Over the years, we wanted to learn more about why young people who start college don’t earn degrees in greater numbers. We had reams of data on the issue, but we wanted to hear from college leaders — presidents, chancellors, and deans. From their campus-level perspective, what were the biggest barriers preventing students from completing their postsecondary educations?
Time and again higher education leaders answered that question by lamenting the poor academic preparation students received in high school. This complaint was most prevalent at community colleges, where nearly 9 out of 10 leaders said students arrived unprepared for college-level work, but poor high school preparation was also cited by more than a third of four-year college leaders.
So, is this view an attack on high school educators? Not at all. We see this as a reason for K-12 and higher education leaders to work together on behalf of students. It’s exactly why higher education leaders must engage with the Common Core State Standards — the biggest and boldest effort in a generation to ensure every student is prepared to succeed in college and the work force.
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For too long we have taught students to standards that don’t match the knowledge and skills they needed to succeed after high school. The Common Core State Standards were designed to address that by providing rigorous learning goals in English language arts/literacy and mathematics for all students, no matter where they live, or what they plan to do after high school. The standards were adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia, with districts and schools now using them. In too many places, though, districts and states are doing this without the help, guidance or political muscle of higher education leaders.
The new standards move far beyond memorizing facts and figures. They challenge our students to develop a deeper understanding of subject matter, to think critically, and to apply what they are learning to the real world. The goal is to ensure that any student meeting these standards will be prepared to meet the challenges of first-year college courses. This will be a welcome change for higher education leaders, because it will free colleges to focus on, well, college.
Specifically, the full and faithful implementation of the Common Core could all but eliminate the need for colleges to provide academic remediation to students enrolling in college immediately after graduating from high school. Also called “developmental education,” this remediation costs taxpayers $7 billion every year. It’s estimated that only 17 percent of students who take a developmental reading course go on to earn a four-year degree.
In Kentucky, after the state became the first to adopt the Common Core State Standards in 2011, the percent of Kentucky high school graduates ready for college and career increased from 38 percent to 47 percent in a single year, and a year later it hit 54 percent.
Instead of spending the first semester or two in college in developmental education classes, and paying for those non-credit bearing courses, students should be able to immediately start earning credits toward a degree. This is no small thing, as the typical student at a four-year college needs nearly five years to graduate and then leaves with an average of $29,000 in student loan debt.
Reducing the time it takes students to earn a college degree benefits everyone. It saves students money. It makes it more likely that they will graduate. It ensures a better investment for taxpayers, with a higher return on their investment of public funds. It means colleges can reduce the amount of money they spend on students who are now taking five or more years to graduate, and can focus those resources on improving the learning environment and ultimately the completion rates for all students.
Another significant benefit of the new standards is that they present a long-overdue and purposeful link between K-12 and higher education. The standards provide both systems with an opportunity for serious, ongoing collaboration. Right now, that collaboration isn’t happening nearly often enough. Last fall, Hart Research Associates and edBridge Partners surveyed 205 district superintendents and college university system leaders. Only one-third of those surveyed said they collaborate “extremely or very effectively” with each other.
This is a real missed opportunity. Through the work of our grantees and partners, we have seen how close collaboration can yield amazing results. According to Complete College America, the California State University (CSU) system helped add a series of college readiness questions to the state’s 11th-grade exam. After students take the test, they are told whether they are on track for college-level classes in the CSU system. CSU has also designed transitional readiness courses and professional development opportunities that help high school teachers work with unprepared students to get them ready for college. In addition, 10 states and the District of Columbia have aligned their high school graduation requirements with their state university admission requirements.
Higher education leaders and faculty in several institutions are working to align college eligibility and admissions practices and many states are also working to align first-year college courses with the new high school course expectations. But there is a great and urgent need for higher education to do more because the standards are under attack from some quarters.
In many states, some groups are working to purposefully undermine them with misinformation that isn’t about quality. Of great importance to higher education, in particular, is the standards have been designed to ensure young people master the essential skills and knowledge they need in higher education and the workplace. The higher education community is in a unique position to reinforce what matters most, affirming the quality of the Common Core State Standards and attesting that the standards are aligned to better prepare students for credit-bearing courses.
On a more general level, some critics continue to claim that the Common Core State Standards are an improper federal intervention in education; that educators were not sufficiently involved in their development; and that the standards dictate curriculum. Here, too, the members of the higher education community can help to combat misinformation by citing their firsthand evidence to the contrary, or by helping to direct attention to the extensive public evidence and information about the standards’ actual origin, development and content. By engaging actively in the debate around the Common Core, higher education leaders can inform it with their expertise, participate in and ensure the full, faithful and effective implementation of the Common Core, and help supporters of improved education and educational pipelines stay the course.
The Common Core State Standards should be a watershed moment in our nation’s efforts to improve the lives of young people. The new standards will be critical in determining how well our students succeed in K-12, and whether they are ready to succeed in college, the work force, and beyond.
We must ensure this essential work is not derailed. To be successful, we need higher education leaders to engage directly, to learn about the Common Core State Standards, and join the debate. Why? Because they are in the best position to help Americans understand that rigorous standards like these are needed for our students so they succeed in high school, through college, and into their careers.
Dan Greenstein is the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Vicki Phillips is director of education at the foundation.
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