As 3.2 million high school seniors earn diplomas this graduation season, nearly a million of their peers will watch from the sidelines, not having earned their diplomas yet. Many of the graduates, meanwhile, will still have their own struggles; some will be shut out of college because of the cost, while others will face a mountain of debt if they do enroll. Far too many of our high school students are not prepared either academically or financially for higher education. These twin scourges not only dim prospects for too many young people, but they also shortchange our democracy and the nation’s long-term economic prospects.
For years, public education reform efforts have focused on improving the quality and outcomes of K-12 education. For far too long, a child’s ZIP code has dictated the quality of her education—largely determining whether she is taught by effective teachers, exposed to challenging curriculum, and immersed in a college-going culture. One’s ZIP code also largely determines whether a child will go to college at all and how burdened with debt she will be if she does.
Improving college readiness and increasing high school graduation rates are deservedly high on the education policy agenda. These goals remain critically important, but are we making a hollow promise to prepare students to be “college ready” if too many young people are denied a college education because of cost? Students need to be not only academically capable of doing college work, but also financially capable of attending college. Thus, the K-12 community also must take up the banner of access to college—academic, financial, and otherwise.
Forty years ago, the United States was the unchallenged leader both in college-completion rates and economic dynamism. Today, our country is 12th among developed nations in the percentage of young people who complete college, and it faces unprecedented economic competition from a host of countries. The affordable higher education of the mid-20th century that propelled millions into the middle class is no more, contributing to America’s poor record on social mobility relative to that of many European and Asian nations. In short, higher education—once the great ladder to success for so many Americans—is now more like a heavy gate that opens easily for some, opens with difficulty for others, and slams shut on millions more.
Income inequality, which has risen since the 1970s, is compounded by the growing inequality in college access, as those with a four-year college degree now earn on average $1,053 per week compared with $638 a week for the average high school graduate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Blocked access to college means blocked access to the American dream for much of the middle class and the poor, who are disproportionately people of color. While 59 percent of Asian-Americans and 43 percent of whites between the ages of 25 and 64 have two- or four-year college degrees, 27 percent of young African-Americans, and just 19 percent of Hispanics, hold degrees, according to a 2012 Lumina Foundation report.
Lack of access to college also translates into enormous forgone national income. A 2009 McKinsey & Co. report estimated that, if the United States had raised its education performance to the level of South Korea and Finland, U.S. gross domestic product could have been more than $2 trillion higher in 2008. Looked at another way, it means skills undeveloped, lower productivity, and less innovation in America’s workforce, which now must compete with better-educated new workers in many other countries.
In this election year, making college more accessible to more Americans should be a front-and-center issue."
Another result is that, despite still-high unemployment, many jobs demanding advanced education go unfilled. Existing economic disparities will be perpetuated or exacerbated. Instead of boosting the nation’s economy, those without college degrees will dampen national output, depend more heavily than others on government benefits, and pay less in taxes. Efforts to better facilitate the high-school-to-college transition need to be expanded.
How can community organizations successfully work with schools to increase high school graduation and college-attendance rates, particularly for low-income and minority students whose parents did not attend college? There are several highly successful examples among Public Education Network’s member local education funds, or LEFs.
For example, as part of the Citi Postsecondary Success Program, LEFs in Philadelphia, Miami, and San Francisco are using the College Readiness Asset Analysis—a research-based framework to help schools understand how well they are supporting students, beginning in 9th grade, in developing the contextual skills, academic behaviors, core-content knowledge, and cognitive strategies that make a student college-ready. (Launched in 2008, the Citi Postsecondary Success Program is a five-year, $6 million initiative funded by the Citi Foundation to increase the number of low-income and first-generation students who access and succeed in postsecondary education.)
Analysis results help schools, districts, and community partners improve coordination and quality, and point out where new strategies are needed.
In Miami, principals say they want to see “asset maps” each year to monitor students’ growth. The analysis has “really been changing the whole school culture, letting schools see these are the things that you need to have in place, and this is what research has shown will help children actually fulfill their dreams,” Linda Lecht, the executive director of The Education Fund in Miami, reported.
Another approach is to carefully monitor students’ progress so students and families know throughout high school whether the students are on track to graduate. BPE, formerly the Boston Plan for Excellence, and New Visions for Public Schools, in New York City, have developed student-tracking tools. Thanks to BPE’s Student Graduation Process Tracker, students have access to individually tailored reports starting in middle school that show their grade point averages, attendance records, standardized-test-score performance, credits earned, and course requirements remaining. Similarly, New Visions provides 9th graders in New Visions schools with a tool to track their attendance, grades, credits, and New York state regents’ exam scores. A complementary “School Snapshot” enables school staff members to better follow and address students’ needs.
A student attending one of the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles receives an “individual personal learning plan” to track her needs, interests, and progress on core-content standards, English-language development, and college readiness. The Consortium for Public Education in western Pennsylvania created MAPS, or My Action Plan for Success, which provides personalized plans for students.
And there are other approaches. Helping more students complete college-prep courses and raising college test scores are goals of a Houston A+ Challenge initiative. The Bridgeport Public Education Fund, in Connecticut, pairs mentors from local colleges with high school students to help them set goals, plan for college, prepare for the SAT, and complete financial-aid forms. A program to help students find financial aid by the Achieve Minneapolis LEF significantly increased college enrollment among the students it serves.
In short, the United States needs a multipronged approach to level the playing field so young people of all backgrounds can attend college. We need to reinvest in higher education and make it more affordable, but we also need high schools to do a better job of preparing and monitoring their students’ college readiness. In this election year, making college more accessible to more Americans should be a front-and-center issue. There is a lot of talk about jobs and the economy, but good jobs and economic growth are predicated on having an educated population. Expanding the numbers of well-educated Americans is the most promising long-term economic-stimulus program.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Education Week as College Readiness