Chapter 1: Elementary and Secondary Education

Transition to Higher Education

Student progress in completing high school and entering postsecondary education provides measures of the effectiveness of education at the secondary level. Today, a vast majority of students expect to continue their education after high school and many anticipate earning a bachelor's or higher degree. (In 2002, 80% of 10th graders expected to attain a bachelor's or higher degree and another 11% expected some postsecondary education [NCES 2004a].) In fact, increasing numbers of students are entering college directly from high school (NCES 2005). This bright picture, however, is clouded by the ongoing challenge of the dropout problem. In 2002, 10% of 16–24-year-olds (about 3.7 million) had left school without earning a high school credential (NCES 2005).[45] Although dropouts may return to earn a diploma, many do not go on to postsecondary education (Hurst, Kelly, and Princiotta 2004). Further, the increasing rates of immediate college enrollment belie the large numbers of entering freshmen who are poorly prepared for college work and need remedial help. This section presents indicators related to Students' transition to college: long-term trends in the immediate college enrollment rates of U.S. high school graduates, first-time entry rates into postsecondary education in the United States and other countries, and remedial coursetaking among U.S. college freshmen. Together, these indicators provide an overview of the accessibility of higher education to high school students and their academic preparation for college-level work.

Immediate Enrollment in Postsecondary Education

The proportion of students choosing to continue their education directly after high school is on the increase (NCES 2005). One indicator of this trend is the percentage of Students who enter college immediately following their high school graduation (referred to as the immediate college enrollment rate).[46] The immediate college enrollment rate was about 50% between 1973 and 1980, increased to 67% in 1997, and has since leveled off (figure 1-28 figure.). In 2003, 64% of high school graduates entered college directly after high school. Enrollment rates increased at both 4- and 2-year institutions: in 1973, 32% of students entered 4-year institutions immediately after completing high school, and 15% entered 2-year institutions. By 2003, the percentages had increased to 43% and 22%, respectively.

Immediate college enrollment rates increased for both males and females during this period, but the rates for females increased faster (figure 1-29 figure.). In fact, between 1973 and 2003, the rate of female enrollment in 4-year institutions increased faster than that of males at 4-year institutions and of both males and females at 2-year institutions. White high school graduates had persistently higher immediate enrollment rates than their black and Hispanic counterparts (appendix table1-31 Excel table.). Likewise, differences in immediate enrollment rates by family income have persisted. In each year between 1975 and 2003, students from high-income families were more likely to enter college than their counterparts from low-income families (figure 1-30 figure.).

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International Comparisons

Participation in education beyond secondary schooling has been rising in many countries in recent years (OECD 2000 and 2003a). One measure of such participation is the OECD-developed first-time entry rate into postsecondary programs. OECD distinguishes between postsecondary programs that are largely theory oriented and designed to prepare students for advanced research programs and high-skills professions (tertiary type A) and those that focus on occupationally specific skills for direct entry into the labor market (tertiary type B).[47] In the United States, tertiary type A programs are mostly offered at 4-year institutions and lead to bachelor's degrees, and tertiary type B programs are often offered at community colleges and lead to associate's degrees.[48]

In 2001, the average first-time entry rate into tertiary type A programs was 47% for the 26 OECD countries with available data (figure 1-31 figure.). The United States had an entry rate of 42%, slightly lower than the overall average.[49] Australia, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, and Sweden all had entry rates of more than 60% (appendix table1-32 Excel table.). Between 1998 and 2001, first-time entry rates into tertiary type A programs increased in 19 of the 22 OECD countries with data, except for the United States and United Kingdom, where rates declined, and Turkey, where rates remained the same.

Entry rates into tertiary type B programs were generally lower and more variable in many countries. In 2001, the average first-time entry rate into tertiary type B programs was 15% for the 23 OECD countries with available data. The rate for the United States was 13%. From 1998 to 2001, the OECD average entry rate into type B programs declined from 19% to 15%, whereas U.S. rates remained virtually unchanged (14% to 13%).

