Bridging the Gap Between High School and College

article | January 29, 2009

    MaryEllen McGuire

America's economy is in crisis. Unemployment is up, stock portfolios are down, and entire sectors are failing. Some would have you believe that billion dollar bailouts and stimulus packages are the only way to stem the tide. What is really needed is a highly skilled, technologically savvy, college educated workforce. A workforce prepared to react, shift gears, and compete. On this front, our prospects are dim. Many of today's high school graduates are not prepared to enter college, never mind complete a degree.

Our inability to produce college educated workers has nothing to do with the ability of colleges to physically accommodate new students. Classrooms and faculty aren't in short supply. Academically prepared students are. According to one study, only 34 percent of students who finish high school graduate with the minimum qualifications necessary for admission to a four-year college or university.

How did we get here? Our nation's high schools are primarily to blame. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, only a quarter of high school seniors scored proficient or better in math and only a third scored proficient or better in reading.

Colleges and universities also bear responsibility. Not only have they done a poor job communicating the skills they expect their incoming freshmen to possess, they've done a worse job of providing these students with effective remediation. One study suggests that only 30 percent of college students who take remedial reading courses go on to obtain a degree or certificate within eight years. Many of the remaining 70 percent leave without a degree, underprepared for work, and deep in student debt.

In the end, we're all paying a price. Business and industry leaders spend an average of $600 million a year on remedial skills training. The U.S. military spends an average of $70 million to remediate new recruits. And taxpayers pay twice for students' basic education: once when they are in high school and again through the taxpayer subsidized college financial aid system.

Clearly the system is broken. We have to start making meaningful connections between high school and college level work so that students - so that America - can compete.

How can we bridge the gap between high school and college? Bridging the Gap: How to Strengthen the Pk-16 Pipeline to Improve College Readiness, a report released by the New America Foundation today, explores this topic. Among the report's recommendations:

  • Acknowledge the wisdom of national education standards; use federal dollars to incentivize states to create and adopt national college readiness standards. High school students must clear a minimum bar of academic preparedness to succeed in college and compete in the global marketplace. Yet, under the current education model, each state sets its own standards and determines, in isolation, what constitutes mastery and success. As a result, our highly mobile student population moves though our nation's schools gaining widely varying levels of knowledge, skills, and preparedness. This lack of rigor and consistency across states, and oftentimes districts, hinders our economic success.

  • Leverage federal dollars to expand and improve existing readiness and remediation programs, programs that have demonstrated results. Many students enter school academically behind and rarely receive the tools they need to catch up. Good readiness and remediation programs provide these tools. Some offer summer academic support services, some provide supplemental tutoring, and others provide academic instruction in smaller, supportive learning communities. Federal, state, school district, and campus funds should support these promising models.

  • Demand data. Require colleges and high schools to collect and share data on student progress toward college readiness, remediation, and success. Better data will help develop an adequate and appropriate response, ensure efficient spending, and ensure that high schools and colleges are held accountable.

We are all responsible for ensuring that students graduate high school ready for college and the workforce: the school districts that graduate underprepared students; the states, which have a constitutional responsibility to provide students with a K-12 education; the colleges, which have an interest in a prepared student body; the students, who must do the work; and the federal government, which has an interest in an educated electorate and a highly trained workforce.

College- and workforce-ready aren't just buzz words. They aren't concepts that require stimulus dollars to warrant our attention and make the front page. They are the keys to a competitive workforce and better economic days ahead.


The full report can be downloaded here.


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    MaryEllen McGuire