The other college crisis

June 27, 2014, 4:20 PM UTC
Photograph by Mario Tama—Getty Images

In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt traveled to Chicago for the dedication of the Outer Drive Bridge, which linked the south side of the city to the north. The bridge was designed to relieve congestion through the middle of the city, routing traffic along the shore of Lake Michigan along what’s now simply known as Lake Shore Drive.

In retrospect, building a throughway with two sharp right angles—a hard right then a hard left—may not have been the best idea. Within days of its opening, several people were injured as they failed to make the sharp turn and crashed into the guard wall. It took almost 50 years to fix this now-obvious misalignment.

This sort of thing is easy to spot in infrastructure — it is clear when roads, tunnels, bridges and streets don’t meet up in the middle. With institutions, it’s less obvious when systems fail to meet: instead we wait and see where the bottlenecks emerge.

In the case of public education, clearly the traffic jam is situated between high school and higher education. For all we’ve heard lately about debt-trouble college graduates, there’s another (and perhaps more serious) college crisis that also deserves attention: Between 28% to 40% of students are unprepared when they go to college, and as a result, are placed into developmental, or remedial, courses (at community colleges, this is closer to 50%). And of the 4.3 million freshmen who entered college in 2004, it’s likely that as many as 3 million, well more than half, failed to earn some post-secondary credential. Countless more fail to make the transition into higher education at all.

This misalignment between high school and higher education has clearly racked up a lot of casualties.

In the early 2000’s, a group of education leaders set out to smooth out the pathway. The resulting Common Core State Standards Initiative led to the creation of common education standards in English and mathematics, upgrading the vast majority of disjointed K-12 state standards with those that, in those CCSS leaders’ words, are “relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college.”

The implementation of these standards is well under way, and sophisticated new assessments are currently being designed and piloted to gauge student progress on their pathway to college readiness. Higher education leaders have begun to enter the fray around Common Core (which has since become a weapon in the echo chamber wars) to emerge in favor of these standards and assessments, as well as the work of their K-12 colleagues—but they are neglecting to think through the repairs needed on their side of the bridge.

For example, earlier this month a group of over 200 college and university presidents and higher education officials came out in support of the Common Core State Standards. Aptly named, Higher Education for Higher Standards has emerged amidst the political backlash facing the standards and their aligned assessments. Their principles are clear: every state should insist upon high K-12 standards which prepare students for colleges and careers; aligned assessments are critical to provide more meaningful information to colleges on student preparation; and that higher education has a clear stake in this debate, as student preparation informs a students’ college completion.

A forthcoming report by the New America Education Policy Program argues that if elementary and high school teachers are preparing students for college, and the assessments they use provide meaningful information to colleges on student preparation, higher education has more than just a stake in this debate—they have a call to action as well.

First, it remains to be seen how higher education will use the data provided by the Common Core assessments. Talk to any parent and you quickly hear the litany about tests. Currently, multiple layers of assessment mar students’ pathway to college. Students applying to most four-year colleges and universities submit SAT or ACT scores as a piece of information within their application; to apply for many forms of so-called “merit aid,” they often need to provide these test scores as well. And even those attending open-enrollment institutions—including the more than 1,000 community colleges throughout the states—must take course placement exams, including the likes of COMPASS and Accuplacer.

This “more meaningful information” which colleges will receive from new high school assessments should replace the inadequate information colleges are receiving from this array of other tests—not simply add an additional layer of student assessment.

Then there’s the matter of how higher education will use the standards themselves. Developmental education, simply put, is high school-level instruction with a college-level price tag that, ironically, often pushes students out of college because of that price tag. If the Common Core represent the knowledge and skills students need in order to be successful in college, these standards should guide teaching in developmental education programs as well. With common standards being implemented in the majority of classrooms throughout the country, teacher preparation programs would be remiss not to update their instruction and integrate these new standards.

The bridge from high school to college is fraught with sharp turns for students seeking to make this transition. The commitment to educate all students to college-ready levels is negligible if colleges and universities are not prepared to pick up where high schools have left off. It is time for higher education to examine its own policies and practices, and not just support the efforts of their K-12 colleagues but put in a little effort of their own.

Lindsey Tepe is a program associate in the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. She conducts research in support of the Early Education Initiative and the Federal Education Budget Project.