College & Workforce Readiness

Making Grades 13, 14 Universal Spurs Questions

By Jeanne Ponessa — March 26, 1997 8 min read
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President Clinton wants to make the 13th and 14th years of education universal for all students.

But that ambitious goal, which Mr. Clinton promised to pursue in his State of the Union Address, has left some educators wondering whether the bridge to the 13th grade can be built as readily as his much-touted bridge to the 21st century.

The higher education proposal that Mr. Clinton sent to Congress last week includes tax incentives to help families pay tuition as well as an increase in the Pell Grant program for the country’s neediest college students. Those financial boosts, the theory goes, should give all students the opportunity to attend at least a two-year community college.

Yet the proposal, known collectively as the Hope and Opportunity for Postsecondary Education Act of 1997, has compelled educators to scrutinize the transition between high school and college and the degree to which students are prepared to make that move. And some educators wonder if the plan would even benefit a substantial number of students.

“The problem with Clinton’s initiative is he misses the point that access is there for two-year colleges,” said Carol Jago, an English teacher at the 2,600-student Santa Monica High School in California and the director of a statewide reading and literature project at the University of California, Los Angeles. “What we really need is to raise standards and provide resources so that [students] are where they should be at the end of 12 years.”

Boon to Earnings

The Department of Education’s latest Digest of Education Statistics shows that the college-going rate of high school graduates has increased steadily over the past few decades. In 1995, 1.6 million, or 61.9 percent, of high school graduates ages 16 to 24 enrolled in college compared with 758,000, or 45.1 percent, in 1960.

Total undergraduate enrollment, according to the New York City-based College Board, amounted to nearly 6.7 million students in the country’s 1,843 four-year colleges for the 1995-96 school year. Another 5.8 million students registered at 1,338 two-year schools.

Not all of those students are likely to finish their degrees, however. College Board data also show that 54 percent of freshmen graduate from four-year colleges within five years, while 40 percent of freshmen graduate from two-year institutions within three years.

Those who do earn an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree are likely to see a stark difference in income potential compared with individuals equipped solely with a high school diploma. According to the Education Department, in 1994 the median income for men with a high school diploma was $28,037 in current dollars; for those with a two-year degree, it was $35,794, and a four-year degree reaped $43,663.

Also in 1994, the median income for female high school graduates was $20,373. It was $25,940 for those with a two-year college degree, and $31,741 for women who earned a four-year degree.

Mr. Clinton hopes to even those earnings opportunities with his bid to help families pay for higher education.

The plan sent to Congress includes a nonrefundable $1,500 income-tax credit for college tuition and fees, renewable for a second year if the student earns at least a B-minus average, for families with incomes below $80,000. A second option for families in that income bracket who do not itemize on their tax returns would be a tax deduction of up to $10,000 a year, which could be used as many years as the student pursued higher education. Finally, the president has proposed a $300 increase in the maximum Pell Grant award, the largest such increase in two decades. (“Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan,” Feb. 12, 1997.)

Would More Enroll?

Whether the plan would draw substantial numbers of new students to higher education is a topic of debate.

Community college administrators predict that the additional aid would attract more students who could not otherwise afford to attend.

For instance, a “sizable number of students” lost eligibility for Pell Grants during the 1992 reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act, said David Pierce, the president of the Washington-based American Association of Community Colleges. “If [the proposal] is adopted by Congress and signed by the president in a form that is somewhat similar to what the president has proposed, it is our opinion that there would be some increase in enrollment,” Mr. Pierce said.

“I can’t help but believe more and more people are going to choose community and technical colleges to advance their degree,” added James S. Kellerman, the executive director and CEO of the Missouri Community College Association in Jefferson City, Mo. If Mr. Clinton’s plan goes through, he said, more students will either choose to get a two-year degree or continue on at a four-year college with the benefit of getting the first two years of college “at a whole lot less cost.”

But Gary Burtless, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, argued that men and women who stand to benefit from Mr. Clinton’s combined proposals would either have attended college anyway or have at least considered attending community college. “The people whose schooling decisions you’re likely to change on the margin are not the ones who are struggling,” he said. “I’m concerned about the people who wouldn’t even consider going on to community college.”

Thomas Kane, an economist at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, added that some students from the poorest families might not even consider higher education after hearing about sky-high tuition rates, without realizing that they could be eligible for a substantial amount of aid.

“If we could do a better job up front letting families know how much aid there is available, how much aid they can expect, we might even be able to have some effect on college enrollment without spending a lot more money,” he said.

A 14-Year Plan

Yet if the proposal did succeed in boosting enrollment, how beneficial would a “universal” 14-year education prove to be?

Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington group that works on K-12 and postsecondary school reform, gave high marks to the concept. Given the evolution of the workforce and the economy, she said, it is “exactly right” to say that a college education needs to become as common as a high school education was 30 years ago.

Ms. Haycock said that the 14-year proposal would motivate high school teachers, counselors, and administrators to change their attitudes, by forcing them to see all students as college bound, and to alter high school curricula to match that expectation.

In fact, Ms. Haycock said, she would even like to see the president encourage more students to undertake four years, rather than two years, of college.

Giving more education to workers regardless of their need for it on the job also makes sense from an economic perspective, Mr. Burtless of Brookings said. “This notion that you’re overeducated for your job is misplaced,” he said. “The evidence in the U.S. suggests very strongly that upgrading of educational attainments of people within an occupation yields increases in worker productivity.”

Nonetheless, Ms. Jago argued that even though more education is always a worthy goal, two more years in a classroom is not a good use of time for reluctant scholars.

Some students enroll in two-year institutions and then drop out because of a lack of direction, she noted. “Many of the students who enroll in community college are there because they’re not quite sure what else to do,” she said. "[It would be] better to get a job, think about what you want to do, then come back, rather than vaguely enrolling in year 13,” she said.

Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, raised another issue that a 14-year plan would have to address: the mismatch between assessments and expectations in K-12 and higher education

For example, he said, California high school students may take the SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement tests, and Golden State Examinations in nine subject areas. The University of California system, the California State University system, and the state’s community colleges, meanwhile, each give their own placement exams that are not necessarily correlated with the high school measures.

“What we have out there is such a cacophony of mixed signals,” Mr. Kirst said. He added that he is conducting his own study and is collaborating with the Denver-based State Higher Education Executive Officers on an examination of student transitions from secondary to postsecondary institutions across the 50 states.

Ready and Able?

The 14-year proposal has also raised concern that it might expand the already large pool of students entering college who need remedial help. (“Chain of Blame,” May 22, 1996.)

Hunter Boylan, the director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., said that if enrollment increases as a result of Mr. Clinton’s plan, the additional students are not likely to be those who are well prepared for college. “In those regions where this plan will result in a larger number of underserved students going to college, there will be an increase in the need for developmental education,” he said.

Unfortunately, Mr. Boylan said, many community colleges address the need to beef up developmental, or remedial, education by hiring more adjunct or part-time professors. “I don’t believe that expanding adjuncts is the solution. Not that they are not capable of doing a good job, but there’s [only] so many part-timers the system can absorb before you lose cohesiveness entirely.”

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