Chester E. Finn, Jr., distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, recently reflected on the illusion of college readiness for National Affairs. Excerpts from his piece appear below:
Our K-12 education system has a transparency problem, and our higher-education system is complicit. While some American parents have a decent sense of whether their children are on track for the kinds of colleges they hope to attend, many more have been kept in the dark—or have been sorely misled. Most parents think their children are on track to be prepared for college after their 12th-grade year, and most students agree. But the truth is, a shockingly large share of graduating high-school seniors are not prepared to go to college—more than half, by some estimates. Given that the vast majority of high-school students plan to eventually pursue some kind of post-secondary degree, this means millions of kids are being set up for failure.
Our schools create a fog when it comes to academic preparation for college success. Concerned more with inclusiveness, validation, and graduation than with college preparedness, administrators encourage teachers to, for instance, consider pupil effort in their grading, and push students to take advanced courses for which they have the ambition but not the readiness. The education system has generally persuaded itself that this fog is better for kids than clarity would be.
And the colleges themselves are complicit in this fraud, often for similar reasons. They admit students who they know are not adequately prepared to take on credit-bearing courses, and then require them to complete remedial classes to catch up. Most students who are required to take these “developmental” courses never make it to classes that earn credit, and in time they leave school with nothing but debt and disillusion.
The “free college” plan [that has recently been touted] would do nothing to solve the problem that students aren’t able to do the work, and it would only inflate the number of ill-prepared students pursuing post-secondary degrees that they cannot achieve.
Everyone supports “high standards” in principle. In reality, however, it’s painful and unrewarding to convey bad news about kids, and far easier to pass the buck while hiding behind an ideology of universality, opportunity, and second chances. It’s high time that all who have been complicit in this illusion admit that it’s not working, at least not for the kids who most need it to. Opportunity and aspiration are commendable. Dishonesty is not.
What America needs is a greater variety of opportunities and more legitimate paths toward them.