There’s More to College than Just Getting In

We need an aggressive national effort to better prepare all students to finish their college degree, write Robin Chait and Louis Soares.

Sheridan College graduated prepare for commencement. With college graduation rates dropping, only 34 percent of students now finish a bachelor's degree in four years. (AP/Jordan Edgcomb)
Sheridan College graduated prepare for commencement. With college graduation rates dropping, only 34 percent of students now finish a bachelor's degree in four years. (AP/Jordan Edgcomb)

April is a tense month for high school seniors and their parents. Hopes and dreams for a successful future lie in the college admissions (or rejection) letters that millions will receive this month, after which students and parents gather together to decide on their final choice.

But for most students, getting into school is the easy part. Successfully completing college is the hard part, especially for young people from low-income and minority communities. For millions, successful careers, good jobs, and salaries are connected with finishing college, not starting it.

The benefits of having a bachelor’s degree versus having just some college in 2005, for example, amounted to more than a $10,000 wage premium. Estimates of the differential over a lifetime can amount to over $400,000. Yet within three years of entering college, more than one-third of students leave higher education without any credentials.

Over the last 50 years, the proportion of college attendees receiving college diplomas has decreased as the number of students enrolling in college has increased. Among students starting at four-year institutions, only 34 percent finish a bachelor’s degree in four years. Sixty-four percent finish within six years, and 69 percent finish within 8.5 years.

Furthermore, despite the expansion of opportunities for education, family background and race and ethnicity continue to influence chances for degree completion. One study that tracked a sample of 12th graders in 1992 who were likely to attend college found that 33.8 percent of white students completed college by the year 2000, while only 24.1 percent of black students and 15.1 percent of Hispanic/Latino students completed college during that time.

And this is for students who graduate high school. We know from a number of recent studies that high school graduation rates are deplorable, particularly in high poverty schools. High school graduation rates are nationally about 70 percent, and for many poor and minority students, graduating is a coin toss proposition.

So why are so many students faltering on the way to a college degree? A number of studies have found that taking challenging courses in high school and performing well in them are important predictors of college readiness and completion. Other research finds that students also need “college knowledge” to know how to function in a higher education institution—for instance, how to enroll, how to apply for financial aid, and how to get extra help if they need it.

Yet few students are taking rigorous courses in high school and performing well in them. Many students, particularly in schools with large numbers of low-income students, come to high school achieving below grade level and then aren’t taking or succeeding in challenging, college preparatory courses once they get there. Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute estimates that only 34 percent of all students who entered 9th grade in 2002 and then graduated from high school were prepared for college. So it’s clear that more national attention needs to be paid to how to better prepare all students for college.

Perhaps equally important is motivating students to persist in high school to prepare for college. Polls of high school students find that they are bored and feel high school isn’t relevant. Research also shows these same students are failing their courses.

Schools that help students develop individual plans for postsecondary training and guide them in designing a course of study that fits their career goals are more likely to motivate students. These schools make high school education relevant to students’ lives and help them see the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s why states and school districts need to provide students with an intensive learning environment that treats high school as a means to an end, not the end itself.

Early College High Schools, such as the Gateway to College at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD are one way to link high school and college to better prepare students for college. These schools combine high school and college by enabling high school students to complete their high school diploma and an associate’s degree or earn two years of credit toward a bachelor’s degree after five years of study. They target students who have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education.

Another idea: the Fast Track to College proposal from the Center for American Progress, which is now included in an education bill making its way through Congress. This proposal would provide more students with access to rigorous course work in their senior year alongside a stronger link to postsecondary education for traditionally underserved students. High school seniors would have the option to take college courses and earn credits toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, take career and technical courses at a postsecondary institution, or participate in community service or a work experience in place of the traditional senior year.

A growing body of evidence indicates that we are shortchanging the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people by not adequately preparing them for the challenges ahead in higher education. This is unacceptable. The time is ripe for an aggressive national effort and investment that better prepares all students to finish their college degree.

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Louis Soares