Too Many Ill-Prepared

For College Education

A study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research estimates that only 32 percent of public high school graduates leave qualified to attend four-year colleges. The authors define college-ready students as those who have cleared "three crucial hurdles." These students will have graduated from high school, taken college preparatory courses, and demonstrated basic literacy skills. With regard to the first hurdle, the study finds that only 70 percent of students in public high schools nationwide graduate. The number of African American graduates is even lower, 51 percent.

The figures for Prince George's County do not appear as alarming. The graduation rate for our public high schools has remained consistently above 85 percent for the past five years, and in 2005 stood at 86.8 percent. African Americans, who make up a majority of the county's public school population, had a 2005 graduation rate of 87.7 percent.

What is of concern, however, is the gap between the number of students graduating and the number who can be described accurately as college-ready.

At Prince George's Community College, our duty is to ensure that despite their varying needs and motivations, our students leave with a solid, high-quality education that prepares them well for whatever they undertake next. This goal is made more difficult by a chronic lack of academic readiness among students entering directly from high school. Prince George's Community College enrolls more Prince George's County high school graduates than any other institution of higher education in Maryland. As the first choice of county high school graduates, we are in a position to witness firsthand their academic strengths and weaknesses.

Placement tests used as part of our admissions process help determine incoming students' levels of ability in mathematics, reading and writing. Depending on their scores, students are assessed as ready for college-level courses or referred to developmental courses to help them build these basic skills. Because developmental courses are not credit-bearing, they do not count toward a student's credit requirements for graduation. The most recent statistics show that of first-time Prince George's Community College entrants, 61 percent required remediation in at least one area. The weakest area for these students was mathematics, in which 52.7 percent required developmental math courses, followed by 42.3 percent in reading and 21.5 percent in English.

This lack of academic readiness has serious implications for both the students affected and for the college. Clearly, graduating from high school does not guarantee that a student will be prepared for college work. Although it seems reasonable to expect that graduates should have acquired a foundation in the "three Rs" in their high school curriculum, many have not. In a sense, we are providing these students with an education they should have received already. Bringing them to a level of proficiency that will enable them to enroll in college credit courses puts a strain on already scarce institutional resources. The burden on students is even greater. They must expend time and money on courses that will not count toward their degrees. In addition, research shows that students who require developmental courses are less likely to persist in their college education, with the weakest students showing the lowest levels of success.

We know that students with college degrees earn more than their counterparts who do not attend college. They also enjoy better health, exhibit higher rates of civic participation and receive intangible benefits such as personal fulfillment and self-confidence. For students to enter adulthood without the basic skills necessary to enter the workforce or college is a permanent handicap. Addressing this problem will require a collaborative approach by the K-12 school system and higher education. As an open-access institution, Prince George's Community College cannot ignore the needs of under-prepared students. Similarly, our K-12 colleagues should be aware of their responsibility to produce students who can meet the minimum requirements for college classes.

We can work together to create standards for academic preparation that meet college requirements. High school graduation should not be viewed as an endpoint but rather as part of a continuum that includes higher education. The mission, therefore, does not end at high school commencement but at college commencement. We have a number of programs aimed at preparing high school students for college, but these are small-scale and often involve students who are academically capable. A closer partnership between the K-12 system and higher education can result in strategies for tackling the issue of readiness and help create a smoother and more appropriate transition from high school to college.

Ronald A. Williams


Prince George's

Community College