriculum; Extracurricular Activities; Guidance Counselors; Higher Education.
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