2014 ACT Reports: Mismatch Between College Aspiration and Preparation

Only about half of the nation’s college students earn a “four-year” bachelor’s degree within six years. This personal defeat for the many students who fail to graduate is a double whammy since so many also take out student loans without ever reaping the financial rewards that go along with graduating. Given persistent failure rates and mounting student debt, how prepared students are to enter and succeed in college is suddenly everyone’s business.

ACT’s newest reports on The Condition of College & Career Readiness give a national overview and a read of what’s going on in most states. Skipping past the reports’ introductions—too ad-like for my tastes—we find some interesting findings that speak to the skills and interests of high schools students as they get ready for postsecondary education.

Taking the measure of college/career readiness in English, reading, mathematics, and science, ACT reports the percentage of students who are college/career ready in each of these domains and the overall number of domains passed (zero to four). Only about one-fourth of students met ALL four benchmarks but nearly one-third met NONE. Does that mean that the ACT is too hard? Or are too many high school students simply not prepared for college? Either way, a depressingly large number of high school students who want to attend college are likely not ready.

Another disturbing pattern emerges in the percentage of students passing the four benchmarks by intended major. Would-be engineers score highest—a relief, since who wants to drive across bridges designed by people who aren’t proficient in math or, say, reading?

But who will teach them what they need to know when not quite a fifth of would-be education majors met all four benchmarks? Or give them (and us) medical care when only 14% of potential nursing majors passed all four benchmarks? Or keep us safe when just 13% of potential criminology majors did?

Finally, ACT reports on students’ aspirations—that is, what degree level do they hope to attain? Students who sit for the ACT exam do so hoping to score high enough to get into a four-year college or university. And except in states where most students are required to take the ACT, this question is strongly biased in favor students saying that they want a bachelor’s (44 percent) or graduate/professional (36 percent) degree. A mere 6 percent want an associate’s degree or voc-tech (technical certification) credentials. Again, a self-selection bias is at work here—people don’t torture themselves with the ACT if they don’t intend to use it. But even in Michigan, an ACT state, only 10% of students taking ACT expressed interest in associate’s or voc-tech credentials. And in Illinois, another ACT state, only 8% of students aspired to getting these subbaccalaureate credentials.

The small percentage of students who want these easier-to-obtain credentials suggests a mismatch between what students want, what colleges offer, and what the labor market rewards. For starters, the bachelor’s degree is still the most commonly granted degree, but the growth in the number of associate’s degrees and career-oriented certificates awarded eclipses that of baccalaureate and graduate degrees. Also, as my work with College Measures has demonstrated, many technical/career-oriented subbaccalaureate degrees can lead to jobs with middle-class wages. Indeed, in the first years following graduation, students with technical two-year degrees earn more, on average, than students earning bachelor’s degrees.

Given the cold, hard facts behind this mismatch, it’s striking how few students express interest in these postsecondary credentials and how many who are not college-ready are pursuing bachelor’s degrees they may never attain.

Mark Schneider is a vice president and Institute Fellow at AIR.