High schools

We Can't Do It Alone

Colleges and universities have come under relentless pressure from lawmakers and the public about retention and graduation issues, and demands for accountability based on graduation rates have increased across the country. Higher education even faces the possibility of standardized achievement testing, which has made life at the K-12 level miserable for teachers without necessarily improving student learning. Unless colleges and universities can start to both raise graduation and retention rates, and to change the public’s perspective on these issues, academe may look a lot more like a high school than a university.

Universities and colleges, including my own, have made retention a priority, encouraging faculty members to rethink what they do in order to foster student success. However, this is only half the effort needed, and may come too late for many students. Like the musical Chicago’s Velma Kelly, colleges and universities cannot be a one-person act in the musical Retention; they need their K-12 partners to get in on the action.

Recent research on student achievement may help colleges and universities start to formulate policies that reverse this tide of bad news. The first key piece of evidence comes from Clifford Adelman’s study “The Toolbox Revisited," which charted the high school courses that helped students complete college on time. He found that taking a core set of academic classes was the most powerful predictor of high school and college success, for students of all races, classes and genders.

In other words, a great deal of the success of college students depends on the choices they made in high school, particularly the decision to take rigorous classes, and to also pursue college credit options. If students enter college with six college credits in academic subjects, their chance of successfully making it through freshman year increases markedly. Core high school academic classes, such as advanced mathematics, give students a broader chance of majors, and keep them out of the remedial/non-credit classes that serve as a trap for students, basically leading to stagnation and eventual non-completion.

A second recent piece of evidence is William Tierney, Zoe B. Corwin, and Julia E. Colyar’s book, Preparing for College: Nine Elements of Effective Outreach, which noted that taking a rigorous college preparatory curriculum is “the key to college access.” The authors found that taking a rigorous academic curriculum that includes a strong mathematics component is the most consistently successful way of boosting college attendance and success, beating out mentoring, tutoring, summer programs, and many other popular means of helping students get to college. While they do not denigrate such programs (some types of programs lack evidence, not promise), it is clear that a strong set of academic classes in high school does make all the difference in college access and success.

The final piece of evidence is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation report on high school dropouts, “The Silent Epidemic,” published this month. Former students reported to researchers that they might have stayed in school had they faced a more challenging curriculum and adults who held them to high standards. Many of these dropouts had high expectations of themselves, but did not find challenge or relevance in high school, leading them to a dead end.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s psychological concept of flow helps explain why setting challenging goals for young people is critical. When people are faced with tasks that both challenge them, and are within reach of their abilities, they feel motivated to take them on. However, faced with tasks that have no challenge, or tasks that are simply out of reach, they give up. Unfortunately, if high school students give up on mathematics, reading or writing in high school, limp to graduation, and then enroll in higher education, they are part of a flow that leads to remedial classes, and eventual stopping -- or dropping out.

If college and universities worked with high schools to promote rigorous classes, relevant curriculum, and to give students in high school a vision of what they could become, both institutions would benefit greatly. The greatest area of need, as the Gate Foundation study points out, is for teaching methods that effectively engage and motivate students, and colleges and universities are critical to providing that professional development to teachers.

However, it is also important to address public and lawmaker perspectives on retention and graduation. Adelman makes a strong argument that students and their choices need to stand at the center of the debate on high school and college success. High schools and colleges need to do their utmost to promote success and opportunity, but need to remind people that while they can offer incentives, they cannot choose for students. Students themselves choose AP Calculus or study hall in high school, and they can choose to take classes over the summer in college or drink with their friends. Public officials, policymakers, the public and parents need to hear this message more often.

To recognize that students make their own decisions is not to let institutions off the hook. The federal government needs to support programs that promote college readiness, such as GEAR UP and Upward Bound, rather than annual proposing their destruction. Whether funded by federal money or not, college and universities need to provide middle and high school students with accurate and timely information about where they stand and what they need to do to achieve college admission and readiness. University access and mentoring programs need also to be expanded, and must target the students most in need of them.

Colleges and universities need a proactive strategy for working with K-12 schools to promote college readiness, and to encourage middle and high school students to do the work that will prepare them for college success. From a retention and graduation rate perspective, colleges and universities need more students with a strong academic core, who have had college-level experiences before enrolling freshman year, and who are prepared to work hard at being a college student -- and fewer students who expect the college experience to be what they have seen on Laguna Beach, Beverly Hills 90210 or (worst of all) Saved by the Bell: the College Years.

Russell Olwell
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Russell Olwell is associate professor of history at Eastern Michigan University, where he teaches classes in methods of history teaching, research and writing, and does outreach to local schools.

What Drives Parents Crazy?

When my children were applying to college three and six years ago, I sputtered and railed against the College Board, which seemed to talk to my children like a scolding grandparent.

Don't know where you're applying at test time? No free score reports for you. Want scores forwarded promptly? Costs extra. Think you're ready for the test? Better buy one more manual from us. This was Little Red Riding Hood's grandma with big teeth.  

I'm over that now. The College Board has softened some policies and offered free guidance, but more to the point, my kids are settled in college. The college application process would be out of my life entirely, except that I was asked to help write a book on the subject. Because of that project, I'm still curious.

What bugs parents now?

I report to you from the front lines of a town that produces many good applicants. Davis, California, is an educated, affluent community, a college town, where 65 percent of our high school graduates go on to four-year institutions.

Interviews of parents for my book, plus a dozen conversations with parents of this year's seniors, yielded some frustrations I anticipated and one real surprise.

Dealing With Organizations

Like parents all over the country, my interviewees are nervous about the new essay required by the College Board.

"What's a good score now?" is a typical question. "And how much do colleges count it?" Parents would like a real answer, something more specific than "we will consider each applicant’s best composite score, and - where available - their writing score" (Dartmouth College Web site).

The Common Application (which is not produced by the ubiquitous College Board) provokes parental anxiety, too. You'd think that an application that allows students to fill out the questions only once and write only one essay would inspire nothing but joy and gratitude. Indeed, some of the remarks I heard from parents sounded like testimonials ("wonderful" "easy to use"), but one problem surfaced repeatedly.

It might be called "miss-labeling" The common application is "common" because 300 colleges use it, but it is not common in the sense parents expect. It is not used identically by all colleges. For example, some institutions require application fees to be mailed in separately; sometimes you can pay online. This can be confusing, but it's a relatively minor detail.

More serious is the significant amount of additional material required by many institutions. They request extra essays, some short, some long. Some can be submitted via computer, some not. Students often fashion careful answers and then discover they won't fit in the space provided.

The most serious discomfort parents feel about the Common Application comes when they note discrepancies between the college's "own" application and the Common Ap. This is not the sort of thing that agitates teenagers, but it puts parents into a conundrum. Is it better to fill out the college's own application? Might that indicate greater interest? (Tuned-in parents have heard that "demonstrated interest" may count.)

Pushing their children to do the work of a second application, on nothing more than the hunch that it might count more, is not the sort of task that endears parents to children, or the reverse.

Still, the problem wouldn't have loomed large back in the days when most students applied to only a few places. Now, thanks to a growing population of college applicants, U.S. News rankings, and other factors, competition for "name" schools has become intense, leading to the grim advice, "Since you may not get in, apply widely."

When a student is filling out five applications to "reach" colleges, five to "good possibilities" and at least two to "safeties", extra essays, disparate payment systems, and space-limited Web sites can provoke the sort of blow up that parents dread during the last year at home with their child.

And the tension that fills homes during the month of April is palpable as students try to make up their minds which college to attend and parents (let's admit it) try to influence them. It doesn't help that colleges have greatly increased the size of their waiting lists, in many cases without informing applicants. How many parents and students get their hopes up when they shouldn't?

