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The nation's public schools have failed to adequately prepare students for life after high school, said honors students in college who participated in a recently concluded "national forum" series.

Colleges and universities must both prepare students to succeed in a competitive job market and provide the liberal arts foundation necessary for lifelong learning, said the participants in the series, "Preparing for a Good Future: What Kind of Education Do We Want After High School?"

In more than 100 forums nationwide during the 1996-97 academic year, the Radford, Va.-based National Collegiate Honors Council, an association of honors programs at universities, colleges, and junior colleges, asked 700 participants, most of them honors students, to weigh the merits of different postsecondary avenues and to fill out ballots that gauged their opinions about education issues.

Though the participants said institutions of higher education need to make some adjustments to better serve their students, they were far more critical of the education they received before college, said Bill Gwin, a professor of architecture at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., and the senior adviser to the series.

During postforum balloting, 66 percent of participants agreed with the statement that "U.S. high school graduates are not competitive worldwide in science, math, and language skills."

"Fundamental skills are what need to be stressed, a work ethic, and that's where there's a gap," Connor Seyle, an honors student at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, said during a press conference in Washington last week.

In addition to a more rigorous emphasis on the basics, many forum participants stressed that high schools should do a better job of reaching out to students who do not intend to enroll in college by expanding vocational-training opportunities and job counseling.

When it came to higher education, most participants said a liberal arts education should remain a central part of the college experience, despite a recent increased emphasis on programs that prepare students more directly for the job market.

Sixty-three percent of participants agreed that a university should maintain a commitment to "broadly based education," even if it fails to guarantee that students will get a job after they graduate.

"Preparing students for employment is important, but education should not shut down your mind and narrow your focus to only that of your profession," Mr. Seyle said.

--JESSICA L. SANDHAM

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