The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

College Readiness Begets College Persistence Which Begets College Success

Signaling theory suggests that streamlined and aligned high quality and appropriate content messages have a positive impact on learning and achievement. Crucial aspects of appropriate signals and incentives are simplicity, clarity and consistency .

Consistency is enhanced when signals, incentives, and institutional policies are aligned. For example, the alignment of format and content of state and local student assessments with SAT I.

Incoherent and vague signals and incentives sent to secondary school students causes inadequate student preparation for postsecondary school. Minority students are often placed in low academic high school courses and tracks that decrease both motivation and academic preparation.

In the Chicago area counselors do not want to give low-achieving students negative information about their future prospects, so they advocate college for all without stressing necessary academic preparation. Since it is easy to enter so many four-year and two-year schools, there are scant incentives to work hard in high school. Thus, too many students are not ready for college.

Once students enroll in broad access institutions they face challenging placement exams, faculty expectations, and general education/graduation requirements that they often did not know about in high school. This ignorance exacerbates risk factors in college which often reduce rates of college completion.

Students end up taking remedial non-credit courses that better signals may have prevented, such as the fifty-five percent failure rate of placement exams by first year students entering the nineteen-campus California State University system from high school.

Combined and reinforcing signals by postsecondary education and K12 will improve college knowledge that is essential for student aspiration and college preparation.

College knowledge is acquired and possessed unequally among students and families of different social classes and racial/ethnic backgrounds. College knowledge by secondary school students and parents includes knowledge of tuition, curricular requirements, placement tests, and admission procedures and selection criteria. A high school's culture of college readiness cannot be fully measured via simple, visible, or discrete indices such as standardized test scores, honors and advance placement courses, and postsecondary placement. Secondary school collegiate culture also encompasses the less tangible, more elusive qualities that can best be described through narratives that reveal the sustaining values or ethos of a high school.

Signals and incentives sent along either through a separate postsecondary education or K12 system will result in less student preparation, less college knowledge, and less college success.

Strong consistent signals sent by both levels of education have positive impacts on college completion, while confusing or weak signals provide a negative influence.

Combined efforts between K12 and postsecondary especially help disadvantaged students, while honors and AP students can succeed with less K16 cooperation. Teachers can be a crucial source of college knowledge, but students in non-honors courses have less communication about college. Clear and consistent signals are related to positive outcomes such as less remediation and more completion of a student's desired postsecondary program.

Joint efforts between postsecondary and lower education are crucial in creating positive outcomes for more students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged families, families in which a parent did not attend college, and those students who face stigmatization and racism as they proceed through school.

If there is no K-16 interaction and reinforcement of signals, the more advantaged students will receive ample signals and incentives to prepare for postsecondary education. But the more educationally disadvantaged high school graduates will enroll at lower rates, require remediation, and experience lower postsecondary completion rates.

For more information on this signaling theory see Michael Kirst and Andrea Venezia , From High School to College, Jossey Bass, 2004. Also, please visit us at MyCollegePuzzle.

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