December 12, 2011

Degrees of failure: Many high school graduates are unprepared

A significant number of American teenagers graduate from high school unprepared to take their next big steps toward adulthood, according to a study by researchers at The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education.

More than 40 percent of high-schoolers do not follow a college preparatory track or take adequate career and technical education courses, and these missed opportunities can leave young people at a disadvantage after graduation when they enroll in college or look for a job, according to Stefanie DeLuca, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Johns Hopkins, and Regina Deil-Amen, of the University of Arizona.

“This group is a virtual underclass of students who are neither college-ready nor in an identifiable career curriculum,” DeLuca said. “They are likely to depart from high school having taken classes mainly from the high school general curriculum in which they received little to no job preparation or guidance. This group is also less likely to enroll in college, but if they do, they enroll at a remedial level and leave before earning a degree. Either path places them at risk for failure.”

DeLuca and Deil-Amen’s study, “The Underserved Third: How Our Educational Structures Populate an Educational Underclass,” was published by the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk in April 2010.

Analyzing data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study along with other studies, DeLuca and Deil-Amen found that today’s high-schoolers fall into three categories: those on a college preparatory track, making up an estimated one-third of the student body; those who prepare for the post-graduation labor force through career and technical education programs, making up a quarter of the student population; and the more than 40 percent of high school students who don’t have access to adequate college preparation or occupational training.

The college-track students were disproportionately white and of higher socioeconomic status, and the most unprepared students were the poorest, disproportionately underrepresented minority students, immigrant English language learners and first-generation college students.

For some students who delay preparation for four-year colleges or jobs while in high school, two-year colleges seem like a second chance. Some students manage to meet the requirements for highly selective two-year community college programs or make it through expensive occupational programs at for-profit colleges; both options can prepare them for more-lucrative jobs. However, many others end up in less-selective two-year degree programs and often don’t complete the requirements. When they do, such programs may lead to less economically rewarding jobs, DeLuca and Deil-Amen wrote.

“Unfortunately, many who seek a concrete route to a good job pay the high cost of for-profit colleges when the same programs are often offered at a much lower cost in community colleges or state universities,” DeLuca said. “Nowhere is there a safety net to prevent these youth from falling through the cracks in the two-year pipeline. They leave demoralized, having spent time and money with no clear job skills or credentials to show for it.”

To combat these problems, the researchers support the fusion of career and academic curricula in high school to provide more feasible methods of opening up career and college options for all.

“College access has increased dramatically, but to parade enrollment in higher education as a guaranteed pathway to social mobility is illusory,” DeLuca and Deil-Amen said. “To imagine that youth in poverty can be upwardly mobile via college access denies the fact that the education system positions them to be members of an educational underclass and ensures that they experience a structured lack of opportunities.”

The complete article is available online