1 in 3 Students Graduate College-Ready

Published November 1, 2003

Only 70 percent of U.S. students enrolled in public high schools graduate, and only 32 percent graduate ready for college, according to a new analysis of U.S. Department of Education data by Manhattan Institute researchers Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster.

For black and Hispanic students, the rates are even lower: Roughly half graduate, and fewer than 20 percent graduate with the skills and coursework required for college.

Until more minority students graduate college-ready, financial aid and affirmative action programs are unlikely to increase the number of minority students in college, conclude Greene and Forster in their September 2003 report, Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States.

“[B]y far the most important reason black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in college is the failure of the K-12 education system to prepare them for college, rather than insufficient financial aid or inadequate affirmative action policies,” the authors conclude.

Students in the Midwest and Northeast have the highest graduation rates, while the South has the highest college readiness rate. The states with the highest graduation rates are North Dakota (89 percent), Utah (87 percent), Iowa (85 percent), South Dakota (85 percent), and West Virginia (84 percent). The states with the lowest rates of graduation are Florida and Georgia (56 percent), South Carolina (57 percent), Tennessee (60 percent), and Nevada (61 percent).

Other findings include:

  • Only 51 percent of black students, 52 percent of Hispanic students, and 54 percent of American Indian students graduate;
  • Only 20 percent of all black students, 16 percent of Hispanic students, and 14 percent of American Indian students leave high school college-ready;
  • For white students and Asian students, graduation rates were 72 percent and 79 percent respectively;
  • The college readiness rate was 37 percent for all white students and 38 percent for all Asian students.

A Leaking Pipeline

The disproportionately lower graduation and college-ready rates for minority students mean fewer such students attend college despite affirmative action and financial aid programs. To better understand how this process works, Greene and Forster suggest viewing the education system as a pipeline, with preschool and kindergarten students entering at one end and then flowing through to the other end, where they emerge as high school graduates prepared for college. Too many minority students “leak” out before reaching the end of the pipeline.

“Improving student financial aid or making affirmative action policies more aggressive is like opening the spigot at the end of the pipeline wider,” Greene and Forster explain. “It has no effect on the flow of minority students into higher education because the problem isn’t blockage at the end of the pipeline; it’s leakage in the middle.”

To be effective, Greene and Forster say, any strategy for increasing minority representation in higher education must focus on fixing the leaks in the nation’s public school system, ensuring minority students graduate from high school with the skills needed to be ready for college.

Calculating Graduation Rates

The study employs the Greene Method pioneered by the author in earlier research. The method uses enrollment and diploma data from the Department of Education’s Common Core of Data. The method compares the number of students who received their diplomas in 2001 to an estimate of the number who entered high school in 1997-98 and should have graduated in 2001. Calculations are made to account for population movement and for students who were held back in the 9th grade.

The Greene Method produces a lower graduation rate than the one calculated by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The NCES figure includes GED earners, while these are excluded by the Manhattan Institute study for two reasons: The future prospects of GED earners are similar to dropouts rather than diploma earners; and in fact GED earners are dropouts from the K-12 education system. The NCES also uses a different body of data that the authors consider less reliable.

Calculating College Readiness

To calculate college readiness, Greene and Forster use graduation rates, test scores from the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and NAEP transcript research. They define college-ready using three measures:

  • Students must have graduated from high school;
  • Students must have scored at or above the “basic” level on the NAEP reading exam;
  • Students must have taken the minimum core of high school classes prerequisite for college admission.

The “basic” level is the lowest level of achievement on NAEP exams. Students can score at the “advanced,” “proficient,” or “basic” levels. Those unable to meet the minimum threshold are considered “below basic.”

The minimum core is four years of English, three years of math, and two years each of natural science, social science, and foreign language. That is the minimum high school transcript necessary to be admitted to the nation’s least-selective four-year colleges or universities.

Only 32 percent of all students were found by Greene and Forster to be college-ready. It comes as little surprise that other research has found nearly a quarter of four-year university freshmen must enroll in remedial coursework.

Krista Kafer is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The September 2003 study by Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States, is available from the Institute’s Web site at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ewp_03.htm.