Leaving aside all of the other good arguments both for and against it, I have one big problem with the proposal for free community college that President Obama recently outlined and described anew in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.
It’s awfully late in the game.
I don’t mean that he should have moved on it earlier in his presidency. I mean that our focus on getting kids to and through higher education cannot be separated from, or supplant, our focus on making sure that they’re prepared for it. And we have a painfully long way to go in that regard.
College is somehow tidier to talk about; I talk about it quite a bit myself. It’s an attractive subject for several reasons. There’s a particular mythology and romance to college, a way in which it’s synonymous with the passage into adulthood and with a lofty altitude of competence, knowledge and intellectual refinement.
It’s totemic. And it comes with handy metrics: specifically, data showing that the acquisition of a college degree translates into various benefits over the course of a lifetime, including higher earnings. So we look to, and lean on, college as a way to increase social mobility and push back against middle-class wage stagnation. That’s important context for not only Obama’s frequent invocations of college but also for a new report, “Expectations and Reality,” by America Achieves, a nonprofit organization that does educational research, policy development and advocacy. I was given an advance copy.
It demonstrates, for starters, that while hope may spring eternal, it springs in error where college is concerned. Using a survey of hundreds of parents and looking at college graduation rates, the report concludes that middle-class parents who expect their kids to finish four-year college degrees are wrong more than half the time.
The same survey, conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group for America Achieves, revealed some cold-eyed realism amid that unwarranted optimism. More than 70 percent of parents expressed the worry that their children’s chances of achieving a middle-class lifestyle would be diminished if their pre-college education didn’t become more challenging.
They’re right. We need to raise standards. That’s in fact what the Common Core is ideally about, and that’s why the education secretary, Arne Duncan, under harsh attack, remains wedded to a certain amount of testing. High standards without monitoring and accountability are no standards at all.
The goal is to lift children from all income groups up — and to maximize their chances of success with higher education. Their failure to complete higher education isn’t just a function of financial hardships and related stresses, though those are primary reasons. Academic readiness factors in.
Jon Schnur, the executive chairman of America Achieves, said that there’s a significant difference in graduation rates between students who need remediation after they’ve enrolled and those who don’t. The failures of elementary, middle and secondary schools shadow them.
Those failures persist, and they’re demonstrated every three years when PISA tests — which compare 15-year-olds in countries around the world — are done. American kids tend to perform in the middle of the heap.
The America Achieves report, looking at PISA results from 2003 to 2012, which is when the tests were last administered, had a bit of good news. While American kids from middle-class families haven’t markedly improved their international standing in math and science over recent years, kids from poorer families have done precisely that.
Poverty may well make educational advancement much harder, but doesn’t prohibit it. If we take the right steps — including more aggressive recruitment and rewarding of exemplary teachers and the continued implementation of higher standards — we can help kids at every rung of the economic ladder.
“All of these need to be backed by funding,” Schnur, who has advised the Obama administration on education, told me. “There are great examples of what works, such as quality preschool and early learning for low-income children.”
In the State of the Union both last year and the year before it, President Obama called for universal preschool (to no avail). Some studies have shown that disadvantaged children start falling behind even before that point.
The moral is this: Education is a continuous concern and must be a continuous investment, cradle to Ivory Tower. If we don’t recognize and act on that, our reality will never meet our expectations.