High Schools can Help Increase Post-Secondary Education

A recent Time Magazine story, “Can Community Colleges Save the U.S. Economy,” notes the emerging White House consensus that the nation’s 1,200 community colleges may be the best place to help students – particularly disadvantaged youth -- prepare and adapt for today’s marketplace. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agrees and has funded initiatives to showcase community colleges as places for change (including this project). 
 
To make this strategy work, however, high schools must help low-income students prepare for and succeed in college. A recent Future of Children policy brief , “A New Goal for America’s High Schools: College Preparation for All,” outlines steps that high schools should take to ensure that disadvantaged youth see post-secondary education as a realistic and attainable option. 
 
First, high schools should boost students’ subject matter knowledge and study skills. As several papers in The Future of Chil­drenAmerica’s High Schools point out, many districts and states have changed their performance standards and course requirements to include college prepara­tory classes and passing high-stakes tests. In tandem with these initiatives, districts, states, and even the federal government should be encouraged to devise new and effective ways of convincing low-income students to take and work hard in tough courses.  
 
Second, high schools should counsel students on how to select colleges and obtain financial aid.  Every high school – particularly those serving advantaged and disadvantaged youth -- should have sufficient numbers of trained counselors and teachers to help students select and apply for both college and financial aid. The current system in which schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students have more than 1,000 students per counselor does not work. States and local school districts should do everything possible to ensure that disadvantaged students have adequate access to effective counsel­ing beginning at least by the ninth grade. 

Finally, to increase schools’ accountability, school districts should build data tracking systems capable of following students from kindergarten through postsecondary education. States are fully aware of the importance of account­ability for postsecondary performance and have begun taking steps toward developing the necessary achievement tests and data systems.

To meet these three goals, the authors of the FOC policy brief make a proposal.  The $1.7 billion a year that the federal government currently provides for a wide range of efforts aimed at helping disadvantaged students should be re-allocated competitively (to public schools, postsecondary schools, nonprofit and for-profit organizations, and coalitions of these organizations). Priority would be given to applicants who are able to show how they will track student progress in reading and math, how they will respond with additional instruction or other assistance when students fall below grade level in either subject, and, where appropriate, how they will track their students’ progress in postsecondary education and modify their college preparation program based on the evidence. Recipients should be required to reapply for funding every three years, and programs that do not increase college enrollment and graduation rates should lose their funding. Preference would go to programs that have effective procedures for enrolling truly disadvantaged students and boosting their achievement and college enrollment and graduation rates. Similarly, preference should go to proposals that provide for rapid response as soon as disadvantaged students begin to fall below grade norms. Finally, the Statewide Longitudinal Data System should be expanded to all states while ensuring that state systems are capable of following students through the college years.

 

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