John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Turning the Ship Around (Part 2): Is the Senior Year of High School a Waste?

Betsy Barefoot, EdD
Vice President and Senior Scholar

In Part 1 of this blog, I bemoaned the shortage of outstanding high school teachers and expressed my frustration with current education policies that will do nothing if not reduce further the number of the best and brightest college students who choose teaching as a profession.   But what about the high school itself – especially the senior year?

We hear that some students finish “required” courses for college admission in the junior year, and that the senior year is characterized by rampant “senioritis.”  The Urban Dictionary defines senioritis as

a crippling disease that strikes high school seniors. Symptoms include: laziness, an over-excessive wearing of track pants, old athletic shirts . . . . Also features a lack of studying, repeated absences, and a generally dismissive attitude.

Perhaps some high school students are guaranteed college admission at the beginning of the senior year before senioritis sets in. But when they enter a college or university, we find that many of them are woefully underprepared for college coursework.  Maybe they simply forgot what they learned over a year before!  We also know that some high school seniors attend classes for a few hours and then leave to work or return home.  For these students, the senior year is effectively 4 and ½ months!  How and why has this happened, and why aren’t higher education professionals, parents, and local school boards demanding change? 

Okay, I have to acknowledge that I’m relying on a lot of second-hand information.  It has been many years since I spent any appreciable time in a high school.  But if this mountain of second-hand information is correct, it is no surprise that the senior year is considered a waste of time by some students and some educators.  In fact, in 2010 one Utah state senator put forth a bill to make the 12th year of public education optional in Utah.  I don’t think the bill passed, but maybe the senator is on to something.  Perhaps the senior year, as it is currently designed, isn’t worth the money it costs state legislatures.  

No, I’m NOT advocating that the senior year go away. But in these days of looking for opportunities to reduce monies spent on education, I think the senior year, in its current form, could be vulnerable.  So I am advocating major change either within the senior year itself or between high school and college.

Can the senior year itself be reengineered so that it is a challenging and rewarding experience for all students?  Where are the models for such reengineering?  Or would we be better served by making the current senior year a “bridging year” that is organized and delivered in a collaborative fashion by high schools and colleges?  Some two- and four-year institutions are already offering college courses in high school.  Because they challenge the best students, it’s no wonder that these “dual enrollment” programs are increasing college enrollments, student academic success, and retention.     

There are creative thinkers on both sides of the high school/college divide, and our current level of dissatisfaction can serve as a catalyst for more collaboration to fix the problem of the senior year—a year of education that is falling short of its potential.  Our students deserve our best efforts!

One Comment

  1. BryceApril 1, 2011 at 3:34 pmReply

    If new students in higher ed are already under-prepared, bringing them to our institutions a year early, doesn't seem like the best solution. What the bill sponsored in Utah's state legislature (my home state) didn't recognize was the point made in this post–the senior year could be redesigned to be more impactful and to provide better preparation for higher education.

    Another thing that higher ed could do to curb senioritis and "coasting" would be to make students' admissions to institutions contingent upon their meeting certain expectations during their senior year. As it stands now, a senior applies in the fall of their senior year and then finds out if they got in sometime in the late winter or early spring. At that point, what is the incentive to continue to work hard? March, April, and May become early summer vacation and the student arrives on our campuses after 6 months of intellectual atrophy. Why couldn't an institution outline a set of expectations for the senior year and then only allow those students who meet those expectations to actually enroll in the fall?

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