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College Completion Rates Unmasked


My colleague Debra Viadero has an interesting post on her blog today about a new report that examines colleges' graduation rates. The study by the American Enterprise Institute lays out some gory details about how colleges are doing and suggests that parents, teachers, and guidance counselors take them into account when considering college choices.

With the intense national focus on making more Americans college graduates, this report puts an uncomfortable spotlight on colleges that might not be up to the task. As policymakers debate ways to boost attainment, I wonder how much finger-pointing will be aimed at high schools—"you sent us poorly prepared students!"—and how much will be aimed at the colleges themselves for their support of students once they come onto campus?


I think high schools should be concerned about sending unprepared students to college. High school students are under tremendous pressure to build attractive transcripts due to the intense competition for college admissions. The emphasis seems to be on bolstering the transcript, not on acquiring knowledge and skills. A high school English teacher I interviewed for my book, “The Teacher Chronicles,” encapsulated the issue perfectly: “We’ve just completely lost sight of what school is supposed to be for. It’s become a quest to look good for college. It’s all about looking good, getting the right grades, and participating in the right activities, not about actually learning.”

The teacher told me about a student in her ninth grade English class who avoided analytical writing by refusing to do her homework. Her parents relentlessly pressured the teacher to overlook the missed assignments because they didn’t want her grade to be adversely affected. “Unfortunately, by the end of the year she was the worst in the room when it came to analytical writing,” the teacher said.

A high school history teacher told me about a student in his Advanced Placement class who is allowed extra time on exams because he suffers from anxiety, which causes him to lose concentration. He said the student would not have anxiety issues if he were in a regular level class rather than an Advanced Placement class. He said another student would have benefited more from a remedial class, but her parents insisted on placing her in his regular class. Because the student felt pressured to live up to her parents’ expectations, she plagiarized a homework paper. The teacher said the student’s parents seemed more concerned with her grades than with the knowledge and skills she attained in school.

Some kids don't want to go to college after high school. What would high schools do with them?

Overall, though, I do believe that high schools should better prepare students and graduates - if not for higher education in particular, simply for life after grade 12.

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