Episode 162: The High School Courses That Colleges Require

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We are starting a new series today because we think that the college ship has sailed for almost all of our listening families with seniors.  Of course, some of you are still looking at a few options; some of you have even put down deposits at more than one college, or so we hear; and, some of you might be frantically searching for a new choice that offers rolling admissions or very late deadlines in the next couple of months.  As always, if any of you are in the still-undecided group, give me a call if you want some personalized advice.  I am happy to help, and the advice is free, of course.

We are going to assume that the rest of you out there have juniors (or even sophomores) and that you are relatively early in the college admissions process.  It is amazing to me, as I look at posts in a number of online groups for parents of prospective college applicants, how many of you with younger kids are already well into the college search.  So, this series, entitled Looking to Next Year, is going to offer a few reminders for parents of high school juniors as you start down a long–but hopefully exciting and not too painful–road.

1. Oh, No!  Not the Right High School Courses!  Part I

Let me start by saying that I love to complain about how far too many–I would say, even most–high school students do not take enough foreign language courses.  They don’t take enough courses either for their own good in life or for their optimal chances of getting into a great college.  We discussed this as recently as Episode 155, which was scarcely the first time we have brought it up.

But today’s episode expands way beyond my foreign language criticism about high school students’ own course decisions to a criticism that is almost unthinkable:  Many states’ high school graduation requirements will not meet all of the admissions requirements of their own public state universities.  Let me repeat this fantastical and sobering claim in the words of Catherine Gewertz in Education Week where she reported on a study released on April 2 by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and authored by Laura Jimenez and Scott Sargrad, both employed by CAP:

The think tank found that in most states, in at least one subject area, students must exceed their state’s high school graduation requirements in order to cross the threshold of the public four-year institutions in their state.

The CAP study describes two big problems. Most state diploma requirements:

  • Don’t meet admissions criteria for the state’s public universities. Noted by other researchers as well, this “preparation gap” can form a barrier to college when students find that the diploma requirements they completed fall short of the ones their state colleges and universities expect for admission.

  • Leave too much up to the student. In many states, students can decide which core courses to take in order to fulfill graduation requirements. That means they could finish high school with a relatively weak lineup of classes, or courses that don’t match well with their postsecondary goals. (quoted from the article)

Frankly, it’s hard to believe.  But the data don’t lie.  Listen to the number of states whose high school graduation requirements do not meet their own public four-year university’s entrance requirements:

  • 23 states miss the mark in foreign languages. (I now feel totally vindicated about the number of times I bring up this problem.)
  • 8 states miss the mark in mathematics. (That does not surprise me, unfortunately.)
  • 4 states miss the mark in science.
  • 4 states miss the mark in social studies.
  • 2 states miss the mark in fine arts.
  • 2 states miss the mark in the number of elective courses.
  • 1 state misses the mark in English.

If I were a taxpayer in any of those states, I would be marching on the state capital.  If I were the governor in any of those states, some state education department employees would be losing their jobs, and some state board members would be having serious discussions with me.

Interestingly and for whatever reason, physical education (including health) is the only subject field in which all states’ high school graduation requirements meet college entrance requirements and, in fact, 39 states’ high school graduation requirements exceed college entrance requirements.  Comparatively speaking, only two states’ high school graduation requirements exceed college entrance requirements in foreign languages.

Perhaps not surprisingly, English is the subject field where high school graduation requirements are most in line with college entrance requirements:  44 states have high school graduation requirements that meet English college entrance requirements and three states exceed them.  In other words, almost all states require four years of high school English in order to graduate, and almost all state universities require four years of English to get in.

So, let’s take a glance at a few states of particular interest, using the data in the CAP study:

  • These are the 19 states that do meet or exceed college expectations in every subject field, regardless of how rigorous those expectations are (obviously, it is easier to meet college expectations if the state university’s expectations are not all that high to begin with):  Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia.
  • What about our two most populous states?  California, with its massive public higher education system, misses the mark in four subject fields.  Texas, with its very large public higher education system, misses the mark in two subject fields.  I can only speculate that students in those states who are anxious to get into their super-popular public universities exceed the state high school graduation requirements on their own.  Our home state, the very populous State of New York, misses only on foreign languages (you would think that people in my own state would have been listening to me by now).
  • Interestingly, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are the only two entities that technically exceed expectations in all subject fields; but, that’s because their public university systems set no specific coursework requirements.
  • These states were not included in the analysis, so I can’t tell you whether to panic if you live in one of these:  Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

2. Oh, No!  Not the Right High School Courses!  Part II

So, where does the CAP study come down on this issue?  Let’s look at a few paragraphs from the Conclusion:

[T]his analysis finds significant misalignment between the high school and college systems. What is required to receive a high school diploma is often not aligned with what students must study to be eligible for college admissions. This can be a matter of equity when more rigorous coursework such as advanced math, laboratory science, and foreign language courses are not offered on the high school campus, thus requiring college-bound students to seek this coursework elsewhere. . . .

