A recent Gallup poll revealed that only about one in four adults believe that students who graduate from high school this year are prepared for college or a career, and Lone Star Community College Chancellor Stephen Head agrees.
“I really don’t care what your background is, most students are not prepared for college — they’re just not," Head said to a crowd assembled last month in Washington, D.C. for a Communities In Schools event. "Grades are one thing, but emotionally, they’re just not ready. They need the background of social help behind the scenes … They don’t even know what they don’t know.”
“They need job skills," he added. "We help them with that, but they need to know how to show up on time, how to handle conflict resolution, how to [succeed]."
As the nation looks ahead to the fall and the imminence of 38 gubernatorial elections — and, depending on which poll you consult, a likelihood that 24 to 26 new governors will take office — “it elevates the sense of urgency to maximize the opportunity window we have,” said Aaliyah Samuel, who directs the education division of the National Governors Association. When you “couple that with 72% of legislative seats across the nation are also going to change in November. We’re going to have a huge political landscape change in addition to what’s already happening."
Overwhelmingly, governors are concerned about “the future of work — what is it going to look like, and how do we make sure that students are ready,” said Samuel, but they are also “looking at early childhood, looking at alignment across the entire continuum” to determine how we, as a nation, can look at education differently to change the reality that students aren’t prepared to succeed in life.
A recent study from the Center for American Progress found high school graduation requirements across the country to be grossly misaligned with the requirements for college entry. “In almost every state for at least one subject, there is a preparation gap that necessitates students seeking admission to the state public four-year university system to take additional coursework that is not required for a standard high school diploma. What’s more, this additional coursework may or may not be offered on the high school campus,” the authors said.
This presents an obvious preparedness gap along income lines, experts say, with students who can afford to seek out the additional courses or who attend better-resourced high schools that offer them, and the rest being left behind.
According to U.S. Department of Education data, however, the number of students attending four-year and two-year public and private degree-granting institutions across who receive financial aid is increasing; a higher percentage of students received financial aid in the 2014-15 academic year (85%) than in the school year immediately following the start of the Great Recession.
And as colleges commit to bringing more first-generation and low-income students to campus, careful consideration will need to be given to how to best support these students who are likely less academically prepared leading up to their matriculation at the local community college or university.
“In reality, if we use the neuroscience, 90% of a child’s brain is developed by age five, so we need to be thinking about the integration of school readiness before kids get into kindergarten,” Samuel said.
College and university leaders are realizing this imperative and are establishing partnerships and taking a more hands-on approach to ensure the pipeline is stronger for students who are coming to their institutions.
“Students, whatever issues they have in elementary school and even Pre-K,” those carry on to higher education, Head said, adding “the sooner that we can work with those” independent school districts, the better.
The "embarrassed" educator
Shelton Jefferies, superintendent of Nash-Rocky Mount Schools in Northeastern North Carolina, said he’s “embarrassed as a public school educator,” but the realization that students can be considered successful through 12th grade but still unprepared for life after high school is “a call to arms, quite honestly.”
“There’s been a visceral response to focus on the test, and what [the data] say to me is that the true test is the test of life,” he said. “We’re at a point where we have to engage in a shift in what quality teaching and learning looks like, what that environ looks like” at all levels of education, and that includes focusing on education that is “a more dynamic, problem-solving, collaboration, constructivist approach [to] teaching you how to get along with diverse cultures.”
Nash Community College, Jefferies said, has been an instrumental partner in helping shape stronger students in the district. And Head said Lone Star “used to have embedded advisers and counselors in the high schools, but the problem was the high schools co-opted those counselors and used them for their own,” as dwindling school funding has meant fewer school counselors across districts, even as they deal with populations of students who need more counseling and advising.
A leaky pipeline
“At some point in every governor’s term, education is going to be the priority,” said Samuel, who encouraged education leaders to “identify it early.”
“They’re either a workforce governor or an education governor, but you can’t be a workforce governor without education,” she said. “People see [education] as a short-term investment — it’s not, it is a long-run game.”
“It’s about policy and it’s about workforce and economic prosperity and it’s about our whole community,” said Head. He believes a lack of Pre-K is one of the biggest challenges facing his region and, thus, his task is to try to help boost the success of students who come to him unprepared.
And the need for students to take remedial, non-credit-bearing courses, adds on time to graduation and additional costs for students — an estimated $7 billion in student and taxpayer dollars — compounding the affordability crisis.
According to data, it isn’t just low-income students who are impacted; 45% of students in remedial courses are from middle- and upper-class families, suggesting a breakdown across the board. Realizing the added cost and reflecting on data that shows nearly half of learners who take remedial courses don’t graduate has led Guttman Community College to do away with remedial classes, opting instead to build those key competencies into its first-year level courses for all students.
Head said during a separate conversation last week in Dallas he is looking to emulate the same model for Lone Star’s six campuses.
A more collaborative model
In many cases, business leaders are eager to work with leaders of local colleges and universities as well as the K-12 community to help improve the pipeline. Motivated by projected workforce needs and a recognized skills gap, companies including Lockheed Martin, Capital One and Texas Instruments are investing money and time, donating materials, shaping curricula and sending employees into schools as tutors to help bridge gaps and make sure future employees come ready to hit the ground running.
“Education is our number one community priority,” said Texas Instruments President of Education Technology Peter Balyta during a recent interview at the company’s Dallas headquarters. Over the last five years, Texas Instruments and TI Foundation have given more than $150 million to support education, including $8.2 million to neighboring Lancaster Independent School District to help take it from “a struggling district to a model benchmark district.”
But Balyta said, “Just writing a check doesn’t always help; sometimes it makes the problem worse. We need very tangible, hands-on engagement” with teachers and students from K-12 through higher ed to really make a difference. He referenced curricula-building collaborations Georgia Tech, Illinois, North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M and Purdue universities.
“State budgets are flat-lining," Samuel said, and encouraged education leaders to "be smarter about how we’re using funds and work better across schools, business and the community” while also leveraging “the role of philanthropy and the business community to push budgets forward.”