Strengthening the College Pipeline


Today there is a college for everybody irrespective of your academic ability. If you have the money or are eligible for financial aid, you can find a seat in a classroom or an on-line course with the promise of a bright and financially rewarding future. You don’t even have to finish high school. By passing a rudimentary ability-to-benefit test, you can secure public funds to pursue your college dream.

But there’s a catch. You may not be able to take college level courses until you complete non-credit remedial classes to prepare you for college work. At that point, because of cost or frustration, you may get stuck.

In states across the U.S. colleges face the challenge of serving large numbers of unprepared students. The New York State Education Department (NYSED), for example, reports that only 35% of high school graduates are college-ready, yet approximately 74% of all New York State graduates will enroll in college. The colleges’ response is to offer remedial courses as a bridge to college work. In other words, students are paying college tuition for pre-college, non-credit courses. Not surprisingly, NYSED reports that for associate and bachelor degree programs, the more remedial courses a student takes, the more likely the student will not complete a college degree program.

Nationally, the problem is acute at community colleges, which serve nearly half of U.S. undergraduate students. There, close to 50% of students take one or more remedial courses, raising the odds that these students will give up.

These are not the attributes of a system that is working efficiently. On the one hand we face questions about what colleges can do to develop a remediation approach that’s less costly and more supportive of struggling students. On the other, we have to ask, what can we do up front to strengthen the college pipeline?

For the latter, key changes need to occur if we are to dramatically improve the chances for postsecondary success for students who traditionally falter.

  • First, use the PreK-12 longitudinal data systems to reframe what it means to be “on track” for college readiness from grade three onward. Student longitudinal data systems in schools now allow us to look back at students who were both college ready and not college ready as high school seniors and to chart out their proficiency levels across their PreK-12 educational schooling. Students who have exhibited attendance problems, credit attainment deficiencies, high mobility, and other factors associated with school failure can be identified early on and districts can implement timely strategies to assist these students at critical junctures within the educational pipeline. When district data systems can be linked, another resource is available to assist educating highly mobile students. These are powerful data that are important no matter which standards a school district is using.


  • Second, increase the level of collaboration between PreK-12 and collegiate educators. The content, habits of mind and non-cognitive skills needed for success in college must be identified more clearly and shaped into course pathways by curricular teams of PreK-12 and college faculty. Students’ achievement data can be used to identify whether they are “on track” for college but only after understanding of entry level, academic gateway college courses and the skills essential to those courses have been articulated.

We also need to continue ongoing national efforts to change the context for the success of students in our high poverty, high need schools. We need to continue developing strategies that ensure that these schools are staffed with highly skilled teachers and leaders whose expertise can accelerate the growth of students who start out behind. We need school funding policies such as weighted student formulas, which recognize that it costs more to educate kids affected by poverty including the cost to employ outstanding teachers and leaders for these schools. To ensure effective use of additional funds, we need to equip teachers and leaders with ongoing professional development and support so that they can use the best, evidence-based instructional and organizational strategies.

This transformation will require time to take root.  In the interim, colleges must:

  • Increase collaboration with PreK-12 schools to better align the content, habits of mind and non-cognitive skills needed for success in college ; and
  • Re-examine their admission requirements and enroll only those students that they have the resources to support and have a reasonable chance to be successful in both remedial and gateway college courses.

Giving students a sense of false expectations of collegiate success by maintaining the current system is not a policy approach that is acceptable. We need to fundamentally transform how we approach PreK-12 education for students in the performance gap or risk losing another generation of low performing students to failure.