Commentary

College Un-Prep: Are Schools—or Students—to Blame?

This article originally appeared in School Reform News on April 1, 2005.
Achieve, Inc.’s new report, Rising to the Challenge, clearly shows that college instructors, employers, and recent public high school graduates are dissatisfied with graduates’ preparation for college or employment. But it’s much less clear who is to blame: schools or students?

Nearly 40 percent of high school graduates surveyed said there were gaps in their high school preparation for college or employment. Employers and college instructors agreed, with the former estimating 39 percent of recent graduates were unprepared for entry-level jobs, and 25 percent of the latter saying incoming students were inadequately prepared for college.

While flaws in recent graduates’ preparation for life after high school were easily identified, the causes were not. Large percentages of graduates reported they did not work as hard as they could have in high school, noting that if they knew in high school what they discovered afterwards, they would have put in more effort.

Low Standards at Fault

The students tended to blame the schools, rather than themselves, for their limited effort. About 80 percent said that if their schools had demanded it they would have worked harder.

Public Agenda’s recently released survey, Life After High School: Young People Talk about Their Hopes and Prospects, corroborates Achieve’s findings. In Public Agenda’s report, 62 percent of graduates who went to college, and 78 percent who went straight to work, said they could have worked harder in high school.

But those students, too, tended to blame the schools for their problems, with 48 percent who went to work, and 38 percent who went to college, saying their teachers and classes “should have done a lot more” to prepare them for life after graduation.

So are low standards to blame for graduates’ shortfalls, or students themselves? In both Rising to the Challenge and Achieve’s December 2004 report, The Expectations Gap—A 50-State Review of High School Graduation Requirements, low standards are fingered.

Just as large percentages of respondents in Rising to the Challenge thought increasing standards would improve high school students’ preparation, The Expectations Gap concluded every state should bolster curriculum requirements.

Students Don’t Value Academics

Other studies, however, suggest the problem might be that American students simply do not value academics.

In 2001, The Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy surveyed foreign students who studied in American high schools, and in 2002 it surveyed American students who went abroad. Both surveys found American students care much less about academic studies than do students in other societies, and that U.S. students emphasize athletics and employment much more than do their counterparts.

Neal McCluskey is Cato Institute education fellow.