College is not for everyone, but success can be

Liam Julian

It is generally agreed that academically able American high school graduates should attend college, regardless of their financial circumstances. That's a time-honored education goal in this country and a worthy one.

Recently, however, the terms have shifted such that now one is obliged, in polite ed-reform company, to agree that we should nudge most if not all high school graduates toward college, even if they haven't really mastered the academic material that is required of college freshmen. A high school diploma has somehow morphed into a university acceptance letter. An article in eSchool News, for example, reported, "Students are taught to believe that earning a high school diploma means they are prepared to enter college...."

Would that such teachings were true. And perhaps one day they will be. But not today. Last week, The Gadfly noted that thousands of high school graduates in Massachusetts, which is lauded for possessing some of the nation's toughest graduation requirements, must enroll in remedial classes at college because they can't do basic, college-level work. Many of them understandably drop out. Clearly, earning a high school diploma in the Bay State, which entails passing the well-regarded MCAS exam, does not correlate to college readiness (former Massachusetts Commissioner of Education and current Fordham Trustee David Driscoll says as much, below), nor do diplomas in the 49 other states and however many territories designate one prepared for a university education.

So, shall states make receipt of a high school diploma a process that truly reflects college readiness? No. While most state graduation requirements are woefully deflated and require significant pumping up, pegging high school graduation to college entrance requirements is, at least for the foreseeable future, an impossible leap.

The establishment of challenging goals is a sharp strategy, but the establishment of impossible goals is a dull one. Think of No Child Left Behind, which has decreed that come 2014, every American child--100 percent--will be proficient in math and reading. A dandy and harmless, albeit unachievable, national aspiration? Hardly; NCLB's proficiency fantasy has nasty consequences. As Fordham showed in The Proficiency Illusion, states have reacted to the 100 percent mandate by decreasing the difficulty of their state standards (if "proficiency" is simpler to achieve, more students will achieve it).

Similarly, if America devotes itself to unreasonably inclusive expectations about who should attend college, college admissions and classes will surely lose their rigor.

An article in this month's Atlantic by an anonymous professor is illustrative. The author teaches English classes and is constantly forced to fail majorities of his pupils because many of them simply "cannot write a coherent sentence." It is apparent that one of his students, whom the author calls Ms. L, "had never been on the Internet. She quite possibly had never sat in front of a computer." College is an inappropriate place for those who lack such basic skills. Most professors, dealt similar students, will likely just lower their standards, teach easy material, and deliver sought-after grades for shoddy work. Unfortunately, higher education already struggles to combat grade inflation, already struggles to teach its students relevant, quality material--it is best not to provide colleges additional incentives to degrade their curricula and classrooms.

The anonymous author writes: "Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative." But then, he notes, it is the professor who must deliver "the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate... That they are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college."

And yet, high schools continue to do ill-equipped students the intense disservice of pretending that their meager academic successes, when they occur, are stuff over which college professors will swoon. Furthermore, high schools offer academically deficient pupils few alternatives. Walt Gardner wrote last month in the Sacramento Bee, "By requiring virtually all students to take courses specifically designed for the college-bound, we unavoidably set the stage for failure."

What is to be done? Yesterday's Columbus Dispatch editorial has it right. Keep academic standards high, encourage pupils to work toward college admission, but allow teenagers other routes for success (career and technical education), too. It is folly, though, to just move academically struggling students along into higher education, to place upon colleges the burden of making up for k-12's deficiencies.

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