Misguiding Students Beyond Graduation
“All that glitters is not gold.”
It’s not just how educators guide students through high school that sends signals to students about their potentials and chances for success, but also how educators guide them beyond high school.
Just ask Tre.
When I met Tre, the gregarious African American high school senior had his eyes set on college in his home state of Louisiana. His high school counselor, though, thinking community college a “better fit,” steered him away from four year programs. The local two-year college, she advised him, would offer him a better chance at success and a good job.
What the counselor didn’t tell him — and perhaps didn’t even know — is that the local two-year boasted a three-year graduation rate of just 14 percent and a loan default rate double the national average of 13.4 percent. Nor did she explain that among students who test into remedial coursework (a full 63 percent of freshmen at two-year institutions in the state), already low graduation rates plummet even lower — to just 3 percent.
Tre, following his counselor’s advice, arrived on the community college campus in the fall, diploma in hand and new confidence on display in a practiced college stride. But that stride quickly turned to a stumble as he was shuffled through counseling and the registrars, and then spat out, with an ID number, a bill, and a course-load of developmental classes, onto a campus where he would last just a semester and a half before dropping out entirely.
Tre is not simply representative of the few who couldn’t “cut it,” nor is his particular community college a rare outlier among academic gems. With weak alignment between high schools and colleges, scattershot and meager support programs on campuses, and too little accountability for results, graduation rates at postsecondary institutions — both two year and four-year — run the spectrum, from impressive to downright abysmal.
The odds facing students are sobering. Nationally, only 1 in 5 community college students graduate in three years with an associate degree. And of those who aspire to a bachelor’s degree but begin at a two-year college, only 14 percent actually make it. Meanwhile, while students on four-year campuses generally fare better, just 59 percent of those students who step onto a four-year campus will leave in a cap and gown within six years. And these overall rates mask huge differences between very similar institutions. In Tre’s state of Louisiana, the difference between graduation rates at the highest performing and lowest performing large public master’s institutions is a full 20 percentage points. Same kind of institution, same kind of students, very different chances for success.
Yet students are encouraged to think of every college acceptance letter as a degree waiting to be conferred. “You can make it anywhere,” they are assured, “if you just apply yourself.”
But a wealth of research suggests otherwise: that, when it comes to ensuring student success in college and beyond, the skills and knowledge students enter with, and the track records and supports that colleges meet them with, matter — a lot.
Students need to know that.