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

This is not worse than it was a generation ago. Indeed, high school graduation standards were probably lower a generation ago. But credential creep, even for the same types of jobs, has been occurring since then.

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It is indeed worse than a generation ago (if you define generation as 20-25 years). I have been in corporate recruiting for over 35 years… and when I first started, a company could have robust relationships with local HS’s to fill the pipeline for a wide variety of entry level roles- secretarial, facilities management, purchasing, human resources, payroll, transportation/fleet management. Now even secretarial roles require an AA at many companies; facilities management roles only open to someone right out of HS if it involves hands on cleaning/repair, and the last person I hired in HR without a college degree was in 1990 or so.

I have no idea about “high school graduation standards” but I’ve got a pretty good feel for the actual skills of kids graduating from HS who have no plans for CC, a Vo-Tech program, or the military. Someone doesn’t need calculus for an entry level role in comp and benefits. But they need to be able to read a bar chart, understand what a percentage is and how to calculate one, and they need to be able to read a 12 page document and write a coherent two paragraph summary.

Extra points if they aren’t calling an employee at home in London at 4 am UK time, because they didn’t know that different parts of the world operate on different time zones. And extra points if they see an excel where the result is that medical costs increased 8,000% in one year and they are curious or smart enough to check their inputs because it’s likely they made a clerical error…

It is MUCH worse than a generation ago. Hence- credential creep. For exactly the same jobs.

Why do you think some large non-profits look for “certification” for various fund-raising roles? You don’t need to be “certified” to write a grant, or approach a major donor for a gift, or maintain a donor database, or run a walk-a-thon for breast cancer… but if you need basic 10th grade math, reading and writing skills, you need some institution of higher learning to verify that person has some core competencies.


Are high school graduation standards really higher today for the majority of students? Certainly there’re more AP courses, etc. offered today and more students take these classes. More students also take calculus classes today than they were a generation ago. However, those students are only a small fraction of all high school students. At the other end of the spectrum, I have the suspicion that the standards are indeed lower. Am I wrong?


From what I remember back when I was in high school, requirements to graduate high school were quite low. Most districts (including those normally associated with low performing high schools) in California now appear to have graduation requirements that mirror the minimum course requirements for the UC and CSU universities (although high school graduation only requires D or higher grades, versus C or higher grades and a minimum GPA for university admission). That is much more than what was the minimum to graduate high school back when I was in high school*. I also observed that in courses that were not mainly college-prep students that many of the students were very unmotivated to earn more than D grades. This was in a high school where (back then) about a third of graduates went to four year colleges (mostly UCs and CSUs), and some more went to the local community college.

*Example, for math, the graduation requirement was probably only up to algebra 1, and a two year algebra 1 sequence was offered for those who could not handle algebra 1 in one year (and the high school also offered a math course that was lower level than algebra 1). These days, a typical graduation requirement is 3 years of math, with algebra 1 being the lowest math course offered (so geometry and algebra 2 must be completed).

Seems to me y’all may be making some big assumptions about why a person wouldn’t finish a degree in 4-6 years.

I would hazard a guess that the reason kids drop out of college doesn’t have much to do with being unprepared/underprepared for the level of work in college. I’d guess it’s probably more about mental health and less about flunking out because they don’t have the skills to do the math or write the papers.

There are a LOT of people who drop out of college who have no problem with the level of the work. My brother is exasperatingly smart (math/software engineering guy)and even he dropped out for a year or two way back in the dark ages before going back and creating his own major to get his Bachelor’s and then going on for a Masters. My spouse took a trimester off to get his head together.

My '19 kid took a couple of gap years and is now working full time and doing community college classes and plans to transfer to a 4 yr school after getting an Associates, but absolutely is on the right path. I do not think going straight to a 4 year college would have done that kid any favors. Bright kid and can do the work, not unprepared/underprepared for the workload of college, but needed to get to a place mentally/emotionally/maturity-wise where college was something of their own choosing and not just the next rung on the ladder.

I think most kids would be better off taking a gap year instead of rushing straight into college. My friends who are professors say that their gap year students are much better students than the ones who come straight out of high school, too.

I think a lot of what happens with high school students going straight to college is they flounder mentally/emotionally because they are on their own but they are there because their parents wanted them to go to college and because they felt like it was the next step and all their friends were going to college, not because they themselves thought about all their options and decided that’s what they wanted to do.

It’s kind of like being a little bit lost on the road and keeping on driving because maybe you’ll see something you recognize. Sometimes you do and that works out. But sometimes you need to pull over at the gas station and take a break and look at the map and figure out exactly where you want to be. My guess is that a lot of these kids who are dropping out are the kids who got on the road and starting going w/o any clear sense of direction.


An article from Forbes looks at many factors that have been shown to have a bearing in college graduation rates.

High school grades, employment while in school, gap years, community college attendance, residency, etc all can have an effect on graduation rates.

I would hazard to say that being prepared for the college workload by working hard and achieving in HS would be one of the biggest factors though. For most students, if they can’t excel in HS it’s going to be very difficult to do so in a college environment.

I would also assume that some realize early on that they would rather pursue other options after having tested the college waters. There are other avenues that can produce a great outcome for those that choose to work hard and pursue them.

