Commentary

Public High School Grads Unprepared for College, Work

This article originally appeared in School Reform News on April 1, 2005.
Whether they went right to work or into college, large percentages of recent public high school graduates do not believe they were adequately prepared for the challenges they faced after graduation, according to a new report from Achieve, Inc., a nonprofit, nonpartisan group created by the nation’s governors and corporate leaders to help states prepare young people for post-secondary education, work, and citizenship.

Employers and professors agree with that assessment, according to the study, published as Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Grdauates Prepared for College and Work? in February 2005. Overall, the study said, “substantial proportions of high school graduates identify gaps in preparation for the skills and abilities expected of them today, and employers and college instructors offer more critical assessments.”

In addition to identifying graduates’ self-reported flaws, the report highlighted solutions offered by recent graduates, college instructors, and employers: “more rigorous courses and higher expectations in high school.”

Graduates Admit They’re Unprepared

The report was based on surveys of 1,487 public high school graduates from the classes of 2002, 2003, and 2004; 400 employers “who make personnel decisions,” such as owners, company presidents, and others; and 300 instructors who teach first-year students at two- and four-year colleges. The surveys were conducted between December 4, 2004 and January 5, 2005. Depending on the group surveyed, response errors ran from plus or minus 3.8 percentage points to plus or minus 6.13 percentage points.

According to the survey, 39 percent—nearly two in five—of recent graduates who went to college after graduation said there were gaps in their high school preparation for the expectations of college. Moreover, even among those who reported feeling extremely well prepared for college, 31 percent took at least one remedial college course.

Among recent graduates who went to work right after high school, 39 percent reported gaps in their preparation for the workplace. The employers who were surveyed apparently agreed, estimating 39 percent of recent high school graduates were “unprepared for the expectations that they face in entry-level jobs.”

Professors Unimpressed

The harshest assessment of recent graduates’ preparation came from college instructors. Only 18 percent of professors polled felt students came to college “extremely” or “very well prepared,” while a quarter reported students are “not too well prepared” or “not well prepared at all.”

Instructors estimated half of all students who arrive at their schools are inadequately prepared for college-level math and college-level writing. In addition, large percentages of instructors felt the public high schools are failing to adequately develop students’ abilities to do such things as “read and comprehend complex materials” (70 percent), “think analytically” (66 percent), and “do research” (59 percent).

Large majorities of graduates acknowledged they would have worked harder in high school had they known then what they know now. Sixty-two percent of college students said they “would have taken at least one harder course,” as would 72 percent of recent graduates who did not go to college.

Only 24 percent of all surveyed high school graduates felt “they faced high academic expectations” in high school and “were significantly challenged.”

All Want Higher Standards

Large percentages of students, employers, and college instructors alike agreed students need more challenging course work in high school, translating into widespread support for raising standards. Eighty-two percent of college students, and 80 percent of working graduates, reported they would have worked harder in high school had their schools demanded more of them.

Similarly, large majorities of employers (83 percent) and college instructors (81 percent) agreed that making curricula more difficult would help alleviate the problem of inadequately prepared graduates.

Perhaps the most surprising finding of the survey was that all three groups—students, college instructors, and employers—not only favored tightening high school standards, but they also supported requiring that students pass exit exams to graduate. Eighty-one percent of graduates endorsed the idea, as did 79 percent of instructors and 89 percent of employers.

In addition to higher standards and exit exams, other popular remedies included providing more Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes; “providing opportunities for real-world learning”; “making coursework more relevant”; and having teachers or guidance counselors give students course-taking advice early in high school.

“Like their college instructors and employers,” the report concludes, “recent high school graduates say higher expectations in high school and tougher course requirements and tests prior to graduation would leave them better prepared for the real challenges they are now facing.”

Neal McCluskey is Cato Institute education fellow.