Seeking a "Good Fit"

I see no way for test makers, common application designers and colleges themselves to end college frenzy, but I believe they could make it easier to help parents and students find the elusive "good fit."

As one parent put it, "It's hard to discover what I need to know. Like when I'm buying a car, I don't know much about it so I say, 'we want low mileage', but is that really the most important thing? How do I get that next tier of information? For example, my son and I know the college has a psychology department, but is it average, good, or exceptional? How do we find out?"

Colleges should never stop recommending the visit, even though it forces some families to stretch. Says one counselor I interviewed, "If you want to discover the best fit for your kid, it's hard without hitting the road and looking. The Internet has put people into a passive viewing situation. They think they know the college, and they don't. Kids need to visit and look. They need to say, 'this feels right to me.'"

Colleges also need to be honest about what distinguishes them from others. The one thing I remember from the glossy brochures my children received was that they all looked alike.
Of course, adding college visits to the already jam-packed junior and senior years can be an additional burden, not only financially, but it in terms of stress and time. As I spoke with parents, the cry I heard most often was for something colleges can't be expected to provide: empathy for the pressures parents and children face in their last years of high school.

"Everything happens at the same time," said one parent.

"What about the college application process drives me crazy?" asked another, rephrasing my question. "Dealing with my son."

The Big Surprise

But if parents complained about inconsistencies in the application process, pressure on and from their students, and the vagaries of applying for financial aid, all of which I expected, what surprised me?

Not a single parent said that he or she was angry at "the whole system", complex, demanding, and full of pressure as it is.

Why not?

One interviewee provided an important clue.

"At the information session for parents at Davis High School, the big message from the counselors was 'you have to let your student do it', meaning that parents should stay out of the application process. I was sitting next to parents who had been through this with older kids. They sputtered. They rolled their eyes. They told me there was no way they could leave this to their kids to figure out. Too complicated. Too much at stake. Can students manage it all by themselves? No."

Parents today expect the process of applying to college to be difficult for their children and they expect to help.

That last part pleases them.

They're happy with a system that requires them to be involved because that's what they want in the first place. They want to be able to influence the child in what they view as the best direction. This may not be an ideal way for children to grow up and assume adult responsibility, but that's the situation we've got.

Interestingly, the enthusiasm parents have for being involved leads them to an insight they might not have reached in any other way.

"My heart goes out to those kids who are first-generation college," said one parent. "I don't know what happens to those kids."

As they madly participate in efforts to increase the chances that their own children get in, some application-savvy parents are aware of who gets left out.

Colleges, it's still up to you to find and help those students.

Marion Franck
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Marion Franck is a freelance writer and co-author with Sally P. Springer of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know about Getting Into College (Jossey-Bass, 2005).

Time to Team Up with Teach For America

“I do not know very much about painting, but I know enough to know that the Art teacher did not know much about it either and that, furthermore, she did not know or care anything at all about the way in which you can destroy a human being.  Stephen, in many ways already dying, died a second and third and fourth and final death before her anger.”

So wrote Jonathan Kozol in Death at an Early Age, the 1967 exposé of American public education drawn from the author’s hands-on work as a substitute teacher. Forty years later, I hear echoes of the young Kozol in regular e-mails from my recently graduated Georgetown University students who are teaching in public schools all across the country.

For example, last year Kristen Hutchens recounted a time when a 7th grader named Hernando stood up in her Washington Heights classroom and shouted, “School is for white people,” a plaintive cry given the 49 percent high school completion rate for New York State Latinos. Hanseul Kang described Native American high school students in Thoreau, N.M., who couldn’t care less about failing classes given the endemic poverty engulfing them. Emily Conger wrote about how it took her the good part of each morning just to calm down the chronically angry Baton Rouge first-graders she was trying to teach.

Kristen, Hanseul and Emily all worked in Teach For America (TFA), the 16-year-old program through which can-do college graduates teach some of America’s neediest public school students. In the last three years, more than 30 young Georgetown graduates I’ve taught or mentored have taken this path. All have been challenged very deeply in multiple ways. As I hear about their work, the victories and the struggles, the problems they see and the personal limitations they feel, it has become clear to me that now is the right time for higher education and Teach For America to work together in a more formal partnership.

For higher education, a new relationship makes sense for a number of reasons. TFA has an outstanding and altruistic mission. It has achieved demonstrably powerful results while maintaining a commitment to continuous evaluation and improvement. With a growing force of 4,400 idealistic graduates preaching and embodying the power of college in underserved communities across the country, TFA may help higher education address one of great challenges of our future -- the shocking reality that only 1 in 17 children from families earning less the $35,000 per year will earn a college degree by age 24.

Teach For America is also important for higher education because of the impact it's having on many campuses right now. With 19,000 applicants last year, the organization is clearly connecting with our students’ personal and civic values. At Georgetown, 8 to 9 percent of last year’s graduating seniors applied to TFA -- more than applied to medical school. As a result, TFA is the No. 1 employer of members of our class of 2006. We need to take this phenomenon seriously and see how we can support our students’ aspirations.

We also need to take seriously the complexity and difficulty of the experience our students have once they get started in TFA. The young women and men who write to me describe the first year as a baptism-by-fire in which past achievements count for nothing, and success, writes former San Jose teacher Joanna Belcher, requires “every ounce of energy and intellect.” As brand-new teachers, they have to figure out how to teach and how to maintain order. They often need to create materials and even curricula from scratch. Most of their students test well below grade level; some have trying or desperate needs.

And then there are the dilemmas: What to do when students won’t even try to cooperate? When school lunches taste so bad that hungry kids won’t eat them? When the children see broken-down buildings as symbols of how little society values them? Hard-working and sleep-deprived, obsessed with helping their children, my former students brood over such questions and sometimes chastise themselves for not making a fast-enough impact.

As I listen to young people who I’ve taught and know well, even as they struggle, I see so many different ways that they’re growing. In Roma, Tex., Steve de Man showed the initiative to raise $42,000 to bring two groups of 40 middle school students to visit the nation’s capital. In the Mississippi Delta, Mike Griffin demonstrated the flexibility and perseverance to teach extremely well after being assigned to a new school midyear. Nicole Benvenuto and Grace Tse were able to see the beauty in individual victories.  Joanna Belcher learned to draw upon the resources of others at her school to become an even better teacher.  

Elena Romerdahl found a hero in her New York City principal. Marya Murray Diaz developed an intellectual love for critical pedagogy and its implications for her outreach to working class parents. Last summer, Joseph Almeida described how his fifth grade class in Washington Heights gained 1.5 years in reading growth and also exceeded its 80 percent math content mastery goal, concluding, “It was incredible to see their transformations and the power that the acquisition of knowledge had on their self-esteem and continually improving academic performance.”

One of my favorite stories concerns Sophia Pappas, who entered in 2003. Right from the start, her Newark elementary school principal complained that he didn’t want her, and in October she was summarily fired. With rent to pay and no other job, she spent the rest of that year working in TFA’s New Jersey office. Many would have decided to move on at that point, but instead Sophia chose to start over the next fall teaching pre-K at a different school. For the next two years she taught brilliantly and immersed herself in her students’ lives, winning teaching awards. Having now completed the two-year TFA term, Sophia is staying at her school for at least one more year before starting graduate study in education policy.

As a professor, I love the fact that TFA believes in my students, and it lifts me to watch those I have taught rise to its demands. There’s no question that some of the formative experiences they have in the program will shape them for a lifetime, the way Jonathan Kozol’s shaped him.  

That said, when I reread the e-mails I get from the front lines, it’s clear that some beginning teachers could use more preparation and more intensive on-going support. I have especially heard this from first-year teachers placed in special education or limited English proficiency classrooms. Such problems are compounded when new teachers get assigned to schools where the administration can’t support them or may not even want them.

