Posts filed under ‘College Readiness’

Advanced Placement or Early Introduction

To get kids ready for college, we need to expose them to rigorous courses in high school. Advanced placement (AP) courses are designed to offer college-level material to highly proficient students. But we also need to introduce intellectually challenging content to many students in a non-threatening way. These can be divergent goals. So, how do we address these needs…in the same class?

It’s always a little bittersweet when AP Calculus teachers boast that all of their students scored a 4 or 5 on the AP exam. Congratulations are in order, of course. The teacher’s students have delivered great results under his or her guidance. The concern I have, however, is that admission to that course must have been extremely selective. And that we may be missing part of the goal of college preparation.

We rush to make sure the kids who are strongest in math have access to calculus in high school. But we allow the rest of the kids – weaker in math skills by definition – to wait and face the topic for the first time in college, in the midst of one of the most tumultuous transitions of their lives. The latter group of students would benefit from early introduction to calculus…while they are still in high school. They may drag the average AP exam scores down a bit, but does that matter?

The conflict between college placement and college readiness is somewhat moot – all students will need to be diligent in their college studies. In the final year or two of high school, however, we need to take care of the students who, at 16 or 17, are intellectually ready to grasp complex concepts faster than even above average students bound for college at 18 or 19. This is not a tracking issue – which is controversial when it begins as early as middle school – but more of an exit strategy for students whose variations in ability suggest a dichotomy between advanced placement and early introduction.

As we design new programs for high schools that encourage students to pursue STEM careers, more students will need to be ready for calculus in college. There will be analogous situations in science, technology, and engineering as well. In fact, one could argue for reconsidering our objectives in most AP subject areas. As public school children achieve better outcomes in education, an increasing number of students will qualify for accelerated college courses, but many more will benefit from access to advanced content in a sheltered environment.


May 2, 2013 at 9:54 AM Leave a comment

Dual Enrollment and Its Promise

My brother taught me a lesson about offering a promise at the end of goal achievement. It may just be the missing link for many high school re-engagement programs. Dual enrollment can take a student from his or her return to high school through access to a college degree. Going back to high school for that diploma is hard, and the reward it offers is limited. But a college degree means forever on a resume…clearing a hurdle for access to the middle class.

A while ago during a failed job interview for a position in student re-engagement, I totally blew it on the HR rubric. I went outside of the box and cited my brother, Tom Wright, as one of my personal heroes. Tom had spent the last 20 years creating and developing a market for home mortgages for Native Americans. My link to work with high school drop-outs must have been a bit too obtuse, but it’s still a story about keeping an eye on a prize.

Tom’s work began in an era when much of the housing stock on Indian reservations was below code, and home ownership eluded many Native Americans due to missing or low credit ratings. However, he recognized that there was a market and a dire need for access to both credit and safe housing. He just needed a method.

Tom developed a two-year course of credit counseling for Native Americans with weak financial backgrounds that promised approval on a home mortgage if they finished the program with a successful payment history. Paying ones bill could lead to 1st time home ownership, a rarity at the time. Possession of a plywood shack on tribal land was all many of his clients could hope for as they dodged their creditors.

The financing of the risk for mortgage lenders was the rub, but Tom saw a solution in money set aside for Native American housing awards through the Wounded Knee Treaty. A clause in the agreement funded a housing lottery that awarded homes to a small number of winners in Indian Nation each year. He went to tribal elders across the Midwest and Western reservations and discussed redeployment of that money to fund a risk pool that would cover a larger number of people. In short, rather than giving ten people houses, they could cover the default risk on mortgages for dozens of people. Eventually, Tom won program adoption, and a housing boom began.

Now, back to education…how can a mortgage plan for a small demographic group relate to the broad population of American drop-outs? I would form a different question…what does a high school diploma offer? It has become a serious hurdle for millions of drop-outs who cannot get access to even low paying jobs. However, a high school diploma no longer ensures access to the middle class. One needs a college degree for that. And I see that college credential to be very much like the mortgage for the highly indebted denizen of substandard housing.

Going back to high school is very difficult. It means returning to a scene of failure and, often, a place that has left students under-served in the past. Just more of the same is small incentive for participation. There has to be more, and that may account for the higher success rates seen with dual enrollment in community college systems for high school drop-outs. The prize for successful effort is an Associate’s Degree, professional certification, and, in many systems, guaranteed access to a four-year state college.

