Sandwiched inside the article The Sun News published last month when data on local, state and national SAT scores were announced was this sobering sentence: “The College Board considers 1,550 a benchmark for indicating college success.”
Those who read that far into the news story came upon the benchmark after learning that Horry County’s average SAT score was 1,484, Georgetown County’s average was 1,364, the state average was 1,431 and the national average was 1,498.
In other words, the average student SAT test taker, whether on the local, state or national level, is not considered likely to succeed in college. Those results come on top of similar ones from the ACT test, the other popular college entrance exam. A report this year by the organization behind that test found that only 25 percent of ACT-tested high school graduates nationwide were adequately prepared for college in all four subjects it covers: English, reading, math and science.
These are harsh truths. And they raise some tough questions. Should every student aspire to college? Is college for everybody? If not, what other paths should be pursued? And when underprepared students do enroll in college, how do we make it more likely that they will succeed?
Answers to some are easier than others. Every student should absolutely have the opportunity to enroll in college. That’s why we support efforts to rein in skyrocketing tuition costs and expand financial aid to lower monetary barriers to higher education. That’s why efforts to improve teacher quality and offer more challenging courses in high school are worthwhile. That’s why low-income students should get the same high-quality education as more wealthy students. We should continue to remove any excuse we can for those students who have the desire, the drive and the abilities necessary to succeed in college.
But just because every student should have the opportunity for a college education, it does not mean that they are automatically entitled to that education or even that every student should pursue that path. Entry into college should still be a challenging goal – an attainable one for anyone willing to put in the academic work necessary, but not a given or a default route for high school students unprepared for its rigor.
Not going to college does not mean students are condemned to a life of penury and obsolescence. It’s true many careers these days do require higher education degrees, but many others still do not. A report this summer by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found there are still many jobs open to those who don’t attend college. About 29 million jobs – 1 in 5 in the U.S. – come with annual salaries of more than $35,000 and don’t require a college degree, the report found. And of those, 11 million pay $50,000 or more a year.
Other options include technical certificate programs, apprenticeship programs ( North Carolina has made strides in that field) or even just internships that provide on-the-job training.
That’s not to say that college shouldn’t be something to aspire to. Those with college degrees fared better during the recession and still make more money on average than those without a degree. But enrolling in college unprepared can be worse than not going to college at all.
In the 2010-2011 school year, the 20,000 students at Coastal Carolina University and Horry-Georgetown Technical College took out nearly $102 million in loans, or roughly $5,000 per student on average, to help pay for school. And yet many of those students will rack up that debt – thousands of dollars worth – and have no degree to show for it.
At CCU, the freshman retention rate (the percentage of first-year students who return to the school the next year) has been dropping in recent years, hitting 63 percent in 2011. Some of those more than 700 students who didn’t return to become sophomores that year likely transferred to other schools. But many others abandoned their studies altogether, all too often saddling themselves with heavy debt loads to pay for that first year.
It should come as no surprise that those the most unprepared for college are among the least likely to succeed.
A recent report by Complete College America, which pushes for better academic success, found that large groups of students are beginning their college career in remedial classes, non-credit courses designed to teach students what they should have already learned before beginning their higher education career. Nationwide, a majority of students entering community colleges are in at least one of these remedial courses, and a fifth of students at four-year schools are. Unsurprisingly, graduation rates for students who begin college this way are much lower than for traditional students.
In South Carolina, students in need of remediation are directed first to the state’s technical college system, which bears the brunt of re-educating them. Such students are paying for classes – in many cases with growing debt – that provide no college credit and which teach subjects they should have learned for free at an earlier stage of their academic career. Locally, HGTC has seen an uptick in recent years of these students, said Marylin Fore, senior vice president for academic affairs at the school. It’s a growing problem and a topic, she said “that keeps me up at night.”
In some cases, high school graduates arrive on HGTC’s doorstep with a less than sixth-grade reading level, in which case the college refers them back to Horry County Schools. But there are many others the school takes on. “There are many testing between a sixth and eighth grade reading level that we are offering studies for,” Fore said.
Fore has made reworking and revamping the school’s developmental studies program – as they term remedial classes – her No. 1 objective this year, she said, improving the assessments that determine the intervention needed and improving the success rate of students who take the classes.
“We’re not saying we’re doing poorly,” Fore said. “We just want to do better.”
So what could help students do better? Improved communication between colleges and high schools would be a start. HGTC is making strides in this regard, sharing information with local school districts about the students who come straight from high school and require remedial education. With such information, the hope is that better coordination of studies can lead to students more prepared for higher education.
“We need to be sitting down with our high schools,” Fore said, and asking them, “Where do you leave off? Where are your competencies, and where do we begin?”
It may also be time to ask some hard questions about the worth of colleges offering such remedial classes. It benefits nobody for a student to go into debt for months of classes that confer no college credit only to drop out because the work is too hard. If students are truly convinced that college is the place for them but don’t have their academic skills up to snuff, there are other options and tutors available, many less expensive.
Asked if students are enrolling in college unprepared for college or if students are enrolling in colleges unprepared for them, Fore didn’t hesitate. It’s the former, she said. Many students just aren’t prepared for the high level of academics necessary to succeed. That leads us to perhaps the biggest question: If students aren’t prepared for college, why are we letting them in?