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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::1st Entry: The Puzzle of College Success>


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 Success is Contingent on College Readiness. The College Dream in America Betrayed. But Who Cares?

Every year, interspersed with end-of-school-year and graduation news stories, there is a spate of stories about stressed-out students and parents, competitive college admissions, a high school wall filled with college-rejection letters, the new SAT, expensive tuition and onerous high-school course loads.

And from reading local newspapers about the rarified atmosphere in Palo Alto schools, one gets the impression that this is the typical experience for college-bound high-school students across the nation.

Nothing could be further from the truth, because about 70 percent of high-school graduates go on to college within two years of graduation -- although many must do some catch-up remedial work once they get there.

I once directed a seven-year study (Stanford University's Bridge Project) that culminated in a popular report: Betraying the College Dream: How Disconnected K-12 and Postsecondary Education Systems Undermine Student Aspirations.

We found that 80 percent of the U.S. students attend postsecondary institutions that accept all qualified applicants (most of the California State University system) or are open enrollment.

About 40 percent of first-time freshman enroll in a community college that accepts all applicants over 18.

The main initial problem these students face is failing a placement exam and having to enroll in remedial courses to start their higher-education experience. The California State University remediation rate is nearly 60 percent for incoming freshmen, and community-college remediation rates are even higher. Entering students are not prepared for college.

California State universities admit more than 90 percent of students without looking at SAT scores because sufficient grades qualify the student for admission. Many four-year institutions around the United States are much easier to get into than Cal State.

Tuition and fees for a full-time student are relatively low. But many low-income college students need aid and do not know how to apply for federal or state assistance, as the number of counselors advising students in California is near the bottom nationwide.

Eighty percent of college-bound minority students in California enroll in community colleges. The roughly 150 most selective colleges in the United States enroll less than 12 percent of their students from below the median income of U.S. families.

When UC cuts a few thousand admitted students because of state budget cuts, I am besieged with media phone calls asking for comment. When California community colleges cut 100,000 students, no one calls-- no one seems to care.

Many of these students have family responsibilities, attend only part-time and stop out to earn more money for their education. Forty-five percent of California's K12 public-school students are Latino, and this percentage increases for the foreseeable future. There are four times as many Latino students in community colleges as there are in UC, the California State universities and all private colleges in California combined.

I also question how stressed out most high-school seniors really are from hard academic work. UCLA surveys a national sample of incoming freshmen at four-year (not two-year) colleges each year. Nearly every year the hours of study by high-school seniors go down and grades go up. Sixty-five percent of high-school seniors report doing five hours or less homework per week. In 1983, 47 percent did six hours of homework per week, but by 2002, only 35 percent did. High-school students do work a lot, but much of it is in off campus jobs at 15 hours per week or more.

My study reveals that these students at broad-access colleges -- such as California State universities and community colleges -- do not receive clear signals about college readiness. They believe community colleges must accept anyone, and view it as a souped-up high school. They do not realize community colleges design their courses to qualify for transfer to University of California credit.

Students at minimally selective four-year colleges usually do not take math in their senior year of high school, and think Cs and Bs in high school are sufficient for freshman work. They should be spending their senior year getting ready for college.

Only 22 percent of entering community-college students who want a four-year degree actually get one, nationwide. At minimally selective four-year colleges, fewer than half finish their degree. Too many students are not staying in college.

Yet, the top 15 percent of U.S. students are academically prepared and more than 85 percent of them are staying in college. I have observed that in my 36 years at Stanford entering freshmen keep getting better academically. Their research skills are impressive.

But 88 percent of eighth graders want a college degree, since they know college will help them in a competitive job market. Yet, unless broad access postsecondary education and high schools work more closely together to help them succeed, their college dreams will evaporate.

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