College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

A High School Diploma Doesn’t Guarantee College Success

By Joseph Sanacore & Anthony T. Palumbo — April 21, 2015 5 min read

We are pleased to read reports about the increase in high school graduation rates. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. high school graduation rate has risen to more than 80 percent, the highest in the nation’s history. This is a tribute to the teachers and administrators who have been working diligently to help students improve their academic performance.

The next step for these students is a serious one. Its possibilities for failure are reflected in the concern voiced by many educators that a large number of these students are not ready for college. Many are marginal graduates who typically enter college unaware of the demands and expectations of the college culture. Regrettably, most will drop out, often burdened with loan debt.

Especially at risk are high school seniors who are the first in their families to attempt a college education. They need careful guidance in selecting a higher education environment that closely aligns with their abilities. This matching process begins with high school counselors, teachers, and administrators researching the colleges that students are considering. Valuable information is available through media sources, such as The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website, which lists the four-year and six-year graduation rates of colleges nationwide.

Shockingly, some colleges have four-year graduation rates of 30 percent or less, with some as low as 10 percent. In New York state, for example, Long Island University’s Post campus has a graduation rate of 21.7 percent, and its Brooklyn campus’s rate is just 8 percent. Similarly, Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., has a graduation rate of 22.9 percent. Yet, New York state’s overall average for four-year not-for-profit colleges is just over 55 percent. High school counselors, teachers, and administrators need to be aware of such information and able to share it with the students who are entrusted to them, and with their parents.

What is also needed is an awareness of the programs that some colleges offer aimed at enhancing opportunities for college success. Sadly, if such programs and services are available, they often are splintered, rather than cohesive and consistent. This contributes to the high dropout rate. Providing first-generation students and their parents with honest information about graduation rates and supportive programs for prospective students should be the ethical responsibility of college admissions counselors. But this kind of transparency does not exist on many campuses. Instead, admissions offices focus on helping incoming students complete loan applications, with a profound disregard for determining these students’ potential to graduate and be able to repay their loans. For this reason, high school educators must accept the responsibility for increasing their students’ awareness of some harsh realities of college, because the wrong choice can lead to academic failure, a sense of personal defeat, and years of debt.

Providing first-generation students and their parents with honest information about graduation rates and supportive programs for prospective students should be the ethical responsibility of college admissions counselors.”

High school educators should review a variety of college support systems when developing a policy for matching the right student with the right college. A sampling of evidence-based approaches that might be included in such a policy would address the following questions:

• Does the college examine the demographic backgrounds of incoming students and involve students in setting goals that are interesting, meaningful, and culturally relevant to them?

• Does the college guide students each semester to register for courses that reflect a balance of their abilities and interests?

• Does the college motivate students’ engagement in learning by considering their emotional and cognitive abilities as vehicles for meaningful learning?

• Does the college stress in its courses, and reinforce in its classrooms, the use of deep reading, writing, and note-taking, so that students develop the capacity to respond successfully to difficult texts, resulting in productive challenges, rather than destructive frustrations?

• Does the college use office hours as a warm context for demonstrating a genuinely caring attitude toward students’ well-being?

When high school counselors, teachers, and administrators develop in-depth knowledge of these and other approaches to college success, they increase their chances of helping students analyze college support systems and select colleges appropriately matched to their learning needs.

If colleges are unable or unwilling to demonstrate a solid support system for students’ success, we recommend that high school educators steer students away from them. Such institutions probably have graduation rates substantially below their states’ averages. And these low rates may indicate few qualms about taking students’ money with an awareness that they will not graduate, and may not even complete their first and second years successfully.

High school educators also should understand the shell game that some colleges play, in which administrators use federal Pell Grants to supplant institutional aid that they would otherwise have provided to financially needy students. These colleges then shift the funds to recruit wealthier students, an unscrupulous practice that further undermines poorer students’ efforts to complete their college education.

All of this is especially pertinent to low-income students who are the first in their families to pursue a college education. They and their parents are less likely to be aware of unethical (and possibly illegal) practices employed on some college campuses, and more likely to be taken advantage of by smooth, articulate representatives of these institutions.

High school educators at all levels, and throughout the country, should dissuade their students from applying to colleges with low graduation rates. By doing so, they will be steadily persuading these colleges to take the ethical road less traveled, which involves being transparent about graduation rates; implementing evidence-based, high-impact programs and services that promote higher retention; and using government aid the way it was intended to be used.

Meanwhile, elementary and secondary schools need to do a better job of motivating low-income students, especially boys, to become more literate and aspire to greater levels of education. Then, if President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program is effective, more minority boys will not only graduate from high school, but will also be better prepared to handle college-level requirements.

When high school educators help their community of learners select the right college, they lessen the struggle and mistreatment of first-generation students, whose voice is often marginalized in higher education.

A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2015 edition of Education Week as Graduating From High School Doesn’t Mean College Success


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