While these difficulties affect a minority of Corps members, they could worsen with the organization’s plan to expand from 4,400 teachers this year to 7,500 in 2010. This is another reason why higher education needs to sit up and take notice. Frankly, these growth plans only make sense if the organization can recruit and support an even larger cohort of exceptional graduates determined to transform young lives. I’m not sure TFA can do this alone -- which brings me to some of the ways higher education might reach out in partnership.   

First, we should help more undergraduates qualify themselves to be accepted -- not because we necessarily prefer TFA over other options, but because significant percentages of our seniors clearly do.  We might expand community-based learning courses, student research opportunities, and leadership development programs. We might partner with TFA to help undergraduates learn early what it will take to get selected -- maybe even by giving them teaching internships with current or former Corps members.  We also should evaluate our current university-run youth programs to make sure they’re in sync with the schools’ curricula and benchmarks. There’s no reason we can’t teach college students how to develop work plans to bring the children they’re mentoring up to or beyond grade level; maybe TFA and its leading feeder campuses could work together on this and thereby strengthen the applicant pool.

Second, as the Princeton University English professor Jeff Dolven has observed, colleges and universities could make a big impact by extending new resources to our teaching alums -- all teachers, not just Corps members. Perhaps we could provide access to free or reduced cost textbooks, class materials, library resources or summer courses. We might identify professors willing to serve as intellectual mentors or discussion leaders for chat rooms. We could certainly bring these teachers together for workshops, symposia, or opportunities to reflect and reconnect. The first year of teaching can be so bracing, and so lonely. Creating networks for problem-solving, dialogue, and dreaming is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.  

The idea of working with TFA will be controversial in some quarters of higher education, because the model has its detractors. Some question whether freshly minted college graduates are the best fit for the high-stakes classrooms of distressed school districts. Another concern is that the two-year TFA term requires struggling schools to spend too much time mentoring new teachers and managing turnover. A third is that the program is growing too quickly.

These are fair and important concerns. TFA has good answers to each of them, pointing to students test scores, principal satisfaction and the high caliber of recruits. I would argue -- and I’m confident TFA would agree -- that these are perennial quality issues and not one-time questions to resolve. So, a third area of potential collaboration might be the establishment of a new TFA advisory board of faculty, alumni, students and university leaders to look at such issues, year in and year out, and bring the resources of universities to bear on those areas that give concern.  

Higher education, Teach For America, and the schools that TFA serves have a lot to gain from a new partnership. Of course, thousands of our own students and alumni already know this. This generation of young graduates has responded to the American ideal of equal educational opportunity with a sense of urgency, and don’t want the children sitting before them, right now, to die at an early age. Our teaching alums remind us that creating opportunity for children is everybody’s job.

Daniel R. Porterfield
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Daniel R. Porterfield is vice president for public affairs and strategic development and an assistant professor of English at Georgetown University.

After the Vote, Moving On

The passage of the anti-affirmative action ballot Proposition 2 hit hard in Michigan for those who care about access to college or campus diversity. A Detroit teacher related to me what an African-American high school student told him about the results of the ballot measure’s passage. The academically talented student picked up a basketball and said that he had better start to practice, as sports were the only opportunity left for kids like him. The student was making a joke, but the point of the story remains – for the next generation of students, Proposition 2 will shape their hopes about college, their sense of who they can be. Though the measure may not keep students like the one above from being admitted to a top school, it could well keep him from applying, or even aspiring to attend a top school.

In the wake of attacks on affirmative action, students may believe that they cannot attend college, when most colleges and universities offer tremendous access to a wide range of students. Colleges and universities will need to make sure that students have the correct information about college standards and admission requirements. Students need to understand that standardized tests are only part of the system, and that students with a wide range of test scores can be successful in postsecondary education.

Colleges and universities need to reach out to students to bring a message of hope -- a college education is not out of reach, and that our colleges and universities remain committed to educating a diverse student population. Colleges and universities, if they work together, could use the assault on affirmative action as an opportunity to work together to better engage with the K-12 community. This work is difficult, long-term, labor intensive, frustrating and counter-cultural. Universities have traditionally had a “build it and they will come philosophy,” in which they build buildings, print application forms and expect a class of students to show up.

Higher education’s focus must change from admissions policies to outreach, with greater attention to college preparation. Programs such as Upward Bound and Gear Up (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) provide models for what can be done, but these need to be strengthened, energized, and made central to the mission of colleges and universities. Nothing in Proposition 2 prevents universities from targeting schools districts across the state that are not now sending their students to college, and working with those schools to improve their curriculums and their college-going rates. The schools that need this help range from urban districts like Detroit, Flint and Lansing, to many small struggling rural districts, to districts with large populations of Native Americans, Arab-Americans or Latinos, groups of students who have been ignored in the debate over Proposition 2.

In California, Proposition 209 led to a drastic decline in minority enrollments in the flagship University of California institutions, but it has energized the California State University System, which has become the leader in school outreach, in college preparation and awareness, and in minority student enrollments. The passage of Proposition 209 has made both the University of California and Cal State system far more interested and involved in high school curriculum, and both systems have become far more explicit with students and high schools about the knowledge and skills that are prerequisites to college success.

Regional universities, long the second tier of the hierarchy, may now become the most important part of the system for diversity. The reality is that affirmative action in admissions is a far less important issue once you leave state flagships like the University of Michigan. Minority students who do not get in there because of this change would be welcomed, admitted, and successful at institutions all over the state. This shift would bring these regional universities the “critical mass” of diversity that the University of Michigan argued was so important for campus climate, and revitalize regional universities' mission of providing access to underrepresented students.

If universities want a more diverse student body, business as usual will not work anymore. Universities and colleges need to take a role in building, encouraging, locating and recruiting their future students, starting now. The passage of Proposition 2 presents a moral challenge to colleges and universities to leave the ivory tower and to work for a better future for the students that need it most.

If colleges and universities are going to do this kind of work, engagement with the K-12 system needs to go to the top of the university’s agenda. Most of the programs at colleges and universities that work with schools and schoolchildren can be found in some of the most marginal spaces imaginable, including leaky basements, off-campus sites, and in other cities entirely. They are found in virtually every unit except Academic Affairs, and are rarely run by faculty members. These valuable programs, long neglected by their institutions, need recognition, energy, clout and involvement from the top.

For faculty, substantial involvement in elementary and high schools has never had the rewards of research, even for faculty in education schools. If universities and colleges were to revitalize this role, it would take a cultural shift, in which faculty would be expected to engage with their colleagues in the K-12 system, as well as students on a regular basis.

The passage of Proposition 2 in Michigan provided higher education across the nation with a very bad night. It showed that no matter what level of corporate and higher education support exists for affirmative action programs, voters can overwhelmingly reject this based on a few attack ads.

It is now the morning after that bad night. Time to get to work.

Russell Olwell
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Russell Olwell is associate professor of history at Eastern Michigan University.

Where's Herman?

The guy featured on the poster had a long white beard and dark black sunglasses, the kind worn by people too cool for any room they might ever enter. At first it looked like he might be the guitar player for ZZ Top. But on closer examination you saw that the event being advertised was not a rock concert but, rather, a "transdisciplinary celebration" called "Why Melville Matters Now.” The man behind those shades was the creator of tortured souls like Ishmael and Bartleby. And the homage to him in Albany this past weekend was designed to make him a local celebrity.

A transdisciplinary celebration is like an academic conference, only different. This one was organized with the support of the State University of New York at Albany -- especially its Center for Humanities, Arts, and TechnoSciences. But the gathering itself took place elsewhere, at the Albany Academy, a private school attended by Melville himself in the 1830s; and the event was open to the general public. Parents and alumni attended, as well as scholars giving papers. It soon became clear that the entire Albany Academy had undergone a recent bout of systematic Melville mania. A bulletin board outside the kindergarten and first grade classrooms showed a school of colorful construction-paper fish, beneath the words “Where’s Moby?” (I must admit that I could not find Moby.)

