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Some days it can be hard to find anyone with a good word to say about American education. Pick a problem—crime, a failing economy, the rise of China—and someone in the government or the media has probably blamed it on bad schools or mediocre teachers.

Perhaps that is why a recently published study titled “The Condition of Education” has so surprised educators and the media. In contrast to many of the grim proclamations we’ve grown accustomed to reading, data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has been a breath of fresh air, painting a picture of an education system on the mend, actually improving in a number of significant, measurable ways. High school students, for example, were reported to have taken more high-level mathematics courses than ever before, with a majority (60%) claiming to have “definite plans” to graduate from a four year university. This number was up from both 1990 (48%) and 2000 (56%).

And students’ reported plans for college are more than just talk. According to NCES, enrollment in degree-graduating postsecondary institutions increased nine percent in the 1990s, and then another 38 percent in the 2000s, with much of the growth in full-time enrollment. By now, over a decade into the 21st century, nearly half of 18-24-year-olds attend college.

“High school students are working harder than they were a generation ago,” EducationWeek reports in its coverage of the study“The economic downturn may highlight an opportunity to put more of them on the path to college.

This is all certainly encouraging news, but while NCES’s data highlights a welcome, positive trend in American education, it does not tell the entire story of college placement among high school students. As educators over the last two decades have succeeded in putting students on the “path to college,” they have had a much more difficult time preparing students for what lies at the end of that path—the stress and rigors of university life, and ultimately a career. This fact is underscored by other research which finds that, regardless of increased college enrollment numbers, fewer than half of Americans—only 46 percent—complete college once they start.

Clearly, we are getting better and better at placing our children in college, but as the data shows, in our haste to do so we have overlooked a very important fact—many of them are not even prepared to go. It is critical that educators supplement their efforts to send students to college with a renewed focus on getting those same students ready for college before they get there.