The current national dialogue around greater access to higher education is encouraging, but zeroing in on it leaves us dangerously close to overlooking the full spectrum of challenges facing today’s students. By limiting national debate to the financial barriers that prevent students from earning a college degree, presidential candidates ignore the larger problem: we are an undereducated nation. Too many of today’s students are unprepared to succeed in college and, worse, in life and work after they graduate.
Free college accomplishes very little if students continue to arrive on our campuses unprepared. Right now, half of all community college students enroll in at least one remedial course. Far more often than not, students who aren’t ready for college-level course work when they start, don’t finish. They leave college with debt and no degree to show for it.
We know this trajectory begins long before students reach college, and yet we neglect to tackle the problem at its source. We -- all of us in education -- have to reach out to these kids earlier. Despite a clear need for K-12 schools and higher education institutions to work together as one complete system of education, we still operate and receive funds as two separate and distinct entities. And effective systems don’t operate in silos.
Presidential hopefuls should consider a plan that will incentivize K-12 and higher education to get our acts together -- ideally, through a funding model that binds our sectors and ensures investment only in what works. To be truly effective, we should target support to data-driven, evidence-based programs and services that we know not only increase access to college but also boost completion -- and ultimately lead to career success.
As in other states, we see the dire need for this kind of collective action in my home state of New York. For every 100 ninth graders here, it’s estimated that only 73 will graduate from high school. Of those, 51 will go directly to college, 37 will return for their sophomore year, and only 23 will complete their degree even close to on time. Just 23 out of 100, and that is only the average. In our upstate urban centers, it drops to 16. And that’s just in New York, a state that’s doing better than most.
“A Roadmap to College Readiness,” recently published by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the National Association of System Heads, reports a similar trend of underpreparedness nationally and looks at what 10 state systems are doing to address it. In California, each of California State University’s 23 campuses employs an early-assessment program coordinator who works with high school advisers. In Texas, “go centers” pair recent college graduates with low-income and minority students who are academically ready but do not plan to attend college. And each of the states studied offers a senior-year transitional course for students who score below a college-ready level in 11th grade, helping to bring them up to speed before high school graduation.
The common denominator among successful strategies highlighted? All 10 states report that their most effective strategies are a result of K-12 and higher education working together.
To be truly effective in preparing students for successful lives, this partnership model must carry over into a student’s college years and after graduation. Because even the students who are prepared for college aren’t always completing their degree, and even those completing their degree aren’t necessarily finding a job in their field.
Less than 50 percent of adults in New York hold a postsecondary credential of some kind, yet by 2020, almost 70 percent of jobs in the state will require one. That’s an astonishing gap, one that is only slightly narrower than the national average. Any education strategy that doesn’t directly impact that bottom line is not worth pursuing.
As the state’s public university system, the State University of New York owns the challenge of grappling with this issue on behalf of New Yorkers, and we are confident that we have a path forward: a completion agenda that aims to deliver 150,000 SUNY degrees annually, up from about 93,000, by investing in proven strategies that support student completion. Among the approaches we are taking to scale are:
Strengthening cradle-to-career partnerships. As many as 40 percent of children nationwide are not ready for kindergarten. They lack the basic vocabulary and sensitivities this early work demands, and this level of unpreparedness often follows them as they progress through the education pipeline. Adapting the StriveTogether model and working closely with the national organization, SUNY is partnering with communities across the state to ensure that every child, every step of the way, has a chance at success. In Albany, N.Y., one such partnership -- the Albany Promise -- has improved student outcomes with a number of targeted interventions. Through a partnership with Albany High School, for example, they put in place New York’s first in-school administration of the SAT in 2014, raising student participation from 53 percent to 82 percent.
Recruiting, training and retaining more excellent teachers. We know that excellently trained teachers are the No. 1 in-school factor for student success. And while New York is home to some of the best schools and teachers in the country, too many students still never experience great teaching. Through TeachNY, we are partnering with all of New York’s education stakeholders, including the state Education Department, to address a significant teaching shortage by transforming teacher preparation. One of our goals is to cement teaching as a clinical practice profession. Because like a doctor performing surgery or a pilot flying an airplane, we want to provide every opportunity for future teachers to gain live classroom experience before their first day on the job.
Streamlining high school to college transitions. Throughout the country, innovative new high school designs that offer college credit are serving the needs of students who are traditionally underrepresented in college and making a crucial connection between K-12 and higher education. Dual enrollment programs in Maryland, New York, Tennessee, and Texas allow students to earn college credits -- oftentimes even an associate’s degree -- before they graduate from high school.
In New York, we now have 20 early college high schools that offer dual enrollment for students who are traditionally underrepresented in college; 33 P-TECH partnerships, for which students complete an industry-aligned curriculum; and five New Tech Schools, which use a project-based learning model and emphasize the integration of technology in the classroom. Some are transitioning to what we call Smart Schools, which will provide a streamlined program where students acquire an associate degree in high school, at no cost, and then transfer to one of our four-year colleges to earn a higher degree. In our state, these models share an average graduation rate that exceeds 90 percent.
Bringing applied learning to every degree. The value and effectiveness of learning by doing is unrivaled. Our students consistently point to internships, clinical placements, service-learning programs and other work-based experiences as the highlight of their education. Job-placement rates for cooperative education programs nationally are nearly 100 percent. We are bringing applied learning to the broadest possible scale while also working with the state’s Department of Labor to ensure our graduates are meeting workforce needs.
These efforts are a small sample of the interventions and strategies that we know will increase completion for our students. There is so much more to be done in our state and across the country. Cutting costs only scratches the surface.
Free college is a well-intentioned and, in a growing number of states, successful model, but it falls substantially short of what today’s students really need. If presidential hopefuls want to tackle the costs of college and truly make a difference, they should support significant and targeted investment in student achievement that spans the education pipeline and incentivizes schools, communities, colleges, employers and everyone else with a stake in education to work as one cohesive system.
If we could begin collectively serving the whole student, from his or her start in pre-K to and through college and into career, we can help more of today’s students be successful in school, in their chosen field and in life.
Nancy Zimpher is chancellor of the State University of New York.
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