Are we sending too many unprepared/underprepared students to college?

National Student Clearinghouse just released a study on first-year college students:

It concludes that most full-time students don’t even attempt enough credits to be able to finish college in 4 years, and earn even fewer credits to be on track to complete a bachelor’s degree in 5 years.

The study is based on first-year college students and students tend to run into more issues (financial, academic, etc.) in their later years in college.

I haven’t read the article, but does it say WHY? So many college students attend community colleges, vocational technical colleges etc where only two years is even needed to complete their course of study.

Many students attending local to their home colleges are working at least part time to fund their studies, so full time coursework isn’t possible. Some need to take time off entirely to work and save for their next college terms.

And yes, some students need to take remedial courses at places like CCs so they can then continue to progress in their college studies.

I think we need to know the “why”.


There were a couple of things that jumped out at me. First, there are thousands of colleges in the US but only 500 reporting to the PDP. Is there a list somewhere of those schools? The study says that you can’t extrapolate as a result so I’m curious as to who is reporting.

I’m also confused how the average credits attempted in the first year could only be 20.9? That wouldn’t be possible at D’s school and still be considered a full time student (and there are a ton of triggers that would happen if a student registered for less than 12 credits/semester or dropped a class and went below 12).

I’m with Thumper that we need to know the “why” and what kind of universities are reporting.


The study does not address why, but it does break it down by type of institution. Many students are not attempting sufficient credits at 4 year schools, both public and private.

Maybe because almost half of the students are enrolled in 2-year colleges?

Sample Students Institutions

Type. / # students. / #schools

Private, Four-Year / 33,606 / 48
Public, Four-Year / 455,989 / 107
Public, Two-Year / 418,411 / 187


According to the report, participation by colleges in the study is voluntary. The study is on first-year, full-time, and degree-seeking students at these institutions. It states in the report:

LIke all such reports, its conclusion is debatable. However, it does appear to be consistent with the fact that barely half of all US college students graduate in 6 years.

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My issue with this study is if that’s because students are “unprepared” or if it’s something else, like finances.


This is a study on first-year students (and primarily on their first term in college), so for the vast majority of them, the financial issue presumably hasn’t come up yet.

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An associate’s degree meets the definition of “degree-seeker”, but doesn’t align with your first comment about “finishing college in 4 years” (or does it?).

This report is from a new group that wants to show the power of their data, regardless of how weak it may be. The report itself says almost nothing, and as such I’m going to bow out of this conversation.


I was responding to your comment that barely half of students graduate in 6 years.

This is what the report says, among its “Key Findings” (I only paraphrased it):

Almost 1/4 of college freshmen drop out in the first year. There’s lots of data out there.

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I’m probably going to open another can of worms. If nearly half of all college students don’t graduate in 6 years, aren’t we wasting a vast sum of educational dollars and other resources, not to mention the time these students spent but failed to graduate? Since we only have finite resources, will we be better off spending the resources on K-12 education instead of sending everyone to college?


Totally agree

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Agree with this.

I think the larger issue is to look at total $ spent on higher education, particularly debt, and look at outcomes in terms of employment, median income and how many of those jobs actually required a bachelor or even associate degree. While I am sure there are many inadequately prepared students who choose to go to college, I think where we are failing is to recognize that college is not for everyone, and more resources need to be put into vocational training at the high school level.

Part of what is going on is the stigma now attached to vocational education as being relegated to the “dumb” kids and that the job of a high school is to get their students prepared for college. It was not this way when I grew up. Even in junior high school, we were given examples of the kind of living you could make in a trade, and even were given math break even problems with assumptions on salary and potential raises looking at trades vs college degree careers. There was no stigma deciding to go to the vocationally oriented high school in our county. I look at my kids large public high school where a large percentage of kids are disengaged because the course material is irrelevant to them. The GC’s are spending most of their time on getting students to graduate and dealing with disciplinary issues. Idle minds and idle time is not a recipe for success.


Not diasagreeing, yes, improve k-12. Not everyone should go to college. The part I find particularly appalling though is the student loan/for profit college combo. Schools accept students who have a low likelihood of success, accept their hefty student loan payments, at best provide a useless degree if the student manages to make it through, and the student ends up with debt that can’t be discharged. The business model is based on taking public and private student loan money on the backs of individuals who receive no benefit. I realize public resources have been “wasted” in the machine of higher ed, but I am less concerned about “us” wasting resources as the ones being preyed upon.


Is there really a shortage of vocational programs in this country?

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100% Yes we need to spend more $/other resources on K-12 education.


While it may be a waste in hindsight (though not always, if a degree seeking student completes a useful vocational certification instead – e.g. aspiring ADN or BSN student leaves with a CNA or phlebotomist or something certification instead), it is not necessarily easy to determine which students will complete a degree.

For example, when considering only prior (high school) academic record, students with a given level of achievement (e.g. GPA and other indicators) may have only a 40% likelihood of completion. If so, it may still be worth it for the government to subsidize education for them at community colleges and broad access universities. Even if it turns out to be a waste for 60%, those 40% who do complete may provide a future benefit (to themselves, the general economy and society, and the tax rolls to fund the government) in excess of the educational spending (for them and the other 60% who did not complete).

Also, to some extent, increased spending on lowering costs to the student (lower tuition and/or more financial aid) may improve completion rates, because many students do not complete their programs due to financial difficulty (which can result in academic difficulty if the student needs to work more hours to pay for school and has less time to study or can take fewer courses or credits in a semester). Of course, how much return on investment (from the point of the government) this gives at any given level can vary.

Obviously, any changes in spending for higher education do have to compete with other budget priorities.

Of course, better K-12 education will also result in more college-ready high school graduates, increasing the demand for college education (and potential spending needs).

Fast Facts: Immediate transition to college (51) indicates that not everyone goes to college immediately after high school. In 2019, about 44% went to a four year college, and 22% went to a two year college, meaning 34% did not go to college (although some may have gone to education or training that is not considered to be “college”).

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While it breaks down some of its numbers by race/ethnicity, gender, age, and 2/4-year school, it does not have breakdowns in factors that probably matter more:

  • Student prior GPA (high school for frosh, college for transfer).
  • Student parent income or SES.
  • Student parent educational attainment.

It is no surprise that the numbers tend to look worse at 2-year schools than 4-year schools, and that differences in race/ethnicity follow the expected patterns based on association between race/ethnicity, parent SES, and parent educational attainment.