Students’ Readiness for College Low but Rising, Study Says

Published April 1, 2005

Only 71 percent of U.S. students enrolled in public high schools graduate, and only 34 percent graduate ready for a four-year college, according to a new study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Tracking graduation and college readiness rates over time using the most recent data available, authors Jay P. Greene, Ph.D. and Marcus A. Winters found a loss of 1 percent in the national graduation rate from 1991 to 2002. During the same period, however, the percentage of students graduating prepared for college rose 9 percent.

Public high school reforms are both the reason for the rise in college readiness since 1991 and the key to a future growth in college attendance, conclude the authors of the February 2005 report, Public High School Graduation and College-Readiness Rates: 1991-2002. The authors conclude there is “some reason to believe that the standards and reform movement has been increasing the skills of our high school graduates. Finally, our results imply that we cannot increase participation in four-year colleges without addressing the problems of the K-12 education system.”

Financial aid and affirmative action programs are unlikely to increase the number of students in college, the authors say, because poor academic preparation is the most significant barrier to college attendance.

The study finds similarities in the rate of college readiness and college attendance, indicating “there is not a large pool of students who have the skills necessary to attend college but do not do so because of lack of funds or other non-academic factors,” according to the authors. Therefore, they conclude, until more students graduate college-ready, aid and access policies will not significantly improve attendance rates for poor and minority students.

Blacks, Hispanics Still Lag

At present, little more than half of all black and Hispanic students graduate, and less than a quarter graduate with the skills and coursework required for college.

High school graduation and college readiness rates vary significantly by state, the study noted. The states with the highest graduation rates are New Jersey (89 percent), Iowa (85 percent), Wisconsin (85 percent), North Dakota (85 percent), and Minnesota (84 percent). The states with the lowest rates of graduation are Alaska (59 percent), Alabama (58 percent), Tennessee (57 percent), Georgia (56 percent), and South Carolina (53 percent).

Other findings include:

  • a significant gap exists between graduation rates of white and minority students. While 78 percent of white students graduated, 56 percent of black students and 52 percent of Hispanic students graduated from high school with a regular diploma;
  • college readiness rates also vary widely: 40 percent of white students graduated prepared for college, while 23 percent of all black students and 20 percent of Hispanic students were similarly prepared;
  • college readiness and college attendance rates do not vary significantly. According to the most recent statistics, the population of college-ready graduates in 2002 was 1,325,825, and the number of entering freshman was 1,374,649 in 2001.

Government Numbers Questioned

The study employs a revised version of the Greene Method pioneered by the study’s co-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 2002 to an estimate of the number who entered high school in 1998-99 and should have graduated in 2002. Calculations are made to account for population movement and for students who were held back in the ninth 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, one the Manhattan authors consider less reliable.

“Unfortunately, the calculations of high school graduation rates that we would hope would be the most reliable–those produced by government agencies–are consistently among the least plausible. At both the national and state levels, officially reported high school graduation rates are routinely inflated,” the report said.

Few Students College-Ready

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

  • the student must have graduated from high school;
  • the student must have scored at or above the “basic” level on the NAEP reading exam; and
  • the student must have taken the minimum core of high school classes required 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.

By these measures, only 34 percent of all students were found by Greene and Winters to be college-ready.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has noted that “80 percent of the jobs now require post-secondary training. We must do a better job in ensuring better high school graduation rates as well as making sure that those graduates take a rigorous course of study that prepares them either for college or the workforce.”

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

For more information …

The February 2005 study by Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Public High School Graduation and College-Readiness Rates: 1991-2002, is available from the Institute’s Web site at