Beyond the Rhetoric
Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy
|| The Gap Between Enrolling in College and Being Ready for College
Every year in the United States, nearly 60% of first-year college students discover that, despite being fully eligible to attend college, they are not ready for postsecondary studies. After enrolling, these students learn that they must take remedial courses in English or mathematics, which do not earn college credits. This gap between college eligibility and college readiness has attracted much attention in the last decade, yet it persists unabated. While access to college remains a major challenge, states have been much more successful in getting students into college than in providing them with the knowledge and skills needed to complete certificates or degrees. Increasingly, it appears that states or postsecondary institutions may be enrolling students under false pretenses. Even those students who have done everything they were told to do to prepare for college find, often after they arrive, that their new institution has deemed them unprepared. Their high school diploma, college-preparatory curriculum, and high school exit examination scores did not ensure college readiness.
Lack of readiness for college is a major culprit in low graduation rates, as the majority of students who begin in remedial courses never complete their college degrees. As a result, improving college readiness must be an essential part of national and state efforts to increase college attainment.
Figure 1 shows the extent of the college readiness problem by portraying the gap between eligibility for college and readiness to do college-level work. Students in public colleges and universities attend one of three types of postsecondary institutions: highly selective four-year institutions, somewhat selective four-year institutions, and nonselective or open-access two-year colleges. The readiness gap is nominal in the most selective universities because their admissions criteria screen out most students who are underprepared. The gap is huge, however, in the other two sectors of higher education, which serve between 80% and 90% of undergraduates in public institutions.
In two-year colleges, eligibility for enrollment typically requires only a high school diploma or equivalency. About one-quarter of incoming students to these institutions are fully prepared for college-level studies. The remaining 75% need remedial work in English, mathematics, or both. Eligibility for enrollment in less-selective four-year institutions (often the "state colleges") typically includes a high school diploma and additional college-preparatory coursework. Experience shows that these additional eligibility requirements still leave about half of incoming freshmen under-prepared for college. Firm data on the portions of entering college students who need remediation in English and/or math are not available, but the proportions shown in figure 1 reflect national estimates.1 All told, as many as 60% of incoming freshmen require some remedial instruction.
These national estimates may be conservative, since not all students who are underprepared for college are tested and placed in remedial courses. The California State University (CSU), a large public university system, for many years has applied placement or readiness standards in reading, writing, and mathematics that are linked to first-year college coursework. All first-time students at all 23 CSU campuses must meet these standards, principally through performance on a common statewide placement examination. Despite systemwide admissions policy that requires a college-preparatory curriculum and a grade point average in high school of B or higher, 68% of the 50,000 entering freshmen at CSU campuses require remediation in English language arts, or math, or both. Should the same standards be applied by the California Community Colleges with their open admissions policies, their remediation rates would exceed 80%. There is every reason to believe
that most states would have similar remediation rates if they employed similar college readiness standards and placement tests across all public colleges and universities.
This huge readiness gap is costly to students, families, institutions, and taxpayers, and is a tremendous obstacle to increasing the nation's college attainment levels.
Readiness standards vary widely across states and across institutions within states, which further clouds the meaning of national statistics on remedial rates.