I suspect Bill Gates has caused more grief by not finishing college than many parents care to say. There was the year, somewhere between eighth and ninth grade, my daughter announced she was not going to college. Her mind was made up, she said. College was not for everyone, and she was one of those who would do fine without it, she just knew it without a doubt.
In this debate, Bill Gates was the clincher: He didn’t even finish college, and he’s doing all right, isn’t he?
I didn’t see the makings of any tech empire in my garage, but that was neither here nor there. The issue she was wrestling with was whether she would be college material. College education represented years of tough work. Would it take all that to make it as an adult? Would she be up to it? At the time, she wasn’t confident she could make it. It would be our job and that of the schools to get her to the point where she could make a rational determination: College or some other path?
On a larger scale, those are the same issues confronting us as a state. For young people thinking about the future, the choice is no longer whether or not they pursue some kind of education beyond high school. The question today is what kind of post-secondary education. If once upon a time, a high school diploma was more than an adequate ticket to a financially comfortable adulthood, that is no longer the case. The consulting firm Achieve noted in a 2012 report that 60 percent of jobs in 1950 were classified as unskilled and open to people with a high school diploma or less. The figure today is less than 20 percent.
Fast forward a few years to the obligatory college tours, during which well-rehearsed admissions officers explain to parents why they shouldn’t be too concerned if their children didn’t know yet what they want to study. It will come, they were assuring us. Let them explore; universities provide rich and varied opportunities. Let your students discover new interests and grow, the college pros advised. They said that in their experience, most students take the first year or so — and some a little longer — to settle on a major. Try not to pressure your children into making choices too early. And if a student needed to change course, it wouldn’t be the end of the world but all part of the maturation process.
Two or three such sessions, and a parent can sense a disconnect. The college reps were not acknowledging another reality. The myriad course offerings, the opportunities for self-discovery and all the flexibility would be great if you could forget for a second that while your child is sampling the college experience to find his or her inner genius, there is that matter of loans that will come due soon enough.
The longer it takes to complete a degree or a certificate, the greater the expense. Scholarships run out; loans pile up; household budgets are squeezed; and students face long years of loan payments, in some instances with little to show for it. Universities regularly now calculate graduation rates on the long scale — a six-year rate for four-year institutions and a three-year rate for two-year colleges.
There are any number of reasons, of course, why the average graduation time is creeping up. Students test the waters, uncertain where their interest lies or whether they are college material at all; they drop in and out of school as family circumstances and finances change.
But a factor high schools and colleges glossed over until recently is the time students lose and the costs they incur because they are admitted to college inadequately equipped for the work.
The Ohio Board of Regents recently reported that about 40 percent of first-time students in the state’s college system in 2012 required remediation in math, English or both. Among Summit County districts, Akron, Barberton, Coventry, Cuyahoga Falls, Mogadore, Nordonia Hills and Springfield all had more than 40 percent of their graduates needing remedial math or English.
The mounting cost alone would suggest college is not the place to begin shoring up weak academics. Not only do remedial courses not count toward graduation credits, but studies show students are less likely to complete a degree or certificate course when they start with remediation. College is far from a luxury anymore, and yes, not everyone ought to go to college, but it behooves colleges to ensure that those they admit do belong there.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.