Overcoming inertia to break a failure cycle is not its own reward. The prize needs to be real and change lives. We can do that.

Tom’s story is still in progress, but I asked him a year or so ago what he considered to be his legacy. He stated quite simply that twenty years ago Native Americans had no access to traditional home mortgages, and today they are treated like any other American at the bank. Quite an accomplishment…but there’s icing on the cake. When the real estate market began to collapse a few years ago, his programs were still experiencing a default rate of about 1%. People who earned their way into a new standard of living seem to treasure it.

November 15, 2012 at 9:43 AM Leave a comment

Colleges Need to Get Real

From education to finance, American institutions have raised avoidance of accountability to an art form. The blurring of lines among industry players has allowed them to diffuse responsibility for their basic missions. Within education, high schools and colleges are collaborating creatively in dual enrollment programs to lower failure rates. Ultimately, however, they may be conspiring to conceal inadequate college preparation by offering college-lite for an exorbitant price to students who cannot afford it. Their efforts would be better spent getting back to basics on their own turf. 

College (kol-ij) n. a place where students go to finish high school and/or get ready for grad school while accumulating massive amounts of debt. Often found adjacent to prestigious institutions offering access to elite faculty who can only be seen by students pursuing advanced degrees.

There was a time when wealthy young dilettantes who needed a little more time to grow up attended exclusive prep schools that their parents could afford with ease. The goal was success in college once they were ready. Somehow, the American Dream has mutated such that financially strapped, first-generation college students are paying premium prices for four-year prep schools, followed by unemployment and massive debt problems.

Something is wrong in this picture. The first clue is the huge debt burden among young people…many of whom are also jobless. The culprit? No one in particular. Rather, it is a perfect storm of weak public schools, nouveau all-star colleges, and opportunistic financiers. Before we can solve the problem, however, we must unravel the fuzzy roles and accountabilities lost in emerging partnerships, collaborations, and joint ventures. The punch line: colleges need to better serve their undergraduates in the primary mission of higher education, high schools need to ensure that their graduates are truly ready for college, and financial institutions need to share the burden of risk or lower their interest rates.

Let’s begin with the public school system and college readiness. Ten years ago, the nation set the goal of college readiness for all students by high school graduation. Most schools have fallen behind on that goal, according to standardized tests. Nevertheless, as an alternative to testing, many high school principals naively set out to achieve 100% college application rates among graduating seniors as a proxy for readiness. Well-meaning guidance counselors facilitated broad searches for colleges and helped students complete applications; volunteers supported students through their applications for financial aid. For many low-income families, children were going off to college for the first time. Mission accomplished.

Colleges experienced higher application rates and, in many cases, higher acceptance rates among their admitted applicants. Free market economics worked, and colleges raised their tuition and fees in response to this increase in demand.  Administrators were bewildered but pleased to discover that a more expensive college seemed to attract even more applicants. In addition, oversubscribed colleges were strapped for dorm space, asking students to share tight spaces for more money. In the meantime, want ads were full of opportunities for adjunct faculty members. Access to tenure-track teachers became elusive. Students found themselves paying Ivy prices for average schools at best.

Meanwhile, financial institutions expanded college lending operations and actively courted university officials for access to students for underwriting purposes. Interest rates to students rose, and risks for banks declined with government payment guarantees. All agreements were packaged by the schools, and banking relationships were ancillary.

As colleges grew in size, undergraduates found themselves with fewer safety nets. To complicate matters, many students and their families were unaware of the strings attached to financial aid. Need-based scholarships turned into high-interest loans when ill-prepared students failed to meet GPA requirements for retaining those scholarships. Already committed, students chose to sign the loan papers and stay in school. The Dream would remain within reach. Predictably, college drop-out rates soon grew, along with a new underclass of young people faced with a mountain of debt. In the highest-risk populations, college completion rates fell to the single digits.

To address this problem proactively, some very good dual enrollment programs have been developed that offer previews into college course work at little or no cost for high school students. This has become an important part of the community college mission in many localities. However, four-year colleges also have gotten into the act to grease a path to long-term commitment for students who have little chance of success. In addition, many institutions have all but forgotten their attention to excellence in undergraduate education. They offer a rite of passage that holds empty promise for students passing through them, continuing the new tradition of poor preparation for life. As college-lite has become a reality, graduate degrees have become the expectation for many professions.

