High Schools and High College Costs

Students' need for remediation is a major driver of institutions' (and families') costs, and a target for policy makers.
November 3, 2005

Where and how to reduce costs in higher education? A smattering of ideas -- some more complicated than others -- were offered up by several educators and policy makers at Wednesday's "National Summit to Develop Solutions to Rising College Costs," hosted by the Lumina Foundation. The high cost involved offering college remedial courses is one area that many officials said could be alleviated with better high school education and increased partnerships among postsecondary and secondary educators.

While Lumina's president and CEO, Martha Lamkin, noted that no "silver bullet" exists in reducing the prices that colleges charge to students, improving the academic outcomes of secondary education plays a key role in the foundation's efforts to lower college expenses for institutions and individuals alike.

According to several speakers at the event, more than one-third of college students need remediation -- especially in math -- when they enter college."Deficits in basic skills cost businesses, colleges and underprepared high school graduates up to $16 billion annually in lost productivity and remedial costs," Kristin D. Conklin, a program director in the Educational Division of the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices, wrote in the "Course Corrections" essay book Lumina prepared for the event. "Redesigning American high schools can improve students' readiness for college and thus reduce remediation costs and the per-student cost of providing a college credential or degree."

Additionally, the fact that half of all students fail to graduate within six years means that they're taking out more loans to pay for their increased time attending institutions of higher education, according to several summit participants.

Tom Luce, an assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education, reminded the audience that the federal government is looking for ways to expand the No Child Left Behind Act to include accountability for high schools. He predicted that in coming years, "accountability is going to increase" for both secondary and postsecondary institutions.

In an afternoon panel discussion focused on college costs associated with poor secondary education, Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, Inc., a nonprofit focused on helping states raise academic standards, said that college instructors are the harshest critics of public high schools. Based on recent Achieve studies, he noted that only 18 percent of college professors believe that most of their students come to college extremely or very well prepared, with just 3 percent saying "extremely well."

To improve on this situation, Cohen said that college officials need to be much more "transparent" and tell high school teachers and principals what is expected of their students. "The high school system will have a hard time improving standards unless this happens," he said.

Robert C. Dickeson, Lumina's senior vice president for policy and organizational learning, who moderated the event, said that he didn't want an overall impression of the summit to be that high school educators were being "picked on," saying that those in higher education need to work hard to understand the challenges that elementary and secondary teachers face.

"I think secondary teachers already feel like they have a lot of pressure on them," Cohen said in an interview after his discussion. "I'm not sure that they need any more. But there are ways to lay the case out that have a tone of understanding, rather than finger pointing."

Several more college cost issues were highlighted during the summit:

  • William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, spoke at length about his institution's "Effectiveness and Efficiency Effort." Last year, the university produced $65 million, he said, by avoiding and cutting costs, generating non-tuition revenue, and reallocating resources strategically. The system increased faculty teaching requirements by 10 percent over all, formed systemwide technology partnerships, and consolidated financial aid and admissions divisions within the system.
  • Madeleine F. Green, director of the Center for Institutional and International Initiatives at the American Council on Education, provided an overview of the global college cost-saving picture. She noted that several foreign universities have diversified their sources of revenue, and that other countries have been more deliberate about setting cost saving policies.
  • David Longanecker, director of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, said that institutions of higher education should be in a competition not to reduce costs, but to increase benefits to the individual student.
  • The keynote speaker, Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, indicated that Asian universities are trying to figure out how to capture the independent and creative spirit of many American universities.  "We're focusing too much on the route," he said. "Our task will be to invent the future."

The Lumina policy brief, "Collision Course: Rising College Costs Threaten America's Future and Require Shared Solutions," is available on the foundation's Web site.


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