Herman Melville: great American novelist or great American hipster? Well, it isn’t an either/or kind of situation. Rereading Moby Dick for the first time in ages (now minus the English major’s mental tic of obsessing over how each little part fit into a vast symbolic architecture), I recently underwent the astonishing revelation that Melville (1) definitely has a sense of humor, (2) pretty much invented the postmodern “maximalist” novel of the sort we now associate with Thomas Pynchon, and (3) is so overtly gay and so stridently multiculturalist that Fox News should probably look into how he ever got into the canon.

You don’t have to interpret Melville to make him seem contemporary. He is way ahead of you on that score -- even in ways that can prove somewhat troubling to consider. (Since 9/11, we have gone through a serious bout of Ahab-ism, finding purpose and meaning in the prospect of vengeance, which is the sort of thing that tends not to end well.)

But getting people together to discuss him is no small trick. One of the chief organizers of the gathering, Mary Valentis, an associate professor of English at SUNY-Albany, told me about giving equal weight to two major phases of its preparation. The first was sending out the call for papers, then sorting through the responses to create a program. The other was doing as much as possible to make local people aware of the gathering -- a matter of getting publicity on radio, television, and in the newspapers.

For that, it helped to have things on the schedule other than papers on Melville and cognitive science, or the theological subtext of Benito Cereno. There were art installations, a dance recital, and a 24-hour marathon reading of Moby Dick. The latter even would feature Andy Rooney reading the novel's final chapter and epilogue.

Rooney had a certain amount of drawing power, of course. Apart from being on “60 Minutes,” he is a member of the Albany Academy’s class of ‘39. But it appeared that the single biggest turnout was for the keynote address by Andrew Delbanco, a professor of humanities at Columbia University and the author of a recent biography of Melville.

Any time a scholar can successfully compete with a TV curmudgeon, it seems like a good thing.

Delbanco provided an overview of Melville’s life and work, and discussed his posthumous emergence as an iconic figure in American literature. He also noted that every town seems to have at least one restaurant or bar named after Moby Dick. (In my neighborhood, it’s the Moby Dick House of Kabob.) It was a good example of a talk that could serve as an introduction to Melville for a complete novice while also holding the attention of someone who had read around in the secondary literature. Not the sort of thing you hear very often, alas. The 150 or so listeners, ranging from high school students to full professors, seemed to appreciate the effort.

But it left me wondering why there weren’t more people in the audience. Despite Moby-themed eateries, it seemed as if there might still be some barrier to wider interest in Melville. After all, an event devoted to Edgar Allen Poe would probably have drawn a larger turnout.

“I guess I would say that Poe might draw better,” Delbanco responded, “because he is a writer whom one encounters in childhood and, perhaps, because of the melodrama of his life -- I heard that Sly Stallone was thinking of making a movie about him -- while Melville is up against the general decline in serious reading.... Is there any demanding writer from the past who would bring out a bigger, more various audience? Henry James has a certain currency because of the Merchant-Ivory movies, but I don't think he'd pack 'em in even if Isabel Archer was from Albany.”

Fair enough. And in any case, I did get a glimpse of a potential way of building up non-academic interest in Melville later, while talking with Patricia Spence Rudden and Jane Mushabac, both of them professors of English at the New York City College of Technology, which is part of the City University of New York.

We had been having an entertaining ramble of a conversation at dinner, covering teaching loads, the scholarship on women in rock music (the subject of a book Rudden is editing), and Melville’s sense of humor (which it was good to learn was not just my imagination, since Mushabac has written a monograph  on the subject). At some point, one of them said: “They keep trying to make him a New Englander, but they can’t have him!”

Huh? They filled me in on the argument over whether New York City or New Bedford, Mass. gets to lay claim to Melville. Neither side, it seems, is much impressed by the Albany claim. (Still, it’s worth noting that a letter from Melville’s father described him as being, at age 7, “of the true Albany stamp.”) The dispute is now confined to scholarly circles, for the most part. But it seems like the kind of thing that could be transformed into a full-scale rivalry among the cities, complete with local reading clubs, public lectures and debates, and a certain amount of trash-talking.

Well, it’s an idea anyway. And the flow of benefits between scholars and the public might be a two-way transaction.

One paper “‘Hideous Progeny’: The Monstrous, Monomaniacal, and Gothic Themes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as Echoed in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick” stirred up some interesting discussion afterward -- including a question by an audience member from Salem who preferred to emphasize the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne. (A little of that territorial imperative going, maybe.)

The author of the paper, Phil Purser, is a graduate student in English as the University of West Georgia, and he fielded the question well. The influence of Hawthorne on Melville is a standard topic in the scholarship. But for that very reason, it’s not the sort of thing one expects to have to sum up immediately right after presenting an analysis of the relationship between the White Whale and Victor Frankenstein’s Creature.

Afterwards, Purser told me that he had just driven 22 hours from Carrollton, Georgia to attend the event. He expected it to be like other conferences he had attended -- the usual mixture of professors and graduate students. (Which also means, often enough, “questions” for which any possible answer is a minor distraction from the questioner’s performance of a professionalized identity.) The mixed nature of the event took him by surprise. He had to interact simultaneously with other scholars and non-specialist members of the public. “I was asked difficult questions,” he told me, “and I was on some level surprised at how I answered them.... This was definitely not a conference of one-upsmanship in which scholars vie for the spotlight; it was encouraging and intellectually invigorating.”

Take that, New Bedford!
(For a full list of the panels and non-scholarly sessions that made up “Why Melville Matters Now,” check out its Web site.)

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Getting Serious About College Readiness

As someone who works with many states to improve education, I’m deeply troubled by the lack of our national progress -- and the missing urgency in postsecondary education -- toward improving students’ readiness for college and their prospects for completing college degrees.

Many in postsecondary education agree the readiness problem must be addressed, and a few states have taken strong early steps toward a solution. So, why haven’t we moved closer to solving the readiness problem?

The largest obstacle is that all of postsecondary education still does not see the readiness problem and the elements of addressing it in the same ways. Some question the size of the problem. Some fear that students’ access to higher learning could be at risk. Others fear that admissions would be affected, or believe that we can solve it simply by requiring more high school courses, or that readiness is more of a problem for high schools to solve.

We must come together in postsecondary education on many of these points if we are to prepare far greater numbers of students for college. ACT Inc. estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of its test takers are not well-prepared for college study. Considering that only about half of students who enroll in college actually earn a degree or certificate, we must find ways to confront this problem. Research shows that most future job opportunities in the U.S. will require some level of college study or career training after high school.

A handful of states have taken action toward improving college readiness -- notably Arkansas, California, Indiana, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas, all of which have at least established specific state policy agendas for dealing with the problem.

Achieve Inc. has worked with many states through its American Diploma Project to promote the importance and help states take some early steps toward improving college readiness. The American Council on Education and the State Higher Education Executive Officers also are among the groups that have begun supporting the need to take action on readiness.

Most states, though, have neither committed to a specific agenda for improving college readiness nor made significant progress.

The lack of progress is particularly worrisome because many in postsecondary education agree that improving college readiness is doable, and we have a good idea of the practical steps our states and K-12 and postsecondary education systems need to take.

Briefly, these steps are needed:

  • Establish college-readiness standards in language arts and mathematics that are embraced by all of postsecondary education.
  • Ensure adoption of the college-readiness standards by the public K-12 schools.
  • Identify high school tests that measure students’ performance on the standards early in high school so they can find the extra help or courses they need before or during the senior year.
  • Make these tests part of the state’s K-12 school accountability system.
  • Prepare current and new teachers in the new standards and how to incorporate them into classroom instruction.

