Students short on requirements, study says

A think tank found
high schoolers lack some courses to enter four-year universities.
Sunday, September 28, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:55 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

As if high school freshmen didn’t have it hard enough: A recent study says only about one in three will graduate with the courses needed to get into the nation’s least-selective four-year colleges.

Nationwide, only 70 percent of all students entering high school will graduate, says a study from the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank that advocates vouchers and school choice. Fewer than half of those — 32 percent of all students — have transcripts that will get them into four-year programs with what the study defines as the least demanding course requirements.

The study, “Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States,” says that to have “any reasonable hope of attending” a four-year college, students need to have taken four years of English, three years of math and two years each of natural science, social science and foreign language. These requirements were developed by looking at four-year institutions researchers deemed “representative of the lowest level of prestige and selectivity.”

The high school graduation rate in Columbia is about 79 percent, just short of the state average of 82.5 percent, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE. But more Columbia students enter four-year schools the year after they graduate — 65 percent, compared to 40 percent statewide.

The majority of ninth- and tenth-graders plan to go to college, said Ann Landes, director of guidance and counseling coordinator for the Columbia Public School District. Students are informed early on of the requirements for various institutions.

“Every year when they enroll they get a course descriptions book, and in the front of that book, there’s a chart,” Landes said. “One column will be high school graduation requirements, another column will be University of Missouri admissions requirements, then another would be the college prep certificate requirements and so on.

“They can look at the chart, and say, ‘What’s my goal?’”

Making the grade

According to the requirements listed in the study, Missouri students aiming for the state’s College Preparatory Studies Certificate still may not make the grade.

The certificate is awarded to Missouri students who exceed basic graduation requirements and meet standards set by the Coordinating Board for Higher Education. The requirements for the certificate, last revised in 1994, serve as standard admission requirements for many public colleges in Missouri, such as Southwest Missouri State University and Central Missouri State University.

To receive the certificate, students need one more year of science than the study recommends and an ACT score of at least 21, but they don’t need any foreign language.

UM system schools do require foreign language, as well as having higher requirements in math and social studies. But this is more the exception than the rule, says Bert Schulte, assistant commissioner for the Division of School Improvement at DESE.

“The foreign language requirement is typical for a number of more selective universities,” Schulte said. “Most public universities in Missouri use (the college prep certificate) as a guide.”

While several other schools in the Big 12 conference such as Iowa, Oklahoma and Nebraska require foreign language courses like UM does, they are not a part of the requirements at the University of Kansas — although the Kansas college prep curriculum includes more science and a computer proficiency credit.

And although the study’s “minimum requirements” may not seem minimal in Missouri, students with deficiencies in other course areas may be able to take advantage of additional exceptions. At KU, students can waive the course requirements entirely if their ACT scores are high enough, or if they graduated in the top third of their class. MU offers trial summer admission for students that do not meet the regular admissions standards.

Some schools overlooked

Even as the study overlooks alternatives to standard admission requirements, professors from the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at MU say the study’s focus may be too narrow. Jeni Hart, an assistant professor in the department, criticized the study because “it assumes that four-year colleges and universities are the ultimate goal for an educated society. It completely disregards the role of community colleges as degree-granting institutions themselves and as a system that has established a transfer function to four-year institutions.”

Many community colleges require only a high school diploma or GED for admission, and allow students to build up necessary coursework before entering more selective programs.

And they seem to be gaining in popularity. State figures show that while the number of Missouri graduates heading to four-year universities has remained relatively stable since 1997 at about 40 percent, the number attending two-year colleges has increased from about 20 percent in 1997 to about 25 percent in 2002. Overall, about 68 percent of Missouri graduates attend some form of post-secondary education.

Columbia sees about 74 percent of its graduates move on to further education, although a smaller proportion attend two-year colleges than in other parts of the state, but this may be changing.

“There are a lot of community colleges that students can start out at, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t go on to four-year colleges,” Landes said.

Missouri’s A-plus Program, started in 1993, has provided qualifying students the opportunity to attend public community colleges and technical schools free of charge — the state pays for tuition and books. Students must meet the same course requirements as other graduates, but must also fulfill additional requirements such as attending 95 percent of classes and completing at least 50 hours of unpaid tutoring or mentoring.

As of April, 200 of Missouri’s 572 public high schools, including Rock Bridge and Hickman in Columbia, had received A-plus status and offer the program, and more than 13,000 students had taken advantage of the program.

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