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Published in Print: March 1, 2004, as Double or Nothing

Double or Nothing

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A graduated approach to solving the dropout problem.

Everybody knows about the high proportion of kids, especially poor and minority students, who quit high school. One of the original (and unmet) objectives of Goals 2000, first put forth by the nation's governors during an education summit in 1989, was to reduce the national dropout rate from about 30 percent to 10 percent by the turn of the century.

How is it then that almost nobody seems to notice or care about the college dropout problem, which is twice as bad as the high school one? Only about half of high school graduates who start college complete it. The combined dropout rate at both levels is staggering: For every 100 students who enter 9th grade, 67 graduate from high school; 38 of these enter college; 26 are still enrolled after their sophomore year; and only 18 graduate with either an associate or bachelor's degree within six years.

The dropout problem is a moral issue, given the tragic waste of human potential. And it's a civil rights issue, given that poor and minority youngsters bear the burden of the system's inequities and failures. The economic cost is enormous: hundreds of billions of dollars in unrealized national wealth and diminished productivity for society; and low wages, dead-end jobs, and welfare for individuals.

Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that creates educational and economic opportunities for young people, recently proposed a new education goal for the United States: By 2020, double the numbers of kids who earn postsecondary credentials, particularly among those groups traditionally underserved by higher education. That credential could be earned by successfully completing a two- or four-year college program, a program offered by an industry or a labor union, or a postsecondary program run by a community- based organization. (The issues involved in meeting this new goal are discussed in detail in Double the Numbers: Increasing Postsecondary Credentials for Underrepresented Youth, to be published this spring by the Harvard Education Publishing Group.)

The federal and state governments have a lousy record in meeting educational goals, mostly because they are unrealistic and virtually unachievable in the designated time frames. We didn't accomplish even one goal set by the governors and the first President Bush in 1989, and we aren't likely to achieve the audacious goal in the title of No Child Left Behind. But doubling the numbers of kids who earn a postsecondary credential may be possible. Surveys show that almost every high school sophomore wants to go to college. And experience offers hope: Prior to the past two decades, the United States had doubled the number of college students every 20 years—or sooner—for more than half a century. By 2020, we'd need to increase the number of low-income students entering postsecondary study from less than half a million to more than 920,000.

The federal and state governments have a lousy record in meeting educational goals.

Doubling the numbers won't be easy, but it may well be attainable if we really tackle the tough educational, financial, and political problems confronting us, and if we work at all levels simultaneously—in schools, in colleges, and in public policy arenas. Specifically, we must finally overhaul the traditional American high school and create new and different kinds of high schools that accommodate the very diverse backgrounds, needs, interests, and talents of today's students.

Equally daunting, we have to persuade colleges and universities to acknowledge that what's been called "the world's greatest system of higher education" is badly in need of reform and then do something about it. The only problem most administrators and faculty will acknowledge is not having enough money.

If business and industry expect to have a highly qualified workforce, they will have to make clear what skills their workers need and help provide alternative paths to help kids attain them. And policymakers at every level must finally view K-16 as a single system and establish policies that link schools and postsecondary programs.

—Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 15, Issue 5, Page 4

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