Methinks 4 years is easier to understand than 6. For example, half of the students who enroll in the Cal State University system have to take remedial math and/or English, i.e., high school level coursework. At some campuses, its 90%. Add in a part-time job to buy books, and those students are on teh 5 year plan before they set foot on campus.

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Are you saying that many students aren’t mentally ready for college? Mental health issues were present a generation or two ago too, even if they weren’t identified to the same degree. Whether identified or not, they should have the same effect on the students. If more students aren’t mentally ready, doesn’t that suggest that more students aren’t academically ready, because academic stress could certainly contribute to mental health issues? By all indications, passing grades in college are much easier to obtain today than a generation or two ago. So where does the stress come from?

It seems like there is definitely a mental health crisis among college students now. The suicides among prominent high achieving college student athletes are one tragic result.

Less tragically. I think a lot of kids are realizing that they need to take some time off for themselves to figure out what they really want to do, too.

This doesn’t have to have anything to do with whether they can handle the college workload and more with just figuring out what they want to do with their lives and whether college is going to part of that or not.

Wanted to add that a lot of kids have been affected by the pandemic and feel like what’s the point in anything.


The great Vin Scully passed away last week, may he rest In peace. One of his many memorable sayings was that

Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.

I’ve read the report, and while many here are leaning on it for support, I just don’t find it all that illuminating with regard to the issue of whether we are sending too many unprepared/ underprepared students for college. Among other reasons, the report includes data from those in certificate programs and associate degree programs and includes data from transfer students as well as first time students, and from an unidentified cohort of colleges that may or may not be representative. No historical data is provided for a point of comparison. No correlations are explored between high school performance/preparation and success in college. No information is provided on why the students are taking the class-loads they are taking or whether it is appropriate for those students’ goals/programs.

From the report:

No findings in this report should be considered representative of the national population of students.

Also from the report:

Students in this analysis are first-time (including first-time in college and first-time, transfer-in), degree- seeking students entering a PDP-participating institution in the 2019-20 cohort. This cohort consists of 905,689 unique student enrollments at 342 unique postsecondary institutions. These students started at a PDP institution in fall 2019, winter 2019, spring 2020, or summer 2020 and were seeking an undergraduate certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree. Regardless of the entering term, students were followed for one full year from their starting term. For example, students who started in fall 2019 were followed through summer 2020, and students who started in spring 2020 were followed through winter 2020, etc.

Hard to imagine a cohort of students more directly impacted by Covid.


A lot of students have financial difficulty too.


That Forbes page only indirectly hints at the other big factor affecting college graduation rates (besides academic preparedness), which is whether the student is at risk of running out of money to pay for college. The hints in the page are that work hours beyond 12 hours per week (which are more likely when the student is at risk of running out of money) are associated with lower graduation rates and that earning scholarships (which correlates to both academic strength and less run-out-of-money risk) is associated with higher graduation rates.

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I’m sure that’s the case for some. Working more than 12 hours a week possibly is tied more towards having less time to focus on schoolwork.

I personally had to work full time while attending CC full time. It wasn’t ideal but it was what I needed to do at the time. Luckily I was fully dedicated to putting in the necessary effort and getting that degree, on time I might add.

Most scholarships are tied to high performing students,whom are more likely to graduate. I’d say that is the biggest factor with them making it through school at higher rates.

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This is a great resource for mental health and the transition to college:

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Maybe kids are dropping out of college because they don’t value education like they did in the past. That’s one explanation of why there has been a huge drop-off in the number of high school students going on to college (discussed in article below).

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Education has also changed in the face of digital options. Perhaps some kids also don’t value getting an expensive degree and working a service-industry job afterwards - one that doesn’t require a degree to be an excellent employee. A job that doesn’t pay enough to pay back loans while living a reasonably comfortable (food, shelter, reliable transportation) existence.

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Another article from Forbes.

“According to the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of U.S. adults 16-74 years old - about 130 million people - lack proficiency in literacy, reading below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level. That’s a shocking number for several reasons, and its dollars and cents implications are enormous because literacy is correlated with several important outcomes such as personal income, employment levels, health, and overall economic growth.”


Re: How higher education lost its shine

Looks like those who want fewer people to go to college are getting their wish.

But are those opting out of college the ones who would not have succeeded – or do they include many who would have succeeded and become greater contributors to the economy and society as a result?

This may represent a marginal number - I’m wondering how many of these unprepared students or those that don’t last are students that were “high performing” in high school but can’t cut it in college because their parents are no longer around to guide them or manage them. I have a rising sophomore and live in the Bay Area. We’re also in a very high pressure high school environment. I’m always surprised at the level of parent involvement required to build a “profile” to get into a top school. I’m trying to leave my son to his own decisions but often find myself easily getting too involved thanks to my surroundings. I always ask myself if these types of students are able to maintain this level of achievement once they are on their own and left to their own devices?

However, many of the better service jobs (e.g. many health care jobs, many engineering and computing jobs, many accounting and finance jobs, etc.) do require education beyond the high school level. Skilled trades, police, firefighter, military, and some other desired service jobs may not require college, but require education and training beyond the high school level (although it may be provided on-the-job or through apprenticeships in some cases).