Another Peek Into the 'Toolbox'

February 15, 2006

In an effort to shed light on the hows and whys behind students’ success at completing college, the U.S. Education Department has released a new report called “The Toolbox Revisited.” 

The longitudinal study, which its author calls a “data essay,” explores the high school class of 1992 as it moved from high school to higher education and compares its success, favorably, to the high school class of 1982 tracked in an earlier report, “Answers in the Tool Box.”

Both reports provide support for efforts to improve the quality of high school curriculums and the participation in those curriculums of larger (and more diverse) proportions of students. New data indicate that progress is occurring -- the eight and a half year graduation rate for the 1992 cohort rose to 66 percent, from 60 percent for the 1982 cohort.  

The report’s author, Clifford Adelman, a researcher with the department’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education, says that the 8.5-year span is the appropriate one to look at, since there have been big changes in enrollment patterns and student demographics in recent years. A much larger proportion of high school seniors of all race and ethnicity groups continued their education into college, while postsecondary attendance patterns among traditional-age students have become far more complex, with more with nearly 60 percent of undergraduates attending more than one institution, and 35 percent of this group crossing state lines in the process.  

Students’ use of community colleges is also a big area of change and growth. “One out of eight undergraduates based in four-year institutions utilize community colleges to fill in pieces of their curriculum, and another eight percent ‘swirl’ back and forth between the four-year and two-year sectors,” according to the report. 

Adelman says that the academic intensity of a student’s high school curriculum still counts more than anything else in his or her precollegiate history in providing momentum toward completing a bachelor’s degree, but many high schools fall short on that score. Latino students, for instance, are far less likely to attend high schools offering trigonometry than white or Asian students. And students from the lowest socioeconomic status quintile attend high schools that are much less likely to offer any math above Algebra 2 than students in the upper economic quintiles.

“If we are going to close gaps in preparation -- and ultimately degree attainment -- the provision of curriculum issue has to be addressed,” Adelman says in the report. “The highest level of mathematics reached in high school continues to be a key marker in precollegiate momentum, with the tipping point of momentum toward a bachelor’s degree now firmly above Algebra 2.”

But high school preparation is only part of the story, according to the report, which indicates that colleges, universities and community colleges should do a “great deal more” to interact with and inject themselves into a student’s early collegiate world, calling on them both to strengthen their institutional policies surrounding academic advising and course scheduling services. 

Along those lines, the report says that in order to foster completion of college, advisers should target every first-time student to complete no less than 20 credits by the end of their first calendar year of enrollment.  

“We saw the same consequences in the original Tool Box, though now we understand better that the chances of making up for anything less than 20 credits diminish rapidly in the second year,” says Adelman.  

The report also indicates that “excessive no-penalty withdrawals and no-credit repeats appear to do irreparable damage to the chances of completing degrees.” Based on his research, Adelman says that institutions should “think very seriously about tightening up, with bonuses of increased access and lower time-to-degree.”

“More than incidental use of summer terms has proven to be a degree-completion lever with convincing fulcrum,” Adelman adds. “It’s part of the calendar-year frame in which students are increasingly participating. Four-year and community colleges can entice students into fuller use of summer terms with creative scheduling.”

While the U.S. Department of Education commissioned the report, it does not purport to agree with all of Adelman’s opinions.  “The views expressed herein are those of the author,” according to the report, “and do not necessarily represent the positions or the policies of the U.S. Department of Education.”

Upon release of the report on Tuesday, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings appeared especially keen on the high school aspects of the research, which mesh with the Bush administration’s recent budget proposals. "Students who enter college should be ready for college-level work. And it's the job of high schools and middle schools to prepare them for it," she said, tying this message to President Bush’s proposed American Competitiveness Initiative, which is intended to support rigorous instruction in math, science and foreign languages in the early grades and more challenging course work in high school. 

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