It's Time To
Tell the Kids: If You Don't Do Well in High School, You Won't Do Well in
College (or on the Job)
By James E. Rosenbaum
Every year I ask my college class how many students have seen a high school teacher cry, and most students raise their hands. When I ask what provoked the crying, most stories are about teachers who threaten to give students bad grades and students who do not care. When I ask my colleagues the same question about their high school teachers from one or two generations ago, virtually none can recall such tears. This is not a systematic survey, but it suggests a big change.
Today, nearly all high school seniors believe that they are going to college--and that bad grades won’t stop them. They are right: With the dramatic increase in open admissions colleges, it is true that they can go.
But as I report in my recent book Beyond College for All, students who perform poorly in high school probably won’t graduate from college--many won’t even make it beyond remedial courses. High enrollment rates and low graduation rates are well-known facts of life in most open admissions and less selective colleges (both two- and four-year). The tight connection between high school preparation (in terms of both the rigor of courses taken and grades received) and college completion are well known to statisticians, researchers, and policymakers who follow such matters.
But research suggests that students still do not understand this connection. Consider the following: Seventy-one percent of the class of 1982 planned to get a college degree. Ten years later, 63.9 percent of those with A averages had attained an A.A. degree or higher, but only 13.9 percent of those with C averages (or lower) had done so (Rosenbaum, 1998, 2001). (In a more recent cohort [the class of 1992], students with C averages or lower fared a little better; 20.9 percent attained an A.A. degree or higher within eight years of graduating from high school [Rosenbaum and Gordon-McKeon, 2003]). As of 1992, 84 percent of high school seniors planned to get a college degree (NELS, 1992); but data from the high school classes of 1972, 1982, and 1992 tell us that only 45 to 49 percent of students who enter college and earn more than 10 credits actually earn a bachelor's degree--many even fail to earn 10 credits (Adelman, 2004). For students with high school averages of C or lower, the chances that they will earn even one college credit are less than 50-50 (Rosenbaum, 2001). Do your students know that? Do your colleagues? Did you know that?
Despite the availability of open admissions institutions and increased student aspirations for college degrees--factors that increase college enrollment--the easiest-to-use predictor of a student’s likelihood of graduating from a two- or four-year college is still his or her high school grade point average.* Although any single grade is imperfect, when averaged over a high school career, the grade point average is an excellent predictor of how a student will do in college. This has always been true and there is no reason to expect it to change. Unfortunately, our well-intentioned efforts to encourage all students to go to college regardless of their grades inadvertently gives them the impression that high school grades don’t matter.
In this article, we will look at the facts, indeed the tragedy, behind the façade of widespread college entry--and at what we can do to change the picture, either by increasing the odds that college enrollment will lead to college graduation or by helping students find more productive, successful post-high school paths.
New Dreams, New Misconceptions
These three transformations have dramatically altered the rules of college attendance and given students remarkable new opportunities. However, as with all revolutions, there are also unintended consequences. The revolutions spawned a set of myths--we’ll call them misconceptions--that combined to send a message to students: Don’t worry about high school grades or effort; you can still go to college and do fine. This message has not been sent to high achievers aiming for prestigious colleges, where grades and scores matter--and the students headed there know it. But it is the message that students who know little about college have received--particularly those whose parents did not go to college. These students (and their parents) are being misled with disastrous consequences. Their motivation to work hard in high school is sapped; their time to prepare for college is wasted; their college savings are eaten up by remedial courses that they could have taken for free in high school; and their chances of earning a college degree are greatly diminished. Further, the effect on many colleges has been to alter their mission and lower their standards.
This article reviews some of the misconceptions spawned by these three revolutions and rebuts them--and considers how schools can mitigate the terrible impact these misconceptions are having on individual students and, inevitably, on the overall school environment.
Misconception 1: College
success is not linked to high school preparation.
Misconception 3: High
school homework doesn’t matter for college success.
Misconception 4: Going to
college means taking college-level classes.
