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If Most Students Aren't Ready for College, Why Are So Many Going?

Do today’s high school students have what it takes to succeed in college? If you look at the latest numbers from the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement testing programs, most don’t.

The College Board recently released a report in which it determined that 58% of SAT test-takers in the class of 2015 were not ready for college-level work or, for that matter, a successful post–high school career for those who choose to forgo continuing their institutional education.

To some who teach at the college level, this probably comes as no surprise, as more and more first- and second-year students appear to be struggling to keep up with the work. The problem, however, shouldn’t be dismissed as exclusively the fault of an educational system that fails to adequately prepare their young charges for what comes after they have been herded through the lower grades.

Rather, what deserves closer examination is the questionable ethics of encouraging students who are clearly not equipped with the skills and resources to succeed in college to apply nonetheless—and accepting them into programs they are unlikely to complete.

What other explanation could there when nearly 70% of all high school graduates end up in college when only 42% are up to the challenge?

Higher education is a volume-driven business. So it’s reasonable to assume that as the number of college-ready applicants declines, those schools that are under pressure may choose to respond by relaxing admission standards. Yet how would that shift in policy be communicated to the faculty? In a memo that essentially says, “Heads up, folks: We’ve just dropped trou on admissions, so ease up on your curricula.”

It’s a mystery that the college graduation rate is still stuck in the 60% range (when outcomes are measured at the six-year mark) and student-loan payment delinquencies are mounting. Those are some of the issues the Obama administration is now attempting to address.

Two weekends ago, the Department of Education released a mass of information called the College Scorecard that it hopes will help students and families to make more informed decisions about the schools they are considering. The institution-specific information includes outcome (graduation) and loan-repayment rates along with median salary levels for those who received federal aid in the form of grants and loans.

Given that more than two-thirds of all college students borrow to fund their education and that the federal government is fronting roughly 90% of that, this latest data dump covers more than half of all attendees at the nation’s public, private and for-profit colleges and universities.

This move, however, is not without its critics.

Some say that more emphasis is being placed on earnings than on the personal developmental benefits of attending college. Others worry about income disparities that exist between careers and disparate geographical locations. Still more complain that even if the data covers more than half of all college students, it’s hard to know how that of those not included might have altered the result.

At first, I too was put off by an analysis that seemed to be crassly materialistic. But then I thought about how higher education is sold in this country: not so much as a national ideal, as it is a means for earning 30%, 40% or more than someone with a high school diploma. And since the cost of that education has increased to the point that few students and their families are able to fund that expense through excess household cash flow, borrowing for college has become routine.

As such, it seems only fair for schools to be measured on this economic basis, which brings me back to the issue of college readiness.

I once had a business partner who was fond of saying, “Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.” College is an expensive proposition, and the average debt that students take on from school will be difficult (if not impossible) to repay without completing a marketable degree from a respected organization.

Note that I say respected, not elite, even though the latest data from the ED highlights the economic advantage of a degree that’s earned from the best of the best. That’s because I believe it’s more what you do with what you have learned than it is where you learned it.

To that point, a little more than a year ago I wrote an article entitled “Who Cares Where You Went to College?” In it, I referenced a survey that was conducted by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, which found that the percentage of American adults who viewed school choice as a forerunner to success was nearly twice that of the business leaders who ended up employing their children.

The takeaway is this: If you’re a high school student and you plan on continuing your education, think long and hard on these two questions.

Is the Timing Right?

Do you have a direction in mind, and are you prepared to commit to the work that will be required? By that I mean, are you confident that you have the necessary maturity, aptitude and discipline to finish what you started? If not, consider working for a year or two in between high school and college. More than a few of the young adults I’ve employed and taught needed that extra time to find themselves before becoming successful later on.

Have You Made the Right Choice?

Does the public, private, two-year, four-year or vocational school you‘re considering offer the program you need for the career you want—at a price you can afford? Specifically, if the cost of the school that you’ve targeted (and can get into) is likely to result in student-loan payments that will exceed 10% to 15% of your post-graduation income, I urge you to reconsider your decision. I say that because whatever promise your future may hold, it could very well end up diminished by the money worries that will distract you for years to come.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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