Congratulations! You’re About to Fail

Richard Lee Colvin, a former Times education writer, is director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Teachers College, Columbia University.

It’s the time of year when the well-educated brace for the seasonal whine of high school seniors who didn’t get into Harvard early action and the subsequent ululating of parents who for the next four years will annually fork over the price of a midrange BMW to some less prestigious school.

If we were smart, we’d cover our ears and fret about a much more serious dilemma: Nearly six in 10 high school graduates in 2005 will start college in the fall, but half of them -- and more than two-thirds of the African American and Latino students who enroll -- will fail to earn either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

That’s bad for them, as they’ll be sporadically unemployed and the jobs they do find as clerks, healthcare aides and the like will rarely pay health benefits. It’s also bad for the economy, especially at this moment when Canada, Korea, Japan, Spain, Australia, Ireland, Finland, Belgium, France and other competitors have figured out the huge benefits of pumping more and more college graduates into their workforces.


So why do U.S. media, policymakers and university administrators continue to worry more about who gets into elite colleges and how much they pay for that privilege? Why don’t they focus on how few students make it through this nation’s higher education system with the tools to help keep the society we all share on track?

Probably because most reporters, policymakers and influential educators wouldn’t be in the positions they’re in if they had to recover from the setback that some public schools inflict. If they had faced that struggle, they might better understand why many of those foundering students find it too difficult to work and go to school at the same time. Why some, especially Latinos and those who live at home, will succumb to the tug of family obligations. Why loneliness will overcome many. Why plenty of motivated, hardworking students will simply be unable to overcome the despair of stepping onto campus and feeling as if they’ve entered a black-tie ball wearing a thrift-store T-shirt. These are the students who met every high school requirement, scoring higher grades than most of their classmates in courses the academic establishment said would prepare them for the future.

That was a lie.

Yes, these students have the required credentials. But they don’t have the skills. They won’t comprehend what they read in college well enough to jump into classroom discussions. They can’t write analytically. They’ll find college-level math over their heads. The California State University system this year required 58% of its freshmen to take remedial classes in math or writing or both, while acknowledging that such classes do a lousy job of helping laggards catch up. In fact, those who take one remedial class are twice as likely to drop out of school, and those who take two rarely finish.

Free and open to all, the public school system tricks students into believing they’ve been well educated, then shoves them into higher education, where learning is rationed by cost and capacity. And despite the decades-long effort to beef up academic demands and the tens of billions of dollars spent to open college doors to students who can’t pay on their own, the percentage of U.S. college students who eventually earn degrees has been about the same since the 1970s.

Over the same period, the nation’s economy, demographics and international competition have become more hostile to the ill-prepared. The sort of manufacturing jobs that can support a family are rapidly being outsourced overseas. The 14 million white-collar jobs that retiring baby boomers are leaving require more college education than the potential candidates for those jobs -- who are, increasingly, Latino and African American -- have to offer, according to an analysis by economist Anthony Carnevale that has pedagogues chattering.

Margaret Orr, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says of the college dropout rate: “If all of our high schools performed at that level, we’d be up in arms.” Advocates with the Boston-based Jobs for the Future argue that the nation needs to double the number of low-income high school graduates who earn a college degree. Doing so, the group says, would add several hundred billion dollars to the nation’s economic output and tens of billions in tax revenues.


Meanwhile, the media play on the shock value of $30,000 or $40,000 tuition bills, perhaps because the colleges that charge that much are the places that journalists would like to see their kids attend, if only they could afford it. So articles and broadcasts smirk at the millions of dollars colleges spend on climbing walls and hot tubs large enough to host a Western Civ class. They ponder the meaning of the battle over affirmative action. But those issues affect but a thin slice of the college-going population, those who attend the 10% to 20% of colleges that cherry-pick from a wealthy, well-qualified crop. The much bigger societal problem of too few students graduating from any college, two- or four-year, receives little ink or air time.

It would be one thing if the media, colleges and policymakers were merely giving short shrift to this problem. What’s frustrating is that they’re also ignoring good solutions.

The education world’s best answers are those that focus on high schools, those that focus on what colleges can do, and those that focus on the students themselves.

The emerging consensus in the first category is that just having high schools do a better job of what they do now won’t be enough. All students need to be pushed more. They need more support. They need to see college as a realistic option. Exit exams, most of which measure what students should learn in middle school, aren’t enough and may be a distraction from preparing students for college and a more-demanding workplace.

Early College High Schools, a $120-million initiative underwritten by a consortium of donors led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to nurture small, hybrid institutions affiliated with community colleges. These schools, several of which will spring up in California, are designed to simultaneously address students’ skill deficits and engage them in college-level work. In five years students earn both a high school diploma and a two-year associate’s degree, putting a bachelor’s degree within reach if they stick college out for two more years.

Another tactic would have all students take the equivalent of a college-prep curriculum, something no state requires, according to Washington-based Education Trust and Achieve Inc., which was set up by business leaders and the National Governors Assn. Jack O’Connell, California’s superintendent of public instruction, has proposed something similar.


With so many eager students queued up outside admissions offices, many colleges don’t care much if students drop out or flunk out once their tuition checks have been cashed. A second group of advocates counters this approach by pressing colleges to help students get up to speed, suggesting the schools connect freshmen with mentors, increase financial aid so students won’t have to work and could live on campus, and push schools to offer more of the courses in greatest demand so financially strapped students can graduate on time. A third category of problem-solvers pushes for programs such as those in Indiana, Michigan, Georgia and Texas, where the state provides scholarships to high school students who take harder classes. Research confirms the common sense of this: Students who work harder in high school do better afterward.

For these solid solutions to gain traction, however, educators, policymakers, journalists and the rest of us who managed to make the best of America’s education system must first step back and take fuller notice of the inequities under our noses. We must grasp that the system that served us well is a failure, producing only two bachelor degrees for every 10 students who start high school. We must acknowledge this failure as our own and recognize it as a threat to the future well-being of our children -- even those who think they have a lock on the Ivy League.