Why Do Colleges Admit Students Who Can’t Do the Work?

Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump

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Every year, American schools get their annual report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress(NAEP), and like all depressing report cards, it is whisked out of sight as quickly as possible.

The nation’s public schools are a mess. Only 37 percent of 12th graders tested proficient in reading and only 25 percent in math. Yet the inability to read or do math seems to be no barrier to college. Unprepared students are flooding into college in record numbers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 70 percent of white high-school graduates and 58 percent of black graduates in 2016 enrolled in college. In his syndicated column, veteran columnist Walter E. Williams asks, “If only 37 percent of white high school graduates test as college-ready, how come colleges are admitting 70 percent of them? And if roughly 17 percent of black high school graduates test as college-ready, how come colleges are admitting 58 percent of them? It’s inconceivable that college administrators are unaware that they are admitting students who are ill-prepared and cannot perform at the college level. “

Do college leaders know that they are welcoming high school graduates who have no ability to do college work? Of course. That’s why more than 200 colleges put more than half of incoming freshmen in one or more remedial classes. Colleges keep searching for unchallenging courses that barely literate students can pass.

Williams says one clue to badly watered-down classes is the word “studies,” as in ethnic studies, cultural studies, gender studies and American studies. And what major is most selected by ill-prepared students? Education, Williams says. When students’ SAT scores are ranked by intended majors, education ranks 26th on a list of 38. I’m not sure about what can be done about education,” Williams writes. “But the first step toward any solution is for the American people to be aware of academic fraud at every level of education.”

John Leo

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

12 thoughts on “Why Do Colleges Admit Students Who Can’t Do the Work?

  1. Yes, it is a money chase. That characterizes it the problem, but it does not identify the cause. It is an imbalance between the number of adequately prepared applicants and the number of four-year institutions. Nearly 40 percent of high school graduates require some post admission remediation. In aggregate, our secondary schools are certifying too many of their graduates as college ready. That is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. On the other side of the imbalance, there are too many institutions fighting to stay alive. A measured tightening of four-year admissions standards could prompt a positive rebalance.

  2. Please differentiate between elementary-trained teachers, and their secondary counterparts (and the Liberal Arts teachers from the Math and Science teachers). Not ALL teachers rank low on the scale.

  3. Ah, but this is only confusing if we somehow still believe that the purpose of College is education…the production of an informed citizenry….lux et veritas. If that were true, yes, we’d be absolutely baffled by the abysmal failure so evident in the reality we all wrestle.

    But if the mission of College is NOT education, rather the production of degreed graduates….well, that’s another matter.

    Obama made this abundantly (some might say absurdly) clear way back in ’09 declaring that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” And of course to do that, we would have had to more than double college enrollments, to about 40 million students as of two years ago. Fortunately, that idiocy did not come to pass…. but the enthusiasm to produce just lots and lots of people holding sheepskins….that obsession (revenue driven) is with us still. And obviously, even to maintain the graduation rates for our current 20M we must continually reduce our standards (for entry & completion) and remove the hurdles (like writing and reading competency) which otherwise would stand in our way.

    By God we will produce college graduates by the bushel! That is our job!

    Unfortunately those who would employ our newly minted alumni continue to tell us they can neither read nor rite nor handle rithmetic. Hmmm. Perhaps we should hire another VP in Marketing? Or maybe offer remedial courses, on-site, for brand-new corporate hires??? Just think of the revenue possibilities!

  4. I’d agree with both EB and George Leef. The main reason colleges admit them is for the money. I remember years ago when I was working at a fairly selective public university and being appalled to hear the university president at the time talk about the need for “not just K-12 education, but K-16 education,” meaning, college for all. A few years later, Obama was elected and started pushing the “college for all” narrative, rationalized largely on the misinterpretation of basic statistics about the relative incomes of college graduates vs. those of high school graduates, as though the degree and not the ability to do college level work accounted for their subsequent career success. College administrators always seem to be in favor of growing enrollment because it means more funds flowing to their campuses, even if many of those students never graduate or accrue a fortune in debt while they are enrolled.
    Beyond that, though, are factors such as grade inflation and calls for increased diversity on campus. Grade inflation frequently means that students who are incapable of doing college level work look like they are qualified or capable as a result of their grades in high school, but when they get to college, they are not able to keep up. And the topic of skills mismatches following from affirmative action in admissions has been well-established by researchers.

    1. Obama was talking about increasing the proportion of HS grads who go on to any type of post-secondary education, and he included (and emphsized) certificates that can be earned in 3 months to a year. That is where continued emphasis should reside (along with technical 2-year programs), but the 4-year and 2-year institutions and programs, especially liberal arts, are fearful for their futures if they don’t fill those seats.

  5. Money. Colleges have to fill their seats, and they also have spent the last 50 years expanding in a never-ending competition. At the same time, they refuse to realize that the education they are offering is not appropriate for HS grads in the bottom half of their class. While it’s true that post-secondary education in the past failed to make room for well-prepared but low-income students, they have now over-compensated and are admitting poorly-prepared students from all economic levels.

  6. I think that, given the dumbing down of the curriculum and pressure for grade inflation over the last several decades, the problem is less that the students admitted can’t do the work (such as it is), but that many of them just don’t want to. They’re used to schooling that’s easy and expect college to be more of the same.

  7. Why does John Leo ask a question that he doesn’t answer in his opinion piece? Education doesn’t need more rhetoric; it needs answers to questions and solutions.

    1. And you just perfectly summarized the entire problem, Professor Tommy. You can put it back to committee and see if they can help you out.

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