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No. 1 in College Attainment by 2020: A Reasonable Goal?

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Both hopeful and humbling notes were sounded today at a meeting of policy wonks and practitioners exploring ways to fulfill President Obama's goal of restoring the United States' rank as world leader in its share of college graduates by 2020.

Arthur M. Hauptman, an independent policy consultant who recently co-authored a paper for the Boston-based Jobs For the Future that examined U.S. educational attainment compared with that of other nations, cited data showing that our postsecondary attainment has been on an upward trajectory for decades. "This is not stagnation, folks," he told the packed house at the Center for American Progress, in Washington. "This is growth."

He also welcomed the shift in the national dialogue from boosting college enrollment to boosting college completion, noting that completion provides a fairer picture not only of how we're doing with easing access to college, but success in it as well.

Still, Hauptman wasn't all smiles and roses on the country's chances of meeting President Obama's goal. He pointed out that while two-thirds of high school graduates enroll in college, only about half finish. "We may be able to do it, but I wouldn't put money on it," Hauptman said, sparking a few uncomfortable chuckles from the audience.

One of The President's Men was also there to put some bracing numbers on what it will take. James Kvaal, the senior director of the White House National Economic Council, said that raising the proportion of Americans with college degrees from 40 percent to 55 or 60 percent would mean 8 million additional college degrees. (Give us a second to let that settle in. Eight million. Ohhh-kay.) And to get more of those degrees in hand, we'll need not only to raise high school graduation rates, but also to increase high school rigor, "goals that are," Kvaal said politely, "somewhat in tension with each other."

Participants in the discussion noted that in pinning its hopes on more postsecondary education, the nation is turning increasingly to community colleges. A recent paper written for the Center for American Progress has scads of data showing the rise in enrollment and degree-granting at two-year colleges. And one of Hauptman's three recommendations for increasing attainment was to focus on community colleges. In short, those intrepid two-years seem to be poised to carry a ton of our water on the goal of increasing college attainment.

Some of the panelists welcomed that development, noting the vital role community colleges play in educating broad swaths of Americans. Nancy Hoffman of Jobs For the Future even quipped that community colleges have "come out of the closet" as they assume such a prominent role in the attainment discussion.

But coming out has its pressures. Can community colleges handle all that will be expected of them? Can high schools learn new ways of doing business so that students graduate fully capable of doing college-level work in two- and four-year institutions?

Sitting next to me was Gregory A. Schuckman, the chairman of the board of Northern Virginia Community College. He waited patiently through the whole forum, and his hand was one of the first to shoot up when the question-and-answer period began. Is it realistic, he asked the panel, to expect attainment rates to rise so much when so many kids enter community college far from being able to work up to speed, and so many don't persist even to associate's degrees? Who, he asked, should be held accountable for fixing those disconnections?

Good question. The way you answer probably says something about your respective levels of cynicism and faith. But in the meantime, as the public looks to community colleges to make big changes, it's a matter of "managing expectations," as Schuckman told me.

1 Comment

The issue I am making my argument about has to with the student transitioning from high school to college. My opinion weighs strongly on students completing college after high school, but allowing for flexible routes on getting to that route. There seems to be a singled minded view of certain educators who feel that the only way of succeeding in college will solely depend on academic achievement. However, there are various methods that one can utilize to achieve a college level of education.

One blog entry seemed to place an emphasis on holding 2 year colleges accountable for adjusting the tide towards post-secondary school education. The Center for American Progress produced a paper showing an increased enrollment in community colleges despite the data also showing a higher rate of college degrees obtained at 4 year rather than at 2 year institutions. However, I believe that the enrollment in a college institution should be looked more seriously and high schools need to target more programs involving remedial education and student support services. This is to help students make a smoother transition to these 2 year colleges, where they are likely to make a more mature decision as to whether or not a 4 year college will be good for them.

Another blog suggested the use of vocational education making its way back into the high school curriculum. In this blog, a culinary arts high school teacher named Ms. Stephenson makes clear that her craft of teaching home economics or any vocational skill is by no way limiting her students from acquiring an academic education. She claims that math concepts like fractions and percents are used in measuring and various scientific phenomena are taking place when ingredients are mixed together. My thoughts on this is that vocational education can definitely be used as an alternative route to a college education based on the fact that there many careers ranging from business management to architecture that can be linked towards vocational education and thus influence a student to take on these college majors. The problem with a lot of freshman and sophomore students is that they have no foundation of thought to even determine what major they would like to take. A “hands-on” experience in a high school setting could make it easier for a student to determine what career to take, making going to college an imminent decision.

Yet, another blog wrote about the progress being made by adding career coaches to high schools to aid in students’ decision making in acquiring employment or attending college. In Chicago, Greg Darnieder, who was head of the college coaching program, says that it costs less money to pay these coaches than it did to pay a certified school counselor, where the former got better results. My thoughts on this is that without these coaches, many students that do not want to attend college, never finish a full take of courses that would qualify them of an industry issued certificate worthy of employment of their career choice. That would leave a huge number of high school graduates or dropouts, without any career move at all.

The bottom line here is that there seems to be a vast array of important research being on a student’s academic skills (i.e. one blog talks about an online tool to determine a student’s risk of dropping out from school). We need to have an equal amount of programs and research into alternative strategies that a high school student can utilize to attend college besides relying solely on academic achievement.

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