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Getting K-12 into the Discussion of College Completion

The growing national discussion on college completion has focused heavily on the performance of higher education and government, with less attention paid to the role of the K-12 pipeline.

A report released this week by three higher-education organizations, for example, applauds President Obama's goal to lead the world in college graduates by 2020, and then calls for greater action and commitment from government and institutions to make it happen.

In Strengthening College Opportunity and Performance, the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs Productivity and Accountability, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education urge federal and state governments to move beyond the rhetoric and set some specific targets and policies to boost college completion.

They call for better data collection to track higher education performance and the development of systems to reward completion, not just enrollments. They also say colleges need to change their culture to focus on improving instruction and encouraging graduation, as well as channeling financial resources to support those goals to reward innovation and completion.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also delved into the issue with an analysis of college graduation rates at 1,400 public and private colleges over a six-year period from 2003 to 2008. While most schools showed a slight increase in completion rates, about one-third of colleges faced a decline. Despite the talk of raising graduation rates in higher education, the task still seems formidable.

So, what does all this mean for the K-12 system?

Dennis Jones, president of National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, says there needs to be better alignment of high school and college standards, in particular matching high school exit exams with college placement exams.

His advice for K-12: "Insist that higher education come to the table with a definition of what it means to be college-ready."

K-12 has worked hard at setting standards, Jones says, and he faults higher education for not doing more on this front. "It's way too easy for higher ed. to point to K-12 and say, 'If they just sent us good students.' We don't want to let higher ed. off the hook," he says.

The hope is that the recent report will "jump start" some conversation, including talk between education systems about how to improve college completion by working together, he says.

Educational structures were built at a time when the country needed about 30 percent of students to attain college degrees—and now the goal is nearly double that, says Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project.

"We need to shift to a different type of approach that is more user-friendly to help individuals navigate the systems. What we have now is not working well," she says. "The goal of increasing college attainment is the right one, but we can't accomplish it if we don't focus at all levels of government and all institutions. It won't happen to serve the status quo and not the future."

Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, says K-12 can improve the college completion rate by maintaining high standards in high school, offering strong college prep classes, and making use of one of the simplest solutions: encouraging students not to skip math their senior year, even if they have fulfilled their requirements. Too often, kids fail their first year in college because they aren't prepared in math.

When it comes to the discussion between the two sectors, he thinks high schools are actually working harder at this than colleges. He thinks colleges should do more to reach out and have joint faculty discussions with high schools so the expectations in college are met.

Too often, students naively start college with no idea of the increased work load and think it's just going to be like another year of high school, he says.

"Higher education could do a better job communicating that the expectations are—both to students and teachers," he says. "I don't think the agenda needs more money. It needs more focus on completion. ... We are winning the battle to get students to go to college, we are losing the battle with completion."

Before students even enroll in college, high school counselors need to make sure students are ready for the challenge, says Steve Schneider, a school counselor at Sheboygan South High School in Sheboygan, Wis., and secondary level vice president of the American School Counselors Association.

"The bulk of students who start and don't finish college have chosen the wrong educational pathway," says Schneider. "We are trying to prevent that from happening in the first place."

That means encouraging high school juniors to take college math placement tests to see if they need more classes before graduation. Or trying a dual-enrollment class to get a sense of how prepared they are for college, says Schneider.

Also, Schneider says, students need to overcome the "social stigma" attached to technical schools. In Sheboygan, the high school is trying to bring in manufacturing and other businesses in the area to expose students to the demand for skilled workers in the community and boost the value of certificate and associate degrees. "We want them to realize that there is employment at the end" if they choose that alternative route, he says.

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