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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

College-going is down, and that could be a good thing

The U.S. could close the college readiness gap -- if the college-going rate keeps falling, writes Fordham's Michael Petrilli. Of course, that only works if it's the unprepared, unmotivated young people who opt out, but not those with a decent chance of success.

"Higher education usually pays off — but only for students that exit college with degrees or other valuable credentials," writes Petrilli. Those who try and fail end up with "debt and regret."

"College for all" is over. Wary of high college costs and high dropout rates, more high school graduates have noticed the "strong labor market for less-educated workers," the Wall Street Journal reported in May.

For decades, there's been a big gap between the percentage of 12th-graders who are college ready, as judged by those who reached the National Assessment’s “college-prepared” level in reading, and the percentage who give it a go, Petrilli notes. Here's his chart:

For the high school class of 2013, for example, 38 percent were college-ready in reading, 66 enrolled in college and 39 percent completed a four-year degree, Petrilli writes. "Almost a million students every year have been heading to postsecondary education even though they weren’t college ready." No wonder they can't pay back their student loans.

Degree completion is way up over time, he notes. College readiness is not. "Starting with the high school class of 2011, we see the college-completion rate nudging ahead of the college readiness rate." So, some students with weak reading skills still managed to complete four-year degrees.

Have colleges figured out how to help the unprepared succeed -- or have they just lowered standards? (I'm fairly sure it's lower standards.)

Post-pandemic students have weaker reading, writing and math skills -- and seem to have trouble with motivation and work habits as well. "The gap between our most recent college-matriculation rate (62 percent) and our most recent college readiness rate (37 percent) is a whopping 25 points," Petrilli writes.

He hopes for a “college for all students who are ready to succeed in it” movement. And, of course, high schools need to do a much better job of preparing students to learn job skills.

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