“The dental program, huh?” the community college admissions counselor asked as she looked over Tre’s high school transcript. “Then why didn’t you take more science?”

The question took him aback. “I just took the classes my counselor put me in,” Tre stammered. “She knew I wanted to be a dentist.” And in that office, all of the confidence that he’d strode onto campus with was, in an instant, gone. The admissions counselor looked at him with empathy as she described the course entry requirements for the dental program, including high school biology, chemistry, and college preparatory math — all passed with a C or better. Tre nowhere near met these requirements, despite passing all of his classes and earning a diploma.

An examination of student transcripts, detailed in our new report, Meandering Toward Graduation, reveals that Tre’s experience of being left unprepared by his high school course-taking is all too common.

Despite the popular national rhetoric of “college and career readiness for all students,” only 8 percent of 2013 graduates took both a college- and-career-ready curriculum, consisting of a foundational set of academic courses and three credits in a single career field.

How Do We Define Curricular Pathways?

College-ready curriculum:

4 credits in English

3 credits in math, including algebra II

3 credits in social studies, including U.S./world history

3 credits in science, including biology and chemistry/physics

2 credits in the same foreign language

Career-ready curriculum:

3 credits in a single career area, like business or health science

Thirty-one percent of graduates, meanwhile, took only a college-ready curriculum, and 13 percent took only a career-ready curriculum.

But most alarming is that nearly half of graduates — those who already hold a diploma that says they’re ready for next steps — meander through high school without accessing any comprehensive curriculum at all, be it college or career. This is nearly six times as many as those who complete a college and career course sequence. Our data suggest that schools are more focused on getting students the number of credits they need to cross the stage at graduation than on ensuring that those credits account for a meaningful course of study.

Low rates of college- and career-ready course-taking are not just an issue of time constraints posed by the current structure of most high schools. Students, on average, earn 26 credits before they graduate, whereas a college-and-career-ready curriculum consists of just 18 credits. Instead, the issue appears to be one of guidance and priorities.

Each year, more than 3 million students graduate high school with diplomas that are supposed to signify preparation for the next steps. But the experiences that students like Tre are having when they leave high school make glaringly clear that there is a mismatch between what many high schools consider “ready” and what the world beyond high school demands — in college and career.

This post is the first in a series tied to our new report, Meandering Toward Graduation, which examines college and career readiness among our nation’s graduates. Each post will share a student’s story that mirrors the trends we see in the data. Our next post will share the story of Joy, a high school student who was never able to recoup the credits she lost while recovering from a medical condition.