So, if we know how to address this college-readiness challenge, why is there such little progress across many of our states and systems of postsecondary education?

As we have reviewed state policies on college readiness in the past year, a time during which many states should have been making considerable progress on readiness, we’ve seen a lack of shared views within and across states of the magnitude and nature of the readiness problems we face. There is simply not the critical convergence of thinking around various elements of the readiness challenge that is necessary for all interests to establish or commit to a bold action agenda.

I remember attending a graduate school forum some years ago and hearing the noted organizational psychologist Karl E. Weick, now a professor at the University of Michigan, refer to higher education as a bunch of solutions in search of relevant problems. In other words, frequently the most difficult task is defining the problem clearly and in such ways that all of the key parties embrace the definition. The solutions are more apparent when the definition is clarified.

Here are some suggestions about how to bring consensus on some of the key points in defining the readiness challenge:

First, there needs to be agreement that all states face a significant readiness problem. Research shows that most students are not well-prepared to begin college study in language arts, mathematics or both. Even many students who are not required to take remedial courses are not well-prepared for college work, and many professors and college administrators know it.

Few states apply one set of readiness standards across all of postsecondary education, resulting in individual campuses or systems setting their own readiness or placement standards. Frequently, the standards are lower than they should be to indicate readiness. States that recognize the magnitude of the readiness problem are more likely to make readiness a priority and move toward improvement.
Second, postsecondary education needs to embrace the improvement of college readiness as a move in its own best interest -- and in the best interest of every state and the entire nation. Some officials in postsecondary education will question this statement. After all, remedial education still generates per-student funding, and many students who are not ready for college still make their way into degree-credit courses and generate funding, at least until they drop out. Their lack of readiness also provides an easy explanation for low college graduation rates. Having high proportions of students better prepared for college would eliminate a reason higher education currently uses to explain the low rates and would make higher education more accountable for its own effectiveness. Thus, making postsecondary education more accountable for postsecondary completion while maintaining access would force us to take readiness more seriously, because readiness is a key factor in degree and certificate completion.

Third, postsecondary education must not confuse the need to improve readiness with a threat to college admission or entry. Confusing readiness with admission will only keep states and postsecondary education systems from reaching consensus on making readiness a priority. Broad-access and open-door institutions (which serve a large majority of students across the nation) will not fully embrace a readiness initiative if they believe it will negatively affect access. Therefore, states need to assert that access and entry will be maintained regardless of the readiness agenda. Remedial education will continue -- only, we hope, a lot less of it, for more students will be prepared to begin college work.

This is the fourth and most essential point: Improving college readiness depends on strengthening high school graduation requirements and diplomas, but states and higher education systems cannot delay dealing with the readiness problem until these graduation requirements rise to meet college-readiness standards. All states need to raise high school graduation and diploma requirements, increase high school graduation rates, improve student achievement, and ensure that much higher proportions of students are ready for college upon completing high school. All of these areas need careful and diligent work from K-12 and postsecondary leaders working together. Rhetoric calling for high school diploma and graduation requirements and high-stakes graduation tests to be changed overnight to ensure college readiness for all students in the near-term may cause the public schools to question whether higher graduation requirements are realistic. Many states already struggle with low graduation rates in high schools, even under existing requirements and tests.

Fifth and related to the last point, for the readiness initiative to be taken seriously, the general claims that “all students need to be ready for college and careers” needs to be narrowed down, clarified and embraced widely. We must specify what readiness means in those essential skills that every person needs to learn further in school and at work -- reading, writing and math. Specified in terms of these learning skills, a case can be made that all high school graduates need these skills in collegiate academic programs, postsecondary career-preparation programs, or subsequent on-the-job training. In today’s economy, all students need a certain level of basic skills to pursue their goals.

Sixth, postsecondary education and the public schools need to recognize that meeting the college-readiness challenge will center on setting specific, measurable performance standards in key learning skills and having more students achieve them. There is still some confusion over this focus, especially in postsecondary education, which has little experience in performance standards-based education (in contrast to public schools since the 1990s). Postsecondary education tends to see readiness as synonymous with high school courses and grades or with ACT or SAT scores. While rigorous high school courses and good grades are necessary, they do not by any means ensure readiness. The national admissions tests may come closer to indicating student readiness in reading, writing and math, but they do not provide the precise and transparent focus on the core standards that high school teachers need to use in their classroom instruction.

Seventh, the best kind of readiness agenda will require a statewide effort that has all of postsecondary education acting as a body, agreeing on one set of readiness standards and uniformly communicating them to all high schools in a state. This statewide stance is needed to ensure that teachers in all of a state’s high schools know exactly what standards to help students meet. No state has managed yet to get all of postsecondary education -- universities and community colleges -- to speak with one voice. College readiness will be improved only when high school classroom teachers receive clear and concise signals about standards, backed by all of postsecondary education in their state. Statewide, state-level policy direction may be needed to provide the framework for public schools and postsecondary education to coordinate their efforts.

Reaching consensus across postsecondary education on the definition of the nation’s college-readiness problem will help states and college systems move toward solutions. All states need explicit readiness standards in reading and math, and they need to bring postsecondary education and K-12 schools together to develop such standards and to implement them. Getting more students ready for college and the work place will benefit our nation, every state, all students and postsecondary education.

Dave Spence
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Dave Spence is the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization based in Atlanta that works with 16 member states to improve pre-K-12 and postsecondary education. He is a former vice chancellor of the California, Florida and Georgia state university systems, and he received the Virginia B. Smith Innovative Leadership Award in 2006 from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

How Higher Ed Can Fix K-12

This morning, at colleges and universities across the land, professors are emerging from freshman seminars and introductory classes cursing American high schools. “How,” this exasperated chorus asks, “am I supposed to teach students who so thoroughly lack basic reading, writing, math, and study skills?”

Across campus, the chorus gains voices. “How,” the frustrated admissions officers and university lawyers plead, “are we supposed to achieve diversity without preferences, when students’ high school educations are so unequal?”

The professors and administrators have a point: The success of American higher education is contingent on the success of American secondary education. And, in many regards, American secondary education is failing. Despite the heady promises of No Child Left Behind, it’s clear that we’re a long way from providing a decent high school education for every student in America. In fact, after several decades of rising high school graduation rates and declining racial and ethnic educational gaps, much of the news from American public schools is bad. High school dropout rates are once again on the rise; schools are resegregating by race, ethnicity, and economics; and poor, black, and Hispanic students are falling behind in the nation’s schools.

But for all of our grousing, those of us in higher ed tend to sit on the sidelines when it comes time to debate school reform policy. That’s a shame, because we -- the exasperated professors and the frustrated admissions officers alike -- are in a unique position to improve the nation’s high schools.

Texas’s recent educational policy-making history helps to explain how. Texas became a national leader in school reform in the 1980s and early 1990s, adopting standardized testing and school accountability policies that provided a model for the No Child Left Behind Act. But all that changed in 1996 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit banned affirmative action at Texas colleges and universities. The Hopwood decision was discouraging news for minority high school students in Texas, and in the year after the decision, the state’s public high schools slipped on several important indicators of school quality, from student attendance to advanced course taking and college enrollment. Hopwood also threw the state’s educational policy-makers for a loop. In the years that followed the decision, the state put its high school reform program on autopilot as it scrambled to maintain racial and ethnic diversity at its flagship public universities in the post-affirmative action era.

Between the discouraged students and the distracted policy-makers, it sounds like a recipe for educational disaster. But as I demonstrate in a paper published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Texas high schools posted record numbers just two years after Hopwood. And in the years that followed, those numbers kept climbing.