We are not doing our young people any favors by dealing in false hopes. High school diplomas need to represent genuine college readiness. At the college level, $200,000 is too much, but it must at least buy a real education. And guaranteed student loans need to carry interest consistent with that guarantee.

December 19, 2011 at 3:44 PM 2 comments

College Readiness is About Life Readiness

Many well-meaning observers challenge the goal of college readiness for all high school graduates. While it is valid that alternate paths deserve consideration, critical thinking is required for success in all walks of life.

College readiness is not just about higher education and career paths; it is about having the knowledge needed to understand one’s world well enough to negotiate one’s self interest successfully. Undereducated children are more prone to misread situations and act rationally using a primitive analytical model. Their decision trees are missing so many branches that they may be doomed to frustration and failure in many aspects of life as they miss opportunities or take poorly calculated risks. Failure to learn to think critically in school predisposes them to take the same approach as adults, seeing the world as chaotic and themselves subject to luck, popularity, or brute force. Instead of controlling their destinies in a world of possibilities, they tend to seek to control their inner circles in an ever-decreasing sphere of influence. Education is the key to breaking that failure cycle.

November 15, 2011 at 3:23 PM Leave a comment

College-Ready Is About Freedom of Choice

Every child deserves the right to choose to pursue college or career options after high school. To preserve that freedom, I have no choice but to prepare every child for either path. Besides, sophisticated new materials and technology are making it harder to differentiate the two.

College is not for everybody, especially as an immediate next step after high school. Jobs, volunteerism, or vocational training may be better choices at any given time. However, it is not up to me to sort out who belongs where. Even when a child is adamant that he or she wishes to prepare for a trade, I must remain committed to ensuring that college remains an option.

A child may not demonstrate academic focus or commitment at a given time. A common response to the pressure of choosing colleges and applying for admission is to opt out of the process. “I don’t want to go to college. I think I’ll be a …” In many families, a proud tradition within a profession may limit perceived options. Further, education finance may create a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. None of these short-term factors warrants closing the door on college forever. And that is the choice I have made for the child whom I fail to prepare. I do not have the proxy right of that future adult, especially when acting out of lowered expectations.

Building a life on the platform of mechanical ability is not guaranteed. Local technical schools that include heating and plumbing or carpentry expect students to be well-versed in trigonometry. Physics and other sciences may figure heavily in construction and electrical systems. Persuasive speaking and effective communication pay off in marketing and operations. A successful entrepreneur or company tradesman might show tremendous leadership ability; however, he or she would be hamstrung without training in finance or managerial decision-making. The future holds unknown possibilities, and lifelong learning is crucial to everyone.

Choosing to continue ones education after high school is risky as well. The intent to pursue higher education must be matched with strong skills to meet academic challenges. There is little that is more discouraging than an encounter with a former student who is unemployed and saddled with debt from an unsuccessful year or two in college. Genuine college preparation is part of the sacred trust between educators and their students. All of them.

September 26, 2011 at 10:12 AM Leave a comment

On College Readiness

Critical success factors for a student in college include…

  • Independence – self directed learning, defining one’s own program of study, time management strategy, mining of resources, and quest for knowledge.
  •  Perception – high level of awareness with insight and attention to task as well as strong reading fluency and comprehension. 
  • Communication – excellent writing, tailored to audience and genre, and strong oral and multimedia presentation skills. 
  • Collaboration – the habits of working in study groups, able to organize, convene, and effectively collaborate to increase knowledge and/or deliver group products. 
  • Leadership – solid citizenship in the classroom and decision-making during unstructured time. 
  • Perspective – conversant in the arts and humanities and cognizant of time and context. 
  • Analytics – strong analytical tool kit for application in math and physical and social sciences 
  • Leverage – ability to combine a good general knowledge bank with tools of analysis to achieve understanding and solve problems.
  • Organization – management of materials, processes, and concepts for efficient access and effective use.

 Pedagogy and culture must support students in their readiness to succeed in college, reaching beyond the school as necessary to provide access through productive use of out of school time, dual enrollment programs, and independent study options. Assessment tools must be robust enough to authentically evaluate the many dimensions of student accomplishments.

February 10, 2011 at 11:35 AM Leave a comment