With the 2010-2011 school year winding to a close, the coast-to-coast drumbeat of stories about the nation’s failure to graduate college-ready seniors has ratcheted up.
- In L.A., only about half of high school students graduate. Of those, less than a third are college ready.
- In New York City, barely a fifth of the students who entered high school as freshmen in 2006 graduated with test scores that marked them as ready for higher ed.
- In Michigan, a 2011 state department of education report found that more than 90 percent of the seniors in more than half of the state’s schools were unprepared for college.
Which all looks bad, right? And it is. But the real challenge runs even deeper. Of all students who start out in postsecondary education, expecting to put themselves on track to a better life, only 57 percent graduate in six years. And at 23 percent, graduation rates for low-income students are appalling. Why?
To answer that question, we need to understand what students really need to persist and graduate. And it’s a lot more than decent test scores or even remedial classes or simply increasing financial aid.
Campus-ready survival skills won’t show up on a standardized test
Besides the academic skills we all think of as baseline requirements for college-level work students, especially those in at-risk populations, cannot succeed without “a deeper understanding of the college culture,” as the Alliance for Excellent Education put it in their May 2011 issue brief. “Students must know where to get help, know how to navigate the financial aid and admissions process.”
In other words, students can’t be considered “college ready” on the basis of some arbitrary score. They need to be truly “campus ready.”
Dr. David Conley, whose paper, Redefining College Readiness, is a must-read on this topic, somewhat poignantly describes students who, “soon after celebrating admission into college,” experience a “sad realization … that being in college is a struggle.” Scholarship providers, in particular those who work with at-risk populations, have a real obligation to help students facing this hard realization.
The costs of failure are unacceptable
The stakes of failure are too high—for the students, for our institutions, and for the macro U.S. economy—for us just to hand out checks. Consider just a couple of statistics:
- Students who start college but drop-out earn, on average, $17,000 less than those who graduate. That means fewer taxes and fewer skilled workers in an increasingly competitive global market.
- Students who don’t graduate from college face long odds in the job market of the future. In fact, according to a 2010 analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, almost 70 percent of all jobs available in the U.S. in 2018 will require postsecondary education.
At the Dell Scholars Program, we tackle the problem by providing our students with assistance and counseling that starts before they even set foot on campus and extends a full six years. Our efforts have paid off. Six-years after they begin as college freshman, some 85 percent of our students have either graduated or are still working towards their bachelor degrees.
But for the majority of at-risk students, even those with scholarships, it’s hard to get help. By themselves, they try to navigate the wholly new academic rigors of college life. And all too often, they don’t make it. For those of us who provide scholarships, dropouts from our programs should never be acceptable. We picked these students, and effectively said, “We believe in you.” When the going gets tough, as it will, we can’t just stand by and let them drop through the cracks of an unforgiving system. These kids deserve support and services to ensure they’re truly campus-ready. And it’s up to us to figure out effective, scalable ways to help them successfully make the transition from fresh-faced freshman to savvy graduate.