What happened? The short answer is that Texas’s higher education establishment got involved in the state’s high schools. Worried that black and Hispanic enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M would plummet in the wake of the affirmative action ban, the state created a series of policies designed to clearly articulate higher education standards and broadcast them widely to students across the state.

The best known of these policies was H.B. 588, the Texas top 10 percent law. Passed by the Legislature in 1997, the law guaranteed admission to any in-state public college or university to any student who graduated in the top 10 percent of his or her Texas high school class. The law was conceived as a racially neutral alternative to affirmative action, designed to use high school racial segregation to build diversity at UT and A&M. But the law had an unexpected effect on the state’s high schools as well. Previously, the criteria for UT and A&M admissions were so complex that high-performing students at high schools where there was little formal or informal college counseling frequently didn’t even bother applying. The top 10 percent law changed that, replacing a confusing admissions system with a simple one, and boosting college application rates from high-poverty and high-minority schools that had frequently sent few applicants. And that’s not all: Under the new admissions regime, advanced course enrollment and student attendance rates also improved at disadvantaged high schools. By clearing the path to college, the top 10 percent law created an academic press in high schools where alienation and demotivation once ruled.

Rather than sit and wait for applications from top-decile students to roll in, UT and A&M launched outreach programs to lure students from high-poverty, inner-city high schools to campus. Beginning in the fall of 1999, both of the flagship universities selected a handful of public high schools in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, and launched intensive recruitment efforts at these high schools. The universities offered high-performing graduates from these schools four-year scholarships and financial aid counseling. Currently 70 high schools participate in UT’s Longhorn Scholarship program and 58 schools participate in A&M’s Century Scholarship program. Both of these programs have been extraordinarily effective tools for recruiting minority students to UT and A&M. But more broadly, they have also had profound effects on selected high schools’ academic cultures. By encouraging high-achievers to reach for elite university admissions, the Longhorn and Century Scholarship fundamentally changed the cultures of targeted high schools. Even the students at these schools who weren’t college bound were more likely to enroll in high-level courses and less likely to be truant after the scholarship program began.

Neither the top 10 percent law nor the Longhorn/Century Scholarships were designed as high school reform programs. But they succeed where many a school reform effort has failed, clearly boosting engagement and achievement, particularly for students at the state’s most disadvantaged high schools. This surprising success speaks to the incredible power that our society has given institutions of higher education. As the social and economic returns to college rise, and the competition for spots in elite institutions intensifies, students and their families are listening carefully for clues about what it takes to get into and succeed in college. By simply clarifying those signals and taking the time to broadcast them to students in disadvantaged high schools, Texas managed to make real improvements in the state’s high schools.

To be clear, the Texas example doesn’t suggest that just any higher ed policy can foment public school reform. Successful initiatives that use higher education opportunities as a lever to improve students’ school performance must be designed with an eye toward clarity. In 2001, the Texas Legislature authorized funding for a merit-based financial aid program loosely modeled on Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship, offering students who demonstrate financial need and complete the state’s recommended college prep course sequence up to $2,500 a year in tuition support. The TEXAS Grants program worked about as well as it’s awkward acronym -- the program’s name stands for Toward Excellence, Access, and Success. Although it has proven popular, the TEXAS Grants program has been hampered by complex program eligibility requirements. My research suggests that it moderately boosted student enrollment at Texas’s noncompetitive public four-year universities, but did not have a substantial influence on student engagement in the state’s high schools.

Nonetheless, by finding ways to more clearly link college admissions and financial aid with high school performance, we can – and should – replicate Texas’s successes elsewhere. These higher education policies aren’t a panacea. Improving America’s public schools is a battle that needs to be waged on many fronts. The Texas experience doesn’t give policy-makers an excuse to abandon the effort to expand early childhood education, improve school finance equity, and attract and retain high-quality public school teachers. But it’s time for the exasperated professor and the frustrated university administrator to join the school reform battle.

Thurston Domina
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Thurston Domina is an assistant professor of Education at the University of California at Irvine.

On 'Real Education' - I

With the enactment of a new GI Bill, the time has come to once again recall former University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins' prediction that the original 1944 legislation benefiting World War II soldiers would convert colleges and universities into "educational hobo jungles." Perhaps it's unfair -- Hutchins, a veteran himself, was a noted legal scholar and philosopher whose influence on the university he led is still quite visible today. But that's the price you pay for being so spectacularly (and quotably) wrong about one of the great policy issues of our time. Helping returning veterans attend college was only the beginning of the massive mid-20th century expansion of access to higher education in America. Most people see this as an unequivocal good and a job not yet done.

Yet an active strain of educational hobo-phobia remains, a persistent, largely sub rosa muttering that perhaps too many of the wrong kind of people are being allowed inside the ivy-covered walls. It's not respectable conversation outside of conservative circles, due to its unvarnished elitism and 0-for-the-last-60-years-and-counting historical track record. But it lives on, and now has a new standard-bearer in the person of Charles Murray, author along with the late Richard Herrnstein of the hugely controversial 1994 treatise, The Bell Curve. In his new book, Real Education,Murray offers "four simple truths for bringing America's schools back to reality." The third is: "Too many people are going to college."

The book has many flaws, like the fact that the "four simple truths" descriptor is inaccurate. Murray actually offers one simple truth, one tautology, and two opinions (one somewhat legitimate, one not). The one (very) simple truth is that "ability varies," by which Murray means intelligence, or I.Q. All reasonable people acknowledge this; the question is how it varies, and what that variance means. The tautology is that "half of the children are below average," an odd statement to offer as evidence in support of Murray's main subject: educability, which is an absolute quality -- not, like below-averageness, a relative one. Basically, Murray believes that (coincidentally!) half of all children are more or less uneducable in the traditional sense and thus need to be identified as such via mandatory first grade I.Q. testing so they can be shunted off into vocational education programs for their own good. This is absurd and immoral, for reasons too numerous to recount here.

Murray continues in a similar vein as he begins the second, higher education-focused half of Real Education. "No more than 20 percent" of students have the innate ability to do college level work, he opines, and really "10 percent is a more reliable estimate." His evidence: a study showed that students with SATs of X have at least a Y chance of getting decent grades as freshmen at 41 average-or-above colleges. Only about10 percent of students actually score that high on the SAT, ergo the rest have no business trying to get a B.A.

Among the many problems with this line of reasoning is the fact that roughly 35 percent -- not 10 percent -- of young adults actually do earn bachelor's degrees. But Murray simply explains this away as prima facie evidence that academic standards in higher education are too low. Real Education is shot through with this kind of circular reasoning; once you decide that variance in cognitive ability = pervasive uneducability, everything else falls in line. Murray's only other real "evidence" is a random selection of passages from some survey textbooks, which he notes are "not easy to read." Indeed, they're often "demanding to tortuous," "studded with unexplained references," replete with words the meaning of which is "sometimes downright obscure." Notably, this cannot be said of any sentences in Real Education. Why? Because Murray is a good writer who communicates with economy and precision. (Whether this is a function of his I.Q. or Harvard education, I won't speculate.) Perhaps college students would learn more if the same were true of the people who write their textbooks.

But that idea and others like it lie outside the bounds of Real Education, which is, more than anything else, an argument against the efficacy of schools and universities. It seems not to occur to Murray that a student's capacity to successfully meet college standards is substantially a function of how well he or she is educated in high school and college, as well as the broader social circumstances in which students live. Instead, the bell curve rules. The book is full of confident and largely unsupported assertions about the cold hard truth of limited human potential, e.g., "people of average reading ability do not understand much of the text in the assigned [college] texts." Not "may not," but "do not." Or: one third of all children are "just not smart enough to become literate or numerate in more than a rudimentary sense." Stuff like this is catnip for his likely audience: people with an unhealthy appetite for the politically incorrect and a strong need for so-called simple truths.