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Remedial Education for Entering College Freshmen

Academic preparation in high school plays a critical role in students' ability to enroll and succeed in postsecondary education. For example, high school students who completed rigorous curricula were more likely to enroll in a 4-year college, persist through postsecondary education, and earn a bachelor's degree (Adelman 1999 and 2004; Horn and Kojaku 2001). Despite the increasing numbers of U.S. students completing advanced high school courses and even earning college credits by passing AP Exams, many others are poorly prepared for college academic work and need remediation before they are ready to enroll in standard college-level courses. Postsecondary remedial education has been the subject of an ongoing debate among educators, policymakers, and the public (Parsad and Lewis 2003). Although providing remedial courses at 2-year institutions may be necessary and appropriate given the type of students who attend, there is considerable debate about offering remedial courses at 4-year institutions. Proponents argue that remedial education is necessary because it expands educational opportunities for under-prepared students; critics counter that college-level remediation should be discouraged because offering courses covering content and skills that should have been learned in high school is both inefficient and costly to the higher education system (Hoyt and Sorenson 2001). A study by Adelman (2004) shows that students who took remedial courses graduated from college at significantly lower rates; no "cause-and-effect" conclusions, however, can be drawn from the study.

In fall 2000, 76% of all degree-granting 2- and 4-year institutions offered at least one remedial reading, writing, or mathematics course (Parsad and Lewis 2003).[50] At these institutions, 28% of freshmen enrolled in at least one remedial reading, writing, or mathematics course (figure 1-32 figure.). Freshmen appeared to need more remediation in mathematics than in the other two subjects: 22% undertook remediation in mathematics, compared with 14% in writing and 11% in reading. Freshmen at public 2-year institutions that offered remedial courses were especially likely to receive remedial help: 42% of freshmen at these institutions, compared with 12%–24% of their peers at other types of institutions, enrolled in a remedial course in fall 2000.

Most freshmen took remedial courses for less than a year. However, time spent in remediation was much longer at public 2-year institutions than at other types of institutions. In fall 2000, 63% of public 2-year institutions offering remedial courses reported that the average time a student spent in remediation was 1 year or more, compared with 38% and 17%, respectively, of public and private 4-year institutions offering remedial courses (figure 1-33 figure.). The average length of time spent in remediation also increased over time. Between 1995 and 2000, the proportion of institutions reporting that the average time spent in remediation was a year or more increased from 33% to 40%. This increase occurred in all types of institutions, except for private 4-year institutions.

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[45] There are different ways to estimate dropout rates. This rate, typically called the "status dropout rate," represents the percentage of an age group not enrolled in school and not holding a high school credential (i.e., diploma or equivalent, such as a General Educational Development [GED] certificate).

[46] The base for immediate enrollment rates is the population of high school graduates. The rates would be lower if all high school students, including dropouts, were considered.

[47] OECD calculates the first-time entry rates for its member countries by dividing the number of first-time entrants of a specific age in each type of tertiary education by the total population in the corresponding age group and then adding the results for each single year of age (OECD 2003a). The purpose is to make the rates comparable across countries with different college entry ages. First-time entry rates for tertiary type A and B programs cannot be added together to obtain the total tertiary-level entry rate because entrants into both types of programs would be counted twice.

[48] This distinction is fairly general. Some U.S. community colleges offer strong transition programs and make their courses equivalent to the lower-division courses of 4-year institutions, and therefore resemble 4-year institutions. On the other hand, vocationally oriented courses are not offered exclusively in community colleges; many 4-year institutions also offer such courses. In addition, the U.S higher education system and those of other countries are different, so simple comparisons may lead to inaccurate conclusions.

[49] First-time entry rates cannot be directly compared with immediate college enrollment rates because of the different population bases and calculation methods for the two measures. In computing immediate college enrollment rates, the base is all high school graduates. In calculating first-time entry rates, the base is a country's population.

[50] Depending on institutional requirements, courses considered "remedial" may vary across postsecondary institutions.

National Science Board.