Rebuilding the American economy

Part 5: Can we reduce the number of students who leak from the pipeline?

The underlying thesis for this series of blog posts is that the best (and arguably the only) way to reinvigorate the American economy is to increase the percentage of adult Americans with a post-secondary degree or certificate. But as we noted in Parts 2 and 3, our educational system is akin to an obstacle course, with annual assessments during K-12 that determine if a given student is to be promoted to the next grade, and semiannual assessments in college to determine if a given student is to be awarded course credit for the courses in which he or she has enrolled. What happens to individuals who fail these assessments? Are they lost from the educational pipeline forever, or is there a way back into the system?

At the high school level, the most common route to a high school diploma for those who left the K-12 pipeline prematurely is the GED (General Educational Development) test. But the number of people who choose this route is relatively small.  In 2013, 540,000 adults passed their GED test (about 75 percent of those who took the test), but that was less than 2 percent of the almost 40 million American adults who now lack a high school diploma. The point is that young people who drop out before completing Grade 12 are at high risk of never receiving a high school diploma. Our current system of education does a much better job of weeding people out than of welcoming them back in. And, as we move increasingly into a knowledge-based economy, the economic costs to society of having so many adults without even a high school education are enormous — as they are, of course, to the individuals themselves.

The situation does not improve as we move to higher education. Our historic model of higher education — four years of full-time study, with students living in residence on or near the college campus — has been significantly modified over the years to accommodate changing societal needs. But the focus has been more on creating access to a more diverse population of students than on creating successful outcomes as measured by graduation rates.

For example, in the years after World War II, there was enormous investment by most states in building and expanding a system of state colleges. These were typically located in geographically diverse areas of the state to serve local populations, meaning that many students could be commuters, thereby saving the costs of being in residence on the campus. These colleges were not only more accessible geographically, but also academically: High school GPAs and test scores that might preclude acceptance at the state flagship university, or at many private colleges, were often sufficient for admission to a state college.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the states also invested heavily in community colleges — which, as the name implies, were located in almost every community of even modest size. Community colleges are typically “open admission,” meaning that anyone with a high school diploma (and, in some cases, even without a high school diploma) is welcome to enroll.

Community colleges typically serve three roles: They provide enrichment programs for the local community (these generally do not grant college credit); they provide associate of science degrees in practical fields ranging from auto mechanics to welding to nursing; and they provide associate of arts degrees for students who plan to transfer to a four-year school and complete their baccalaureates.

Some states (California and New York, for instance) organized their public institutions in a deliberately hierarchical manner. In California, students graduating in the top one-eighth of their high school class were eligible to apply to any of the 10 campuses of the University of California. If they graduated in the top one-third of their high school class, they could apply to any of the two dozen or so campuses in the California State University. All other students were welcomed at the more than 100 community college campuses scattered across the state. The state required campuses of the University of California and California State University systems to reserve seats in order to accommodate community college students who wished to transfer after receiving their associate of arts degrees.

This model of higher education works much better on paper than it does in the real world. There is a constant tension between cost and outcome: Tuition costs are kept low to encourage enrollment, but graduation rates are also low. Nationally, only about half of the students attending public four-year colleges and universities graduate from the campus at which they began their studies — and “half” is the measure six years after initial enrollment. The four-year graduation rate is substantially less, and the three-year graduation rate for the associate’s degree at a typical community college is often less than 20 percent.

It is interesting to contrast the use of scarce resources in medical treatment (“triage”) with the corresponding situation in higher education. “Triage” refers to the determination of who receives immediate medical attention in a natural disaster or on the battlefield. Those needing medical care are separated into three categories: patients likely to survive, whether or not they receive immediate attention; patients whose survival may depend on receiving immediate attention; and patients unlikely to survive, even with immediate attention. A triage assessment directs medical attention preferentially to the second category of patient, where medical care is likely to do the greatest good for the largest number of injured people.

Higher education does not follow the medical triage model, because the higher education model directs the most support to the strongest individuals — and the least support to those at greatest risk. In systems of public higher education, significantly more public dollars are spent per student at flagship universities than on students in state colleges, and even fewer public dollars are spent per student enrolled in community colleges. Apparently, the underlying theory is that state dollars, which are always limited, should preferentially be spent supporting the students that are the most likely to graduate, get good jobs and repay the state’s investment through their taxes (which will be higher, as a result of their having a college degree). Partly as a consequence of more money being spent on high-achieving students, the six-year graduation rate on the campuses of the University of California, for example, ranges between 66 percent and 91 percent, with most campuses in the 80-percent range. At the California State University campuses, the range is from 35 percent to 79 percent, with most campuses around 50 percent. The six-year graduation rate of students who begin at a community college and then transfer to a four-year school is 16 percent. (Of the students who say, at the time they start community college, that they intend to transfer to a four-year school, only 33 percent actually do so.)

It should not be surprising that a decision to spend more money on high-achieving students would result in higher graduation rates, but the question is whether society is receiving an adequate return on its investment in all segments of public higher education. Even allowing that most students in state colleges — let alone community colleges — have lower levels of academic achievement in high school than do students admitted to flagship publics, should a six-year graduation rate of around 50 percent be deemed adequate? And what about a three-year graduation for community college students of less than 20 percent?