Murray could have wrapped up his argument for the futility of educating below-average students here, around page 75. But that would have left him well short of a book, even one as slight as this. ( Real Education is an expansion of three previously published Wall Street Journal op-eds, and it shows.) So he devotes the remaining 80-some pages to a broader critique of contemporary higher education. And I have to admit: it's pretty good. He notes that most students go to college primarily to prepare for a career, and that it doesn't really make sense to assume that such preparation should always take exactly two or four years, regardless of the field. He observes that most institutions haven't really come to grips with the implications of Web-based distance learning. Lacking any reliable information about the rigor of college learning standards, Murray says, employers mostly use the B.A. as an inexpensive first-cut screen for general, non-academic attributes and skills, to the detriment of capable applicants who drop out of college or never go. Fair critiques, all.

Murray then turns to an impassioned argument for the restoration of liberal education. The nation is run by an "unelected elite" of cognitive top-10-percents, he says: CEOs, journalists, doctors, lawyers, scientists, clergy, even (because we're apparently still in 1944) "a large number of housewives" who lead local civic organizations. For all of our sake, they need a college education that teaches them to be wise as well as smart, that trains them in the arts of rigorous verbal expression and nuanced judgment. They need to be steeped in our shared intellectual inheritance, to reflect on the human yearning for transcendence and grapple with timeless conceptions of virtue. I agree; I just think this is true for far more people than Murray allows. Lose the I.Q. determinism and the second half of Real Education is worth reading.

It's wrong to say that too many students are going to college. Too few are going, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. The history of American education is one long series of decisions to open up the halls of academia to students who, at the time, were looked down upon as undeserving. The naysayers have been disproven, over and over again. More broadly, our nation has long had an usually open economy and education system, one that puts a premium on second and third chances and shies away from giving the government power to shut citizens out of educational opportunities based on some imperfect estimate of "ability." Again, the wisdom of this philosophy in hindsight seems clear.

But it's fair to say that too many students are going to colleges that are unprepared to serve them well. Colleges often seem unwilling to make the hard choices required to provide a true liberal education to the students who want and/or need one, while simultaneously failing to adjust their ways of teaching and credentialing to a world where 75 percent of high school graduates go to college and many are primarily interested in training for a productive career. In observing this -- and only this -- Charles Murray has a point.

Kevin Carey
Author's email: 

Kevin Carey is the research and policy manager of Education Sector. He blogs about K–12 and higher education policy issues at The Quick and the Ed. An archive of his Outside the Circle columns may be found here.

On 'Real Education' - II

Bell Curve author Charles Murray takes direct aim at higher education in his new book Real Education by asserting that we are wasting our time trying to educate too many people. Murray contends that only 10 to 20 percent of those enrolled in four-year degree programs should actually be there. His pessimistic view of people’s ability to learn ignores not just good evidence to the contrary but the real pressures the American economy is facing. Removing some 80-90 percent of our students in in my state, or just about any state would interrupt the pipeline of skilled workers, making it nearly impossible to meet the needs of a society that has defined postsecondary credentials as an entry point for most professions.

Consider the following:

  • The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the country needs more graduates if we are to keep up with, let alone lead, other nations in the global economy.
  • By the end of the next president’s first term, there will be three million more jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees and not enough college graduates to fill them.
  • 90 percent of the fastest growing job categories, including software engineers, physical therapists, and preschool teachers, 60 percent of all new jobs, and 40 percent of manufacturing jobs will all require some form of postsecondary education.

We need more, not fewer university and community college graduates, even in rural states like mine. South Dakota’s aging population will require 30 percent more health care workers in the coming decades -- and those workers will require degrees. We’re also facing a teacher shortage; educators of all levels need postsecondary education to successfully command and manage a classroom, let alone impart wisdom on elementary and secondary students. Our state also lacks accountants, and the industry has informed us that tomorrow’s professionals will require 150 hours of postsecondary education to successfully complete the Certified Public Accountant’s exam.

Those left out of higher education would have fewer employment options than they do today. Low-wage, low-skill careers are disappearing rapidly, as manufacturing jobs head overseas and American companies are looking for new ways to compete. Those workers who hope to maintain their current standard of living must have some sort of postsecondary credential -- participation in the knowledge-based economy demands it. Without some type of degree, their ability to pay for basics like housing, food, and gas will diminish greatly.

We cannot survive in an international economy by simply working cheaper, as there will always be companies overseas who are willing and able to use unskilled work at a lower cost. If we are to work smarter, our workforce needs to acquire more knowledge and skills that are adaptable in a constantly changing world. The people who have proven to be the most knowledgeable, skilled and adaptable are those with postsecondary credentials. Murray’s suggestions are completely contrary to this. Dummying down our workforce would result in a lower standard of living for most Americans.

The United States has long enjoyed the enviable position as the leader in educational attainment -- just a decade ago, we led all other industrialized nations in this area. That’s no longer the case. Now, we rank tenth behind other nations in the percentage of young adults with postsecondary credentials. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems indicates that the U.S. will need to produce 63.1 million degrees to match leading nations Canada, Japan and South Korea in the percentage of adults with a college degree by 2025. At our current pace, we would fall short of that threshold by 16 million degrees.

Educating a larger percentage of the population does not amount to “educational romanticism,” as Murray contends. It simply makes sense -- both economically and socially. Higher education allows people of all backgrounds to hone their writing, reading, cognitive and critical thinking skills that enable them to actively participate as citizens. Not everyone who completes a four-year degree will be able to write like William Faulkner -- and some may argue that’s a good thing. But the papers students have to research and write in college are valuable and marketable experiences to future employers who need workers who can craft memos, reports and strategic plans, all valuable skills in the knowledge economy. Moreover, people with postsecondary degrees also tend to be healthier, are more productive throughout their work lives, are more engaged in their communities, more philanthropic and are less likely to be involved in crime.

The State Higher Education Executive Officers are calling on political leaders make college access and success a national priority. To heed this call, SHEEO believes we need to take immediate action by:

  • Targeting low-income and first-generation students (populations who are historically least likely to succeed in college and complete their degree programs), by allocating greater public resources to community colleges and regional four-year institutions, while also providing adequate need-based financial aid.
  • Overhauling the notoriously complex financial aid system. We can start by making most of the required data for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid directly transferable from the federal income tax form. Also, Pell Grants should be pegged to students’ basic living costs, rather than tuition, to highlight the responsibility of states and colleges to moderate tuition and fees and to provide grants for tuition to low-income students.
  • Developing information systems to better track students’ progress and determine whether they are at risk of dropping out.

In South Dakota, we’re committed to raising our graduation rates by 20 percent by 2010, so we can be competitive both nationally and internationally. To do so, the state is reaching out to nontraditional adult learners by offering more university classes in urban centers. The state’s public institutions are opening our doors to more out-of-state students by cutting our non-resident tuition rates in half. So far, the increase in students has offset any potential revenue shortfall. The state is also providing $5,000 scholarships to students who take more rigorous courses in high school, maintain a B average, receive a 24 on their ACT and pursue their education in South Dakota. We also want to make sure that those students who start college, finish college. To that end, our Board of Regents has tied retention rates to a pool of performance dollars; retention rates are on the rise.

To Murray’s point, people do vary in academic ability, and not everyone can handle the rigors of a postsecondary degree program. I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to spend four years at a flagship state institution, or even two years at their local community college. However, everyone should have at least the option to participate successfully in some form of postsecondary experience -- be it a Ph.D. program or a short-term certificate program for dental assistants. Educators need to help more average Americans and educational elite succeed. It’s common sense. And our future depends on it.