Moreover, in an effort to reduce students’ feelings of inferiority, college advisors often downplay the fact that courses are remedial. As a result, many students do not even realize the nature of their coursework. In one research survey, students were given a list of the colleges’ remedial courses, asked which ones they had taken and whether the courses counted toward a degree. From interviews with administrators, the researchers knew that none of these courses counted toward a degree. Unfortunately, most students did not (see chart below). Among first-year students taking three remedial courses, 36 percent reported that these courses counted, and another 48 percent were not sure. Even among second-year students taking three remedial courses, 36 percent believed the courses counted for college credit and 44 percent were unsure (Deil-Amen and Rosenbaum, 2002).
Misconception 5: Going to
college for a two- or four-year degree takes two or four years.
Misconception 6: School
counselors should not offer discouraging words about the hard work
Clearly, some counselors do not feel free to give their professional opinions. If they are too candid, they can be accused of "low expectations," even if their concerns arise from students’ school records. When counselors fear they may have to pay for honestly explaining students’ future options, they back away from doing so. They not only yield to parents’ wishes, but they sometimes change their initial advice to avoid trouble. Many counselors report that they advise students with D-averages to attend a community college and later transfer to a four-year college. One student with a D-average wanted to apply to Harvard, so his counselor suggested that he could begin at community college and then look to transfer to Harvard after two years. The college-for-all mentality is a perfect way to avoid unpleasant issues that are likely to arise as students make plans for the future.
In the past, counselors often acted as "gatekeepers,"
advising low-achieving students on alternatives to college (Cicourel and
Kitsuse, 1963; Rosenbaum, 1976), including providing advice about which
non-college training options could lead to well-paid, respected occupations
and even using their contacts to place non-college-bound students into
respectable jobs. (For more information on the importance of high school for
the non-college bound, see Sidebar:
All Good Jobs Don't Require a College Degree....)
If heavy-handed gatekeeping by counselors has indeed become less common, no one will grieve its loss; only two generations ago, counselors often had a decisive, sometimes secretive, impact on which colleges students would apply and go to. But if counselors are not giving students the information they need about the requirements for completing college, then many students may be aimlessly drifting through high school and community colleges without any notion of what requirements they will have to meet to earn a degree. In that case, gatekeeping has not ended, it has only been deferred, and many students will haplessly find themselves failing out of college without any forewarning of what is happening. Today, many students are making college plans that are not likely to be realized. Parents, administrators, counselors, and teachers must work together to understand the connection between high school effort and college success--and to convey this reality to students. It should go without saying that counselors can’t take on this countercultural mission on their own. In the next article, high school staff can see what students need to know to be prepared for college; for distribution to students, a college fact sheet (What You Need To Do in High School If You Want To Graduate from College).
The New Rules of the Game
Those looking for justice may see it in the finding that unmotivated students will end up worse off--stuck with remedial classes, fewer college credits and degrees, and lower earnings. But this is not a happy ending. Students waste their high school years, disrupt high school for others, drag down the standards in high school, and force colleges to provide high school courses as an increasingly larger segment of their curriculum.
How can we improve the situation? Since the playing field has drastically changed in the world of higher education, new "rules of the game" have arisen. New high school practices must be established to match them. These new rules of college can be summarized succinctly:
· All students can plan to get a college degree; but if they are unprepared, they must be willing to repeat high school courses in college, spending the extra time, money, and effort in non-credit, remedial courses.
· All students can attend college, but low-achieving students should be warned about remedial courses and their own unlikely prospects for graduation.
· College completion, as opposed to enrollment, requires increased high school effort. If students delay their academic effort until they get to college, the delay will make degree completion take longer, cost more, and be less likely.
· Policies to improve students’ preparation for college do not remove a school’s obligation to provide students with information about their college prospects.
· Students whose college prospects are dim should be provided good information about alternatives to college that can lead to a successful employment life. These students can also be informed about opportunities to attend college later in life.
School staff could play a critical role in providing information and resources to help students make choices that will support their own long-term goals before it is too late. Unfortunately, it seems that students are not getting this information, nor is there a clear mandate for high school counselors or teachers (or, for that matter, administrators) to give this advice. How could a better job be done in this area?
