Claimed College Readiness Numbers Are Lower than Actual College Attainment Numbers

Over the holidays, people may have missed this NYT piece about fears that rising graduation rates (82% for the class of 2014) show how it has become too easy to graduate from college. Fears of lower standards is one reason for the Common Core and the whole standardized testing movement. There’s little evidence of falling achievement—some people point to declines in SAT scores, but this has more to do with changes in the number and population taking the test. Still, the percentage deemed college-ready is very low. The article cites how in the most recent 12th grade NAEP (2013), less than two-fifths (40%) met the National Assessment Governing Board’s criteria for college readiness.

However, this is misleading, because more than 40% go on to college and graduate. According to census data from 2014, among Americans age 25 – 29, 64.3% have gone on to college. Yes, some of these left before gaining a degree, but this could be due to nonacademic reasons such as the high cost of college. The percent who finished college is still higher than NAEP’s 40% figure. Among age 25-29, 44.1% had a college degree, and among age 30-34, 47.3% did.

Moreover, the NAEP figure only includes those taking the exam at the end of the senior year, so excludes dropouts. When I exclude K-12 dropouts from the college calculations, the percentage of high school graduates who earn a college degree goes to 48.5% at age 25-29 and 53% at age 30-34.

Since there most likely were some students who left college for non-academic reasons, the actual percentage who could have finished college is most likely higher. Yes, colleges have remedial courses and resources to help low-achieving students, and some who were not college ready in their high school senior year may have become ready after spending time in the workplace. Still, it does not seem realistic that 53% of high school graduates would be able to graduate from college if only 39% were college-ready.

Now since those age 30-34 would have graduated high school 12-16 years ago, it is possible that today’s high school graduates have fallen behind. However, comparing long term trends data from 2012 and 1996 (, show only a one point drop in math and a one point drop in reading. So it is unlikely that there was a large difference in student performance that could account for 30-34 year olds being more college ready while they were in high school.

Of course, America needs more students to graduate college-ready and more students to complete college. Because so many jobs require further education, all Americans need to graduate high school and complete some form of postsecondary education or job training. Still, it is overly alarmist to claim that less than 40% of seniors are college ready when 53% graduate from college.

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