05/24/2012 03:16 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

One Size After High School Does Not Fit All

When did we decide that a four-year college education was a "must do" that had to start immediately after high school graduation? The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 68.3% of 2011 high school seniors were enrolled in college the year they graduated. Yet national college persistence and graduation rates are shockingly low. Not only do students feel tremendous pressure to go to college immediately; their parents feel it and apply their own pressure.

Added to this pressure is the skyrocketing costs, and the debt burden many students accumulate to attain college degrees. Recent stories have new college grads talking about carrying this debt for the rest of their lives. No need to rush into that. Vocational training and military service are viewed in many communities (but far too few) as alternatives for those students who can't afford, don't have the aptitude or aren't yet ready to pursue an undergraduate degree.

We know teenagers don't all think alike, learn alike or mature at the same rates. We do our high school students a great disservice by suggesting they should immediately go to a four-year college upon graduation from high school -- or they'll be sentenced to a life of unskilled labor. Without introducing relevancy, rigor and career skills into high school, the college drop-out rates will continue to be unacceptable.

I'm suggesting we not pat ourselves on the back and declare "job well done" by measuring graduation and college acceptance rates. A better measure ought to include post-secondary persistence and an opportunity index -- let's be accountable to new graduates by assessing their competencies and skills and map those to the next steps they are ready to pursue.

One research report shows that for every 10 freshman seeking an Associate Degree, half need remediation and only 10% of those freshmen will achieve the degree in three years. Students pursuing a 4-year degree who do not need remediation and graduate college within six years: <60%. These two illustrations help make my point. Why do we expect students will achieve college degrees in two or four years when so many graduate from high school with unrealistic expectations that they can succeed in college (sometimes standardized tests do measure things that matter).

Let's get real. Students need to graduate from high school with competencies and skills to succeed in college courses, and community colleges need to improve support systems for those students who arrive unprepared. We need to strengthen options for high school graduates given today's economic realities: people need to work to pursue college.

A Manhattan Institute report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that 32% of students graduate high school prepared for college. That means almost 70% are not prepared to attend college because they lack the literacy and math competencies, critical thinking, collaboration, and communications skills needed for college work.

If that wasn't disturbing enough, another recent report released by the Indiana Commission on Higher Education says that almost one-third of all Indiana high school graduates who attended public colleges and universities needed to take remedial courses in math and/or English before they could take college-level courses. This is a huge psychological de-motivator for students and it is costly for all concerned -- students and their families as well as taxpayers.

This same report showed that achieving great high school grades does not equal college readiness. Students who had earned the college-prep "Core 40" degree, which requires three years of high school math and four years of high school English, still needed remediation. Many students graduating with the highest GPAs are still unable to perform basic college work.

Those reasons include the economic impact of attending a four-year college. The financial cost of education is monumental. The truth today is that financing a college degree means that many students have to proceed to college more slowly on a "work and learn" track. Or perhaps these students even need a "gap year or two" to be ready to do well in college because they need remediation or simply a break before being able to be fully present for serious college study. A "gap year" (to work or volunteer with organizations such as AmeriCorps) can provide the means for these students to gain maturity, self-direction and project management skills -- all necessary to successfully complete university work.

So I ask again: is there really only one choice for our students? Isn't it time we adults got "real" about options that combine sensible financial planning and realistic timeframes? Must we portray the American dream as monolithic, where we suggest students immediately attend a four-year college after high school? Not only are many students unprepared academically, but the entire high-stakes college admissions process has a significant impact on their developing psyche. The various ways that students react to this type of stress also affects their readiness for college.

It's time we recognize that one size does not fit all. Students need to feel they have options -- to attend a community college, to delay entering college to work, to volunteer or to travel. Attending a four-year university directly following high school is a choice that many students are ready to make, but it is not the right choice for everyone. Let's stop trying to fit everyone into the same box. It's time to prepare students for multiple pathways after high school.