College & Workforce Readiness

Study: Teens’ Unfamiliarity With College Demands Is Seed of Failure

By Sean Cavanagh — March 12, 2003 2 min read
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High school students have little understanding of skills they will need to survive academically in college, a study concludes, a lack of preparation that hampers those enrolling at the nation’s relatively nonselective campuses the most.

Researchers at Stanford University say the lack of connection between high school work—both in courses and standardized tests used in many states—and higher expectations in college are largely to blame for many college students’ struggles.

The study, “Betraying the College Dream: How Disconnected K-12 and Postsecondary Education Systems Undermine Student Aspirations,” is available from The Bridge Project at Stanford University. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Many students do not prepare themselves with college-level classes in high school, partly because they mistakenly assume that community colleges and most four-year institutions will not challenge them, according to the six-year Stanford study, known as the Bridge Project. The report on its findings, “Betraying the College Dream: How Disconnected K-12 and Postsecondary Education Systems Undermine Student Aspirations,” was released March 4.

Students who seek “broad access” colleges and universities— institutions the report defines as admitting almost every student who applies— are most vulnerable to academic shortcomings. Despite the amount of attention paid to elite colleges by the news media and the public, the report says, about 80 percent of all students attend broad-access institutions, which include both public and private community colleges and four-year colleges, but not selective flagship universities.

Stanford’s project examined the link between K-12 and higher education in six states: California, Illinois, Georgia, Maryland, Oregon, and Texas. It included interviews with high school and higher education officials.


The study pinpoints a lack of knowledge among students, especially needy ones, about high school classes they need to prepare for college work. At Portland State University in Oregon, which the study considers a less selective school, 72 percent of the students identified as coming from wealthier backgrounds knew at least three courses required for admission to the campus. But only 45 percent of students from low-income families were aware of those standards.

The report also exposes what the researchers say are basic myths prevalent among high school students. Those misconceptions include assuming that community colleges don’t have academic standards, when those schools do require placement tests to qualify for college-level work; and thinking that taking easy classes is important in high school, to get good grades, when in fact taking tougher courses is essential to college success, Stanford’s research found.

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