Robert T. Perry
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Robert T. Perry is executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents.

Failure in Urban Universities

As a resident of the District of Columbia, it's been fascinating to watch the ascendant rock star-dom of Michelle Rhee, the D.C. public schools chancellor. A 38-year old Harvard grad and single mother of two, she's been profiled in Newsweek, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, and featured on Charlie Rose. Her panel at the Democratic National Convention drew capacity crowds. All because she's trying to reform an urban school system legendary for incompetence, corruption, and failure. And she's not alone: Big city mayors across the country have seized control of their school systems in recent years, risking political capital on the premise that schools can serve predominantly low-income and minority students far better than they have in the past. Those schools and students have become the central K–12 education challenge of our time.

Washington’s public school system is not, however, the only public education institution in the city. There's another with very similar problems: deteriorating facilities, shrinking enrollment, rock-bottom graduation rates, and a troubled history rife with tales of mismanagement and worse. It's the University of the District of Columbia. But while the recent announcement of a new UDC president garnered respectful coverage in the local newspaper, it's a safe bet that Allen Sessoms -- a Yale-educated physics professor and former leader of Delaware State University and Queens College -- won't be making the national media rounds anytime soon. Urban higher education simply doesn't generate the urgency and attention directed to K–12, even though it faces many of the same challenges and educates many of the same students. This is a huge problem, and a quick look at graduation rates for the less selective public urban universities on the table below shows why:

City University Enrollment, Fall 2007 6-Year Graduation Rate Black 6-Year Graduation Rate Hispanic 6-Year Graduation Rate % of Students in Graduation Rate Data Transfer Out Rate
Chicago Chicago State U. 5,217 16% 16% 13% 30% 30%
Chicago Northeastern Illinois U. 10,285 19% 8% 17% 41% 37%
Washington U. of District of Columbia 5,137 19% 18% 17% 46% N/A
Denver Metropolitan State College 21,425 23% 18% 24% 38% 4%
El Paso U. of Texas at El Paso 16,769 29% 27% 28% 58% 33%
San Antonio U. of Texas at San Antonio 24,705 30% 28% 31% 65% N/A
Los Angeles California State U. at Los Angeles 16,046 31% 16% 29% 41% 42%

Indiana U.-Purdue U.

at Indianapolis

21,202 31% 26% 23% 93% N/A
Detroit Wayne State U. 21,145 32% 10% 20% 50% N/A
Memphis U. of Memphis 15,984 34% 27% 48% 55% 19%
Boston U. of Mass at Boston 10,008 35% 28% 37% 37% 5%
New York City CUNY City College 11,181 36% 40% 27% 59% 30%
Denver U. of Colorado at Denver 11,702 39% 24% 24% 19% N/A
Milwaukee U. of Wisconsin at Milwaukee 4,395 41% 15% 27% 69% N/A
Las Vegas U. of Nevada at Las Vegas 21,975 41% 32% 36% 53% N/A
Nashville Tennessee State U. 7,132 41% N/A N/A 99% 12%
San Jose San Jose State U. 24,390 42% 25% 36% 46% 39%
Houston U. of Houston 27,572 43% 40% 39% 50% 24%
St. Louis U. of Missouri at St. Louis 12,432 43% 33% N/A 10% N/A
San Francisco San Francisco State U. 25,134 44% 23% 38% 49% 37%

These self-reported numbers (courtesy of NCES) come with many caveats. They're six year graduation rates, and some students graduate in more than six years. They don't include students who move elsewhere, and some universities -- those in California stand out -- produce more transfers than graduates. They only include students who start full-time (the "% of Students in Grade Rate" column shows those students as a percentage of all students).

But even taking all of those things into account, it's clear that a great many students are entering urban universities and never completing a degree. There's a good chance that including part-timers would make graduation rates worse. And in most cases, the numbers for black and Latino students are particularly bad. Among the 20 universities on this list -- institutions that collectively enroll over 300,000 undergraduates -- the median six-year graduation rate for black students is 25 percent. No amount of extensions, adjustments or allowances would raise that number to a level that anyone should accept as good enough. (Increasing the timeline from six to eight years at Wayne State University, for example, boosts the black graduation rate from 10 percent to 20 percent -- twice as good, but still very bad.) One constantly hears policymakers lament the fact that barely half of minority students graduate from high school on time. For these universities, that would be a huge improvement.

These catastrophic failure rates are certainly not all the universities' fault. The latest UDC schedule of classes shows the fallout of the K–12 district's historical failure. The math department is offering:

  • 16 sections of "Basic Mathematics"
  • 13 sections of "Introductory Algebra"
  • 9 sections of "General College Math I"
  • 7 sections of "General College Math II"
  • 4 sections of "Intermediate Algebra"
  • 2 sections each of "Pre Calc with Trig I," "Pre Calc with Trig II," "Calculus I," "Calculus II," and "Calculus III"
  • 1 section each of "Differential Equations," "Number Theory," "Linear Algebra," "Advanced Calculus," etc.

Any number of high schools in the DC metropolitan area offer proportionately more advanced math. Overall, nearly 70 percent of incoming UDC freshmen need some remediation. Like too many colleges and universities, UDC is often forced to be an essentially secondary -- not postsecondary -- institution.

UDC's budget was also slashed during the city's financial restructuring in the mid-1990s. Most UDC students juggle work and family while trying to pay for college with limited means. All commute; there are no dorms. The small campus of nameless, numbered concrete buildings, rendered in the brutalist style, has been allowed to crumble.

But UDC is also an institution that is often described as "poorly run" and worse. The average age of the unionized, highly-tenured faculty is 68. Despite having a relatively small student body with concentrated academic needs, UDC offers a range of degree programs that grant very few degrees. More than 30 years after being created through the forced marriage of a local teachers college, city college, and technical institute, old institutional divisions remain.

To varying degrees, these problems are mirrored in urban universities nationwide -- academically unprepared students, insufficient funding, and the worst of city politics and higher education administration put together in one tangled mass of dysfunction. There are exceptions, of course, institutions and departments doing great things despite many challenges. But on the whole, the odds are stacked against many city college students, and the outcome data reflect the end result.

Beyond specific problems of preparation, funding, administration and teaching, the terrible success rates at urban universities reflect the fundamental difference in the way K–12 and college students are viewed. The underlying premise of any conversation about elementary and secondary education is that the schools bear significant responsibility for student success. But the moment a student walks off their high school graduation stage, they are magically transformed in the public eye into a fully actualized adult who bears 100 percent of the burden for any and all educational outcomes that subsequently occur -- or don't occur. As Peter Smith, founding president of California State University-Monterey, said of high college drop-out rates in his book The Quiet Crisis: How Higher Education is Failing America:

"In colleges and universities, the institution is not at fault; I, as president, am blameless. The traditional model of college tells us that it is the students who have failed, not the college. They bear the shame."

No wonder political leaders aren't throwing their weight and money behind improving urban universities. If the onus of success or failure falls entirely on the students, what's the point?

So we find ourselves, in a time when more students want and need college than ever before, herding large numbers of academically at-risk, disproportionately low-income students into urban universities built on a traditional model that doesn't serve them well. They are the very same students whom we're trying so hard to get through high school -- only to turn our attention away from them just a few months or even weeks before they falter in college. All because of the strange and dangerous idea that educational institutions bear little responsibility for how much their students learn or whether those students earn degrees. Until that changes, the quiet crisis of urban higher education will continue, and much of the best work of K–12 reformers will come to naught.

Kevin Carey
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Kevin Carey is the research and policy manager of Education Sector. He blogs about K–12 and higher education policy issues at The Quick and the Ed. An archive of his Outside the Circle columns may be found here.


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