On College Readiness, Comptroller Asks Wrong Question, Delivers Flawed Answer 

Graduation rates are rising while standards for graduation are falling. It begs the question: What number of graduating students are college ready?

The Office of the State Comptroller attempts to answer this question for New York City in a recently released audit. They use the metrics for readiness employed by the New York City Department of Education (DOE), which assesses that a college ready student is one who meets four key criteria:

  1. Can successfully meet DOE’s criteria for graduation from high school and obtain the highest possible diploma/credential;
  2. Can make an informed decision about immediate next steps after high school;
  3. Is able to enter a post-secondary pathway without the need for remedial instruction/training; and
  4. Persists through a post-secondary pathway that leads to a degree, credential, and/or employment providing family-sustaining wages.

The audit extracts a random sample of 291 NYC students to assess college readiness and determines that 55 percent match their criteria, though their analysis is limited by the fact that they only observe whether students persisted up to 18 months and they don’t possess any data on college remediation.

More problematic is the assertion that simply graduating high school provides a useful screen for success in college, especially amidst relaxed graduation requirements on Regents exams. College, at least in theory, is significantly more rigorous than high school. Plus, as a matter of incentive structure and cultural norms, colleges are less fixated on student persistence and graduation than are high schools. A student who scrapes by high school with a 2.0 GPA thanks only to support from family and an administration eager to buoy their graduation rate is likely not well-suited to succeed in college.

The other metrics provide a better indication of who succeeded in college, but essentially nothing about who is ready to succeed in college. Indeed they are entirely tautological, reasoning that those who are ready for college are those who enroll (what they label an “informed decision”) and ultimately graduate without a need for remediation. To whatever degree the Comptroller and DOE want to establish useful metrics of college readiness, they need to determine which inputs (e.g. Regents scores, Advanced Placement scores, absence rates etc.) meaningfully predict college matriculation and persistence.

A better approach, albeit one less likely to satisfy bureaucratic impulses toward measurement and central planning, is for DOE and the Comptroller to drop their fixation with college readiness in lieu of deference to families in determining whether the school does a good job in delivering what is best for the student. For many, that might entail options other than college—including vocational training, enlistment, or immediate entry into the labor force.

The temptation to funnel as many students as possible into college is bad policy, and not only because the country faces a major shortage of laborers in lucrative skilled trades for which students could begin their training in high school. Rather, it is often harmful to students who might not have gone to college if left to their own devices. An “informed decision” about college is not the decision to enroll, as the DOE and Comptroller would have it, but one that reasonably weighs the risks and rewards.

Case in point: a recent experiment that randomly sent text messages to college seniors to “nudge” them to complete their FAFSA (financial aid forms) revealed that students who received nudges were 1.7 percentage points less likely to complete a BA degree in four years. Likely, the conscientiousness required to complete the FAFSA form is a useful screen for college success.

The Comptroller report ultimately provides limited clues as to the proportion of New York City students ready for college. Their biggest error might have been asking in the first place.

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