College & Workforce Readiness

More Prepared for College, Students Face Fiscal Barriers, Study Finds

By Sean Cavanagh — September 21, 2004 5 min read
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High school students in many states are more academically prepared for college than they were 10 years ago, but they also face greater financial obstacles in trying to acquire a postsecondary degree, asserts a study that examines trends in all 50 states over the past decade.

The report, “Measuring Up 2004,” suggests, on the one hand, that changes in elementary and secondary education have resulted in students’ taking more rigorous courses in areas such as science and mathematics.

View data from “Measuring Up 2004,” or read the full report, from The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. (Full report requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

But the same study, conducted by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, also finds that those gains were uneven from state to state. And it concludes that college prices are rising faster than many families’ incomes, making education less affordable and posing a serious long-term threat to the nation’s economic well-being.

“These findings should summon a renewed sense of urgency in all of us,” former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., the chairman of the center’s board of directors, said at a meeting held here last week where the report was released. “We have an agenda here that cannot be deferred without serious consequences for our people, our economy, and our country.”

The report is the third such study conducted by the center, a research and policy organization located in San Jose, Calif., but the first to evaluate trends over a 10-year period. It gives all 50 states individual letter grades, from A to F, in six categories based on how well they provide access to and preparation for college. The study also measures college-completion rates and the overall postsecondary education and economic well-being of adults in those states.

For the first time, the “Measuring Up” study also evaluates individual states on the qualifications of their educators, as measured by the percentage of those working in 7th through 12th grade classrooms with a major in the subject they teach.

Signs of Progress

When it comes to students’ academic readiness for college, there are signs of progress, the report finds. From 1992 to 2002, 44 states showed improvement on most of the indicators of academic preparation, including the number of high school students taking at least one upper-level science and mathematics course, the number of 8th graders taking an algebra course, and the number of students with scores of 3 or higher on a 5-point scale on Advanced Placement tests.

Moving Ahead

More secondary students than ever are enrolling in courses that will prepare them for college, according to a new study. Some states have made great strides in academic preparation for college in the past decade.

9th to 12th graders taking at least one upper-level math course: 1992 2002
Nebraska 39% 61%
New York 34 55
Texas 38 59
West Virginia 34 59
9th to 12th graders taking at least one upper-level science course:
Nebraska 23 38
West Virginia 24 44
8th graders scoring at
or above “proficient” on national math exams:
California 14 39
Idaho 14 27
West Virginia 12 25

“We can no longer attribute all of our college access and quality problems to the failure of public schools,” said Patrick M. Callan, the president of the center, in a statement describing the findings. “High schools have improved over the last 10 years,” he argued, “and we haven’t seen commensurate higher education gains.”

The status of only two states had improved over the past decade in promoting affordability in higher education, according to such indicators as the percentage of income that families devote to college costs and the amount of financial aid devoted specifically for needy students.

Likewise, only eight states had improved in promoting participation in college in that time frame, while 23 states had mixed results and 19 showed a drop in performance.

Those results also led the study’s authors to conclude that the chief barrier many teenagers face in achieving a college education is financial, not academic, as some have claimed. (“Barriers to College: Lack of Preparation Vs. Financial Need,” Jan. 21, 2004.)

States and institutions need to do more to help families, particularly low-income ones, overcome high college costs, the authors contend.

“What has been a pretty good excuse for why kids don’t go to college . looks to be a dodge,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, a senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy, who participated in a roundtable discussion about the report with the authors on the day of its release.

That discussion included political, business, and education leaders from across the country, including Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and board members of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Virginia B. Edwards, the editor and publisher of Education Week, is a member of that board.

Mr. Carnevale maintained that higher education institutions were at risk of becoming a “boutique” service, available to mostly well-heeled families, because of the unmet needs of students with less well-to-do backgrounds.

‘A Dark Side’

While he did not dispute the report’s findings, David T. Conley, who has conducted extensive research on academic preparation for college, cautioned that high school students’ progress on that front should not be overstated.

Vast disparities exist in the quality of advanced courses in subjects such as mathematics and science offered in high schools, Mr. Conley noted in a phone interview. Classes bearing “upper-level” titles, such as those discussed in the study, too often fail to prepare students for higher education, he noted, particularly the rigors of the freshman year.

“What concerns me is the gap between the haves and have-nots,” said Mr. Conley, the director of the University of Oregon’s Center for Educational Policy Research. “We don’t have an indication that the success of students [in] college is changing. ... What may look like a good trend on paper may have a dark side to it.”

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