These questions get us deeply into the politics underlying educational policy. Most Americans evidently prefer an “unfiltered” educational pipeline. That is, unlike higher education in many countries, there is no one set of exams that candidates must pass in order to gain entrance to university. We believe in second chances. We believe in “late bloomers.” We believe in a system that is accessible at almost any point in one’s life. But we apparently also think it appropriate that students who have not performed very well in high school should face significantly longer odds than students who have done well, in the sense that their path to a degree will be much less generously supported by state funds and, therefore, the likelihood of their graduating will be much lower.

Every year, at graduation ceremonies around the country, the media run stories of students who have faced the most incredible odds and overcome devastating circumstances but who have triumphed and graduated from college. We celebrate their success even as we quietly applaud a system of higher education that allowed them the opportunity to try. But for every such happy ending, there are dozens of prospective graduates who fell short of attaining a college degree. Low-income students growing up in poverty, and attending failing K-12 schools, are hard-pressed to complete high school, and, even if they do, find themselves typically with a level of academic preparation inadequate to succeed in college. And with poor academic preparation, the only college access they are likely to have is a community college where, rather than finding themselves in a supportive and nurturing environment, they struggle to attend on a part-time basis because they need at least a part-time job. They realize they are part of a culture where failure is the norm — and success the exception.

The mixed message is hard to ignore. If you are born poor, society punishes you with an educational system that, at every step, is intentionally inadequate to meet your needs. And if you do complete high school, your reward is more of the same: an intentionally inadequate community college experience where, again, you are expected to fail.

We should ask ourselves if it is moral to malnourish (in an academic sense) a student in K-12, and then say we’ll make it up to you by giving you a chance to do something (attending college) for which we have not prepared you to be successful? Isn’t that like teaching swimming by throwing people into the deep end of the pool and assuming that a few of them won’t drown? Why are we so accepting of the cynicism behind such a model? It is certainly not in the best interests of the students, and if our societal goal is to increase the number of adults with post-secondary credentials, that can only be done by enhancing the success of the students in the bottom half of the economic spectrum. So this model does not serve our country well, either.

But while acknowledging that changing this model will take some time, what do we do about the adults who have, for whatever reason, missed their opportunity to complete college when they were young and now see no realistic option open to them, given the responsibilities and time demands that adults typically face? Our current educational model doesn’t just serve them badly — it doesn’t serve them at all. For all intents and purposes, if you leave the post-secondary pipeline without a degree, you are lost forever.

Whenever we have undertaken massive education reform in the past, the first challenge was to overcome the widespread belief that the system prevailing at the time was as good as it could be, and certainly adequate for societal needs. Thus, in 1893, when a presidential panel of educators recommended eight years of primary school and four years of high school as a national goal to meet the growing educational needs of business and industry, only half of adult Americans had achieved that goal 50 years later.

Similarly, there was considerable opposition to the G.I. Bill after World War II on the part of some college presidents who were concerned that the inherent prestige of the college degree would be watered down if more people had one.  The opposition lost, and many more students entered college. But they found the bar had been raised, and graduating from college was far from assured.

We have continued with that mindset to this day: We expect the rigors of college to be more than many students can endure, and that the failure of half the class to graduate is evidence of high standards (or, less kindly, the inadequacy of the students either in terms of intellect or work ethic) — rather than evidence of poor teaching and inadequate academic support.

The point is: America can no longer afford (in any sense of the word) to have a system of higher education where so many students fail to graduate. Study after study has demonstrated that, with sufficient academic support, much greater percentages of students can graduate than has historically been the case. As a society, we have to stop placing all the blame on students, and recognize instead that the colleges themselves are complicit in the poor graduation rates found on many campuses.

The fundamental idea has to be that institutions of higher education exist to promote student academic success — not to weed out those deemed “unworthy.” Institutions with that progressive mindset exist today, at all levels, from community colleges through some of the most prestigious universities, where the students consistently outperform their peers at comparable institutions because of the commitment of the institution itself (and the faculty and staff of that institution) to focus on success.

Students and their families — and state and federal funding authorities — can and should expect a much more full-throated commitment to improved retention and graduation rates on the part of colleges and universities. For their part, the colleges and universities have to stop claiming that such improvements can only come at the expense of instituting a watered-down curriculum.

The cost of failure is too high for the individual — and too high for society. Colleges and universities need to step up and take responsibility for meeting students at least half way in supporting and encouraging their success in graduating. Plugging the leaks in the educational pipeline is in everyone’s interest.

And, finally, we need to create effective on-ramps for adults without a college degree who want and need to complete their studies. Returning them to the traditional classroom built to serve 18-year-olds is neither practical nor sufficient, especially when other pathways can be constructed if we have the will to do so.

We’ll consider the specifics of these pathways and other ways of remediating our current system of higher education in Part 6: Transforming the 20th Century university to meet the needs of 21st Century America.