College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

We Must Help Students Reach College

By Yash Gupta — June 14, 2011 5 min read

“When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I’m terrified for our workforce of tomorrow.”
– Bill Gates

We should all be terrified. The young people moving through our education system, particularly at public schools in low-income areas, are lamentably unprepared for the challenges that await them in their post-academic lives. A significant mismatch exists between the skills base of these young people and the available employment opportunities. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 60 percent of the new jobs that will emerge in the 21st century will require skills possessed by only 20 percent of the current workforce.

Every year, the United States provides fewer and fewer of the world’s qualified students with mastery of the science and mathematical skills needed in a sophisticated technological society. We are anguished, but is anyone surprised? In China, virtually all high school students study calculus; in the United States, just 13 percent did so earlier this decade, according to a 2006 Asia Society report.

Young people can no longer go from high school graduation to a lifetime slot at the local heavy-manufacturing plant. Those jobs are gone and never coming back. We know from U.S. Census data that over a lifetime, a graduate with a bachelor’s degree will earn $1 million more than someone with only a high school diploma. It’s all the more essential then for America’s youths to get on the track that will take them through college, providing them with the sheepskins and the abilities that will make them (and our nation) competitive in the new global marketplace.

Business has too long operated from the belief that all problems can be remedied by increased economic activity."

We have to move beyond simple solutions that once were appropriate, but no longer fit the times. We need to engage business leaders, civil rights organizations, and youth-advocacy groups for the effort. Business has too long operated from the belief that all problems can be remedied by increased economic activity. But the key to success is not an isolated shop here and an unrelated factory there. A rising tide floats all boats—and so we have assumed that with enough new business activity, these issues will solve themselves. The truth, however, is that even with all the economic growth of the past two decades, this has not been the case. We thought we bargained for a rising tide, but instead we found that the beaches just attracted more sand. The rich have become richer, while the middle class has struggled and the poor have fallen ever further behind. You can’t create business activity without a motivated, equipped, and properly educated workforce.

This dilemma has been compounded by the fact that, over the past three decades, tuition and fees at independent colleges and universities grew by 270 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, and 325 percent at public institutions, according to research conducted for Johns Hopkins University this year.

In the meantime, many private universities have been turning away from need-based scholarships to merit-based awards. According to a 2003 Lumina Foundation report citing information from the National Association of State Financial Aid Administrators, need-based aid in the United States rose 41 percent during the 1990s, while aid tied to merit increased more than 200 percent. Colleges argue that merit aid helps them in the fierce competition for top students. The problem with this approach is that it seems geared more to upholding the reputations of the best schools and less to addressing a problem that affects our country’s long-term well-being. To remain a global leader in innovation and production, the United States will need a workforce drawn from all communities, who have had every possible opportunity to receive the best available education and training. To ponder the alternative, as Bill Gates said, is indeed terrifying.

We’ve become like the farmer who looks to harvest an abundant yield, but has never bothered to prepare the soil. Our universities, particularly those in our larger cities, can help in this tilling work. For starters, they can create programs aimed at middle and high schoolers, in which the requirements of a college education are clearly spelled out, from the filing of applications and financial-aid forms to the basic academic knowledge expected of a college freshman. (Florida State University offers a successful model in its Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement, advising low-income students as early as 6th grade on how to navigate the road to college.) And certainly the benefits of higher education should be explained to our young students, not the least of which is the significantly large income disparity between college graduates and those whose schooling ended at 12th grade.

Also under the guidance of advisers from universities, high school students could compose pieces in the style of the college-application essay, outlining their goals for higher education and beyond—in effect, a written version of the success-visualization techniques used by athletes, businesspeople, and others.

Unfortunately, even after they reach a college campus, students from low-income backgrounds are hardly guaranteed success. Century Foundation senior fellow Richard D. Kahlenberg, the editor of America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, has noted the ample research showing that students from high-income families are far more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees by age 24 than their low-income counterparts. Again, the universities must pitch in. One approach could be mentorship through the social media so popular among the young. Students could take their questions about, say, a math assignment or campus fraternities to Facebook, Twitter, and other Web pages staffed by the school. Easy connections such as these can help prevent the isolation that often causes struggling students to drop out.

Equally important is keeping motivation high among all students in the classroom. To do so will require a different method that is more likely to ignite the desire to learn. Experiential learning could be the answer. Former Harvard University President Derek Bok is one of many educators who have advocated, to quote Bok, a “learner-centered process in which students become more actively involved in their own education,” letting go of the “teacher-orientedsystem featuring lectures delivered to passive audiences.”

Indiana University’s annual national survey of student engagement has found that students place great value in learning activities that occur outside the traditional classroom setting, such as internships, undergraduate research projects with faculty members, and foreign-study programs. These activities should be favored over the usual diet of remedial work for first- and second-year undergraduates.

We must learn to think in new ways about how we are going to prepare America’s future workforce, an enormous challenge that has so far eluded our best efforts to resolve it. Renewal will require that we acknowledge the need not merely to embrace new thinking, new ideas, new solutions, but also that we have the wisdom and courage to face our problems squarely and own them.

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as We Must Help Students Reach College


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