Certainly, state high school graduation requirements are only a start to ensuring students are ready for college, career, and life. Many states allow or even require school districts to set additional requirements. However, not setting a minimum floor that at the very least meets state college admissions requirements puts students in districts with less rigorous requirements at a disadvantage, setting up inequities within states in access to college preparatory and career-readiness experiences. (quoted from the study)

It is a matter of equity. Why?  Because poor kids in less affluent school districts with minimum graduation requirements will not go the extra yard that is required to get into their state public university. Why?  Because they won’t get sufficient help from their high school counselors and because they likely can’t get sufficient help from their parents.  And so, they are at the mercy of inadequate state high school graduation requirements that won’t prepare them for admission to their state’s public higher education system, which might well be all they can afford.

But the CAP study says a lot more than this–much of which is very interesting.  For example, the CAP study takes this further step:

Depending on course availability and the boundaries drawn by graduation requirements, students have discretion in the types of courses they take to fulfill high school graduation requirements. States may require all of the specific courses and sequences to be taken, for example, Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II–or their equivalents–where three years of math are required. Where four years are required, states may require only some of the specific courses, for example, Algebra I and Geometry, and allow students to choose among the options to fulfill two additional math course requirements. Or, states may simply require a number of years of study and make no course type specifications. Each of these scenarios [is] also true for college admissions. (quoted from the report)

And the CAP study continues:

In almost every state for at least one subject, there is a preparation gap that necessitates students seeking admission to the state public four-year university system to take additional coursework that is not required for a standard high school diploma. What’s more, this additional coursework may or may not be offered on the high school campus. . . .  Students in high-income schools and districts with sufficient college counseling and resources to seek this additional coursework may have an easier time addressing these disparities than students in low-income areas, reflecting inequity in the availability of educational resources. (quoted from the study)

Indeed.  Let’s just say it again, because it is still incredible to me:  When states do not require high enough high school graduation standards to ensure that all of its high school graduates are eligible for their own public higher education–regardless of whether all graduates want to go on to college–those states are ensuring that their poorer kids in their poorer school districts are disproportionately negatively affected.  Why again?  Because in addition to the injustices of subpar graduation standards, subpar school facilities, subpar counseling, and subpar everything else, fewer of these poorer kids have college-educated parents who can make up the difference.

3. What To Do

I believe that there is no substitute for examining the entrance requirements of any college your kid is thinking about applying to in terms of credits and perhaps specific courses that the college expects or requires to be taken in high school.  We talk about this topic extensively in our second book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students.  Let me read some excerpts from a section of that book for students:

Let’s look at one last admission standard–one that is less often considered and more often taken for granted–and that is the courses that applicants are expected to have taken in high school, usually listed in terms of credits (or Carnegie units) in each subject area, but also sometimes including specific courses, especially in math and science. . . . 

On a college’s website, this information can virtually always be found by starting with the Admission home page.  You will find that the high school course or credit expectations of colleges do, in fact, differ, usually according to how selective the college is.  But there are always a few surprises (like colleges that require students to have earned career and technical education credits in high school, for example).

After you write down the required and the recommended courses or credits, you can compare them from college to college, and you can see how well they match up with what you have taken so far and with what you will be taking as you finish up high school.  Particularly if you are just a freshman or sophomore, this information can be invaluable as you plan your remaining semesters in high school. . . .

The courses that you take in high school matter, including the courses that you take in your senior year.  Colleges will tell you that slacking off in the senior year is never a good move.  So, for example, a fourth year of math and a fourth year of science would be the best scenario for most applicants–and might be a mandatory scenario for entrance to top colleges and to some college programs, like engineering.  If you don’t have a rigorous senior year planned, think again.

And that’s exactly why we are telling you, parents, this information right now–when many high schools across the country are scheduling juniors for the classes they will be taking next fall as seniors.  It is not too late to look carefully at college requirements and to make an adjustment or two in next fall’s schedule.  You might have to insist with high school counselors or administrators, but it will be worth it.  Adding a course in science or math or foreign languages or something else that is missing is possible now, but it will be a lot harder to do next fall.  Good luck!

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