Would you hop on a bus that arrived at its destination only 20 percent of the time?
Probably not. But that’s about the success rate of our nation’s school system when it comes to college readiness. Out of 100 ninth graders, only 18 will earn a two or four-year college degree on time. Even in Vegas, those are lousy odds.
The Reality Check
Many times, the parents of the other 82 kids have no idea there’s a problem until it’s too late. Their kids are getting decent high school grades and doing well enough on standardized tests to get into college. Tragically, it’s in their first college year that many teens find that their Bs and Cs in high school are in fact translating to non-credit, remedial math, reading and writing courses. In short, they are re-doing a good chunk of high school at their expense, all while adjusting to a radical change in academic expectations and social distractions.
At some schools, well over half of the students can find themselves in this situation. If you are thinking, “Not my child,” consider that four out of five students in college remediation courses had a 3.0 GPA or higher in high school. Plus, children that land in remedial courses are twice as likely to drop out of college as those who avoid this track.
Rather than focusing on being successful, we’re laser-focused on the process of getting into college: the tests, the applications, the loans. And while this is unquestionably a critical component to a successful college transition, it‘s only one piece of a bigger puzzle.
The road to college is actually a long one, requiring both endurance and the development of a wide range of skills, not just the basics. Instead, we have been coaching our teens for a long triathlon with only short sprints around the track.
Redefining “The College Plan”
We need to realize that it’s not only about getting into college, but succeeding once you’re there.
So what next?
Many of us are so intimately involved in our child’s education in the early grades (remember panicking over whether or not they’d get into preschool? Helping your child make a paper-mache volcano the night before their science fair project was due?) But sadly, helping our teens navigate their way to college success is something we often feel less comfortable doing. Maybe it’s because we didn’t go to college ourselves. Or, we’ve developed convenient amnesia when it comes to quadratic equations. Trusting schools to cover the bases isn’t enough.
It’s possible to turn this around (and without enrolling in an algebra adult education class.) The first step is for teens and their parents to take more direct ownership of their college readiness plans much earlier than they typically do. If your son’s or daughter’s college planning kicks off with costly test prep classes and a college fair in the gym junior year – guess what? It may be too little, too late.
As your teen approaches high school, map out with them a course plan for the next four years in key subjects like math and English. Help them see how the choices they make now will affect what they want to do in college – and even for their careers. It helps to have regular conversations about what they see themselves doing as adults, and the skills necessary it takes to get them there. Early success in math or writing can help them take more advanced classes later in school that more accurately reflect the rigor awaiting them on campus.
On top of academic skills, we need to start cultivating a set of skills that will prepare our teens for what lies ahead. College professors value skills like critical thinking, great written and oral communication, and creativity. Employers value “21st century skills” - rapid adaptation to change, effective collaboration, leadership, and self-management.
These skills don’t fit neatly into a multiple choice question or a classroom designed for a high school experience created 40 years ago. They are developed through group projects, frequent writing, extracurricular activities and high expectations – experiences that are increasingly virtual, international and technology-infused.
With shrinking school budgets, this mostly puts the responsibility on teens and families to find early opportunities to embed these skills into a college success plan. Is your teen involved in activities or clubs that ask them to lead, create or collaborate? Can you identify with them multi- week projects or goals that challenge them to plan ahead and manage competing priorities? Are they building a track record of persistence and greater self-direction in areas that interest them?
The SAT score may still be the “gatekeeper” that determines where our kids get into college, but we have the power as parents to improve the odds dramatically when it comes to how they’ll fare once they’re enrolled. Ultimately, it’s that successful college outcome, not the letter of admission, which will open the door to greater opportunity.
Patrick Supanc is president of Alleyoop, a college and career readiness network for teens at Pearson. He has been a teacher in Indonesia, an education policy adviser at the World Bank and U.N., and he led K-12 market development at Blackboard.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.