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Published in Print: June 22, 2005, as If College is the Answer, What Are the Questions?

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If College Is the Answer, What Are the Questions?

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How we frame the issue of college preparation is profoundly important to every student in our schools. We must decide the answers to such fundamental questions as these:

Should every youngster be educated for college?

How we frame the issue of college preparation is profoundly important to students.

What will it take to ensure that each graduate is prepared for the challenges of a rigorous collegiate program?

Are colleges willing to reframe their admissions policies and structure to welcome a growing number of college-ready applicants?

These are, at their core, radical questions, even for a district like ours, in Colorado, with a majority of students enrolling in college immediately after graduation. While many of the current high school reform proposals focus on issues such as the coursework essential for college, or the need for more testing, we are convinced that the only proper starting point is the student.

See Also
See the related Commentaries in this issue on high school reform:

“Achieving 'Success at Scale'”

Should every youngster be educated for college? Let these words sink in. A few years ago, this question would have been unfathomable. Throughout U.S. history, schools have responded to societal changes, so it is not surprising that the high schools of today perform as they do. Most are comprehensive in nature, loosely organized to meet the needs of both students who are preparing for college and those who are not. Now, a new mission is being contemplated: preparing all young people for higher education.

To participate in the future of our country’s complex democracy, young citizens will have to be increasingly well-educated. There are also significant economic advantages associated with educational accomplishment. The average worker in the United States with a college degree earns an estimated $1 million more over a career span than one with only a high school diploma. But if we are successful in college preparation for all, is society ready for a burgeoning population of young people who expect to be directly involved in our democracy? And can we envision an economy with every worker earning above the minimum wage? Any answer less than a resounding yes means we will have perpetrated a hoax on our children.

Beyond individual and societal economic productivity, college success promotes the examined life. Yet we have a profound responsibility to respect youngsters who, for legitimate reasons, do not choose college enrollment after high school. The default curriculum for America’s high schools should be “college-core plus,” but there are right ways and wrong ways to express these high expectations. Unless we are thoughtful, some students and parents not intent on college may internalize a demeaning tone towards alternatives in the rhetoric about college preparedness, a tone that may damage their visions of school success, and only replicate the present conditions.


To ensure college readiness for all, school districts will have to address issues of content, structure, and relationships. Any discussion of reform will happen best in alignment with improvements that the vast majority of Americans embrace, not in the context of bulldozing high schools. Missing this signal will pit us against parents of the very students we wish to educate more fully.

The overarching truth about high schools is that no single content outline, structure, or relationship works for every adolescent. The present high school model is ingenious in recognizing that kids are not the same. This advantage must be maintained in any new model. Moreover, we owe it to students to avoid the trap of defining preparedness for college and life too narrowly. Being ready for college isn’t the only responsibility we have to students. Helping each one develop fully as a human being is the higher calling.

What then are the salient issues in each area that need to be addressed?

We owe it to students to avoid the trap of defining preparedness for college and life too narrowly

Content. A more complete definition of what it means to be college-ready should specify the knowledge, skills, and attributes that ensure success and instill a disposition for lifelong learning. Readiness includes the ability to start and finish college, necessitating a thorough examination of the rigor of high school and its alignment with postsecondary education. Public Agenda’s recent finding that almost nine in 10 young adults believe that college isn’t for everyone implies that demanding coursework in career and technical education has a significant role to play in enticing students to continue their learning in postsecondary settings.

At the same time, public schools must offer a response to Public Agenda’s finding by ensuring that all students successfully reach the critical mileposts in K-12 education, such as reading at grade level at the end of 3rd grade and enrollment in increasingly sophisticated math offerings at the secondary level. When students have these experiences, more of them will believe that college is within their grasp. Mastery of the essential college-ready content, however, will demand extra support for many students—which, of course, costs money. Failing to fully acknowledge this challenge reveals the disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality of high school reform.

Structure. For all students to be college-ready, the traditional concept of K-12 schooling has to be inverted and “designed backwards.” Viewing the student experience from a 16-prekindergarten perspective gives teachers a clear picture of their contribution to each student’s achievement. We know that much of student success is attributable to prekindergarten experiences; therefore, districts have a responsibility to lead community conversations about preschool topics. In the long run, achieving universal college preparedness may hinge on quality early-childhood education and related reforms.

Beyond altering structures to leverage change, a rethinking of the paradigms that have defined high school education is needed. For example, having a system of credits and testing for graduation must not overwhelm the importance of a curriculum that captures students’ interest. Instruction needs to be differentiated to reach every child. Adjustments in the school day, instructional delivery, and the school calendar must be made to increase student success. In short, high school must be relevant and interactive if it is going to meet the dispositions of today’s youths.

We know firsthand the seismic nature of these commitments to change. But at no point can we afford to succumb to the tyranny of the “or.” Students need for their schools to be comprehensive and rigorous and meaningful. Anything less is doomed to the junk pile of education reform.

Relationships. The most important relationship in schooling is the one that binds teacher and student. When that relationship is grounded in mutual respect, high expectations, engagement, and cultural sensitivity, the student is poised for success.

Students and teachers are central to college preparedness, but parents also have a significant role to play. They need to engage in early planning for their children’s education. Parents without postsecondary education themselves, or in poverty, are often ill-informed about college-entrance requirements, options, and funding. Closing these information gaps is essential.

High school principals should be at the center of change. Principals in our district are meeting personally with recent graduates on two- and four-year college campuses and listening to them to find out what will make a difference for future students. But high schools alone can’t defy present social expectations and conditions that conspire to take students away from the very experiences that could open doors for their future. Conversations that engage all stakeholders have to be deeper than “more rigor” and broader than “more testing” if we are going to rethink secondary education.

To truly change high schools, colleges are going to have to change in a corresponding manner and at a corresponding rate.

Are the colleges ready? Probably not, but some institutions are seeing the same problems and opportunities that we do. As we send college-ready students outward in record numbers, and contemplate dramatically increasing postsecondary aspirations for many more, there are questions of capacity. Are there enough seats, and are we sincerely willing to believe that college should be a universal goal?

Colleges also have their own unique problems, including the need for adequate funding. But resource limitations are not the greatest concern. Subtle and not-so-subtle evidence suggests that the bell-curve mentality is alive and well after high school. If college access is to be expanded significantly, higher education is going to have to join K-12 in looking in the full-length mirror.


In the glut of talk about high school reform, a few things are abundantly clear:

• The students we serve are developing human beings, and everything we do must be measured against what will further their development, not our own private interests.

• If we can help all high school students find the one thing they are good at and that excites them, we will have an excellent chance of engaging them in the remainder of what is important in their secondary education.

• High schools are the way they are in large part because colleges are the way they are. To truly change high schools, colleges are going to have to change in a corresponding manner and at a corresponding rate.

• It is our responsibility to bring coherence to the schooling experiences of students, prekindergarten through college graduation. Breaking through the segmentation found at all levels of education is imperative.

• Encouragement is what school people need. Trying to berate educators into embracing reform is not a viable management strategy.

College preparedness for all is undoubtedly the answer. But no one has invested the depth of thought required for such a massive undertaking to succeed. All of our students must be able to make postsecondary choices based not on the limits of their education, but on the depth and breadth of their interests, their achievements, and their hopes for the American dream.

Vol. 24, Issue 41, Pages 45,47

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