1. High schools should monitor and publicize the academic preparation and college completion rates of their college-bound graduates. It is common practice for high schools to trumpet the percentage of kids they send on to college--as if this were the major indicator of a high school’s success. Instead of focusing on just the number of seniors who go to college, high school administrators should monitor their graduates’ preparation for college-credit classes (through, for example, achievement test scores and success in the first year of college) and brag about that: College preparation, not college attendance, is the real achievement. They should also inform students about degree completion rates for prior graduates (by showing the percentage of students who earn college degrees broken down by grade point average, for example). In addition, high schools should provide information about various local colleges, including degree-completion rates and the average number of years students took to complete their degrees.
schools should require students aiming for college to take modified college
placement exams. Society needs to give students clear information about the
achievement prerequisites for college courses. Since colleges already give
tests to assess whether incoming freshmen are assigned to credit or remedial
classes, one solution is relatively straightforward: These tests could be
modified and given to high school students to tell them whether they are ready for college-level work. If
colleges do not want to prepare a new test, they could recommend an existing
one or simply give high schools the previous year’s freshman placement
exams. These exams could be given to high school seniors, and a modified exam
could be given to high school sophomores, to tell them whether they are
making satisfactory progress toward college. If not, students must improve
their achievement, revise their goals, or accept the fact that they will have
to take remedial courses in college.
3. High schools should clear up the misconceptions. Counselors are the front line here, and they’ll need a lot of support. All school personnel should be well-armed with the facts and encouraged to convey them to students. And the facts are clear: High school performance matters. Hard work in high school matters. Doing homework matters. Taking rigorous courses matters. Getting good grades matters. All of these are closely connected to whether students succeed in college. (And, interestingly, they’re also closely connected to whether non-college bound students succeed in their jobs.) High schools should also make sure students are well informed about college remedial courses, specifically: These are the courses they will be enrolled in if their high school work is not up to snuff; these courses do not bear college credit; taking them amounts to paying for an education that could have been had for free in high school; and students who have to take several of them almost never reach college graduation. (The sidebar, What You Need To Do in High School If You Want To Graduate from College, is a student-friendly fact sheet on the importance of high school achievement for college.)
4. High schools should serve college- and work-bound students equally well. Teachers, counselors, and administrators dream of students working hard, doing well in school, and graduating from college. It is a wonderful dream--but that doesn’t mean it is in every student’s best interest. Those who haven’t done well academically and those whose interests are not in the liberal arts are best served with an honest look at their current chances in college and a serious examination of the alternatives, such as training opportunities and job placement assistance. The fact is, despite the economy’s growing preference for college degrees, there are many good jobs available to high school graduates. (For more information on the importance of high school for the non-college bound, see the sidebar All Good Jobs Don't Require a College Degree....) Postponing college is also a viable option. Many students enter college when they are older, often after several years of work. More than half of the students in two-year colleges are older than 24, and about one-quarter of them are over 35 (NCES 1999). Their age and employment may give them the experience to make better course choices, the maturity to be more disciplined students, skills that will help them pass some courses, and perhaps even employer-paid tuition benefits.
Too often, we think students’ problems are inside of them,
and we blame students’ poor motivation. However, most students tend to
be motivated if they see incentives for effort. But in the case of high
school performance, we obscure what is at stake for most students. While top
quartile students (those aiming for highly selective colleges) are told the
incentives for better grades and test scores, the vast majority of students
get the impression that high school achievement, grades, and test scores are
The American educational system has taken a bold step in making college accessible to so many students. However, the revolution is still incomplete, and research has identified a number of difficulties in educators’, parents’, and students’ understandings of college and what it requires. This revolution poses new challenges and a set of unintended consequences. We will need thoughtful solutions to address them.
E. Rosenbaum is professor of sociology, education, and social policy at
* Grade point average is the easiest-to-use predictor of college success. Research by Clifford Adelman (1999), however, shows that the intensity and quality of one's high school curriculum is actually an even more powerful predictor. But since course content and teacher expectations vary widely from school to school, making use of this indicator can be difficult. Nonetheless, the gist of both Adelman's and my research is clear: College-bound students should take the most difficult courses possible and work hard to earn the highest grades possible. To read more about Adelman's findings, see High School Preparation Is the Best Predictor of College Graduation.
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by the American Federation of Teachers, AFL•CIO. All rights reserved.