Our education system must be re-oriented toward enabling all students to apply, enroll, and succeed in attaining a degree at college level in order for the United States to compete economically and meet domestic and global demands. To get there, students will need better preparation and support, requiring a fundamental shift in policy and practice so that parents, teachers, counselors, and college faculty are aligned in creating, enacting, and sustaining a college-bound culture.
As part of its ongoing higher education research, CAP released two papers last week that explore the challenges of enhancing academic preparation and creating a college-going culture in America’s high schools.
A panel of five speakers discussed the papers’ findings at an event last week at CAP. Speakers included Jenny Nagaoka, co-author of the paper “Barriers to College Attainment: Lesson from Chicago” and associate director for Postsecondary Studies at the Chicago Consortium on School Research; Robin Chait, senior education policy analyst at CAP and co-author of “Improving Academic Preparation for College, What We Know and How State and Federal Policy Can Help”; Jennifer Engle, Assistant Director of Higher Education at The Education Trust; Richard Kasiz, Senior Vice President at Jobs for the Future; and Derek Canty, Co-Founder and Vice President of Alumni and Diversity at College Summit. Louis Soares, director of the Economic Mobility Program at CAP, moderated the panel.
Soares noted, "Under the incoming Obama administration and the new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, these are heady days for public policy. Financial assistance and enhanced preparation will help people—students—be successful."
The panelists recommended that rigorous data collection and analysis be funded at federal and state levels, and that policy be shaped from actual on-the-ground findings. Commenting on the CAP papers, Richard Kasiz noted, “They emphasize the importance of data and research … Research and use of data must be tied to practice as well as policy.”
The panelists agreed that a college-going culture must include a shift in assumptions, expectations, standards, and curricula to include and prepare all students for postsecondary education. “These students need access to success,” said Engle. “Colleges and universities need to be publicly accountable. We need to see them taking an interest and taking action to improve academic preparation."
Research shows that some barriers to college attendance are largely practical. Students, and often their parents and families who may not have attended college, do not understand the requirements and the process for applying to college, including the essential step of application for financial aid. Often, parents do not have the time, confidence, or experience necessary to help their children negotiate the application process. As a result students and parents both may either give up, or do not even consider themselves or their children as candidates.
Aspirations to attend college, the panelists indicated, must be met with corresponding curricular support in high schools to enhance college enrollment, persistence—the likelihood that students will return every year—and degree completion rates. Most high school curricula are designed in isolation from each other, typically disconnected from college curricula and faculty expectations.
"There needs to be an alignment of high schools with postsecondary expectations," said Robin Chait. "CAP has recommended the Fast Track to College Act, which would provide support for the implementation of dual enrollment courses and early college high schools." High schools could offer dual enrollment classes and mandatory transition classes in preparation for application to postsecondary education to close the gap between what high schools offer and what colleges expect. These programs would be collaboratively designed to overcome the gap that currently exists between high school and college curricula.
The skills high school students require to be ready for college, and the resources they need, are not just academic. “College success rests on other types of non-cognitive skills as well as academic ones,” said Jenny Nagaoka. “Students need to know how to study and how to be self-organized…students struggle with the college-going process; they don’t understand the options, especially if college experience is not in their family. A strong college-going culture will make a difference at every step."
College-going clubs can also help high schoolers reorient themselves toward going to college, Derek Canty said. “A college-going climate depends on norms. Seventeen-year-olds turn to other 17-year olds.” He offered an example of a college-going club at a high school in Florida that is “enabling students to raise their self-expectations; the members are infecting and affecting each other with energy, passion and knowledge about going to college.” This kind of peer support and “generosity in sharing knowledge is core to a college-going culture," he said.
In a new college-bound culture the expectation that every student is a candidate for postsecondary education will be supported by good on-the-ground research, data analysis, and policy that results in practical support and resources for students. While this will require broad buy-in for professional development from teachers, counselors, principals, and faculty, it must be part of a new readiness campaign—not just to encourage all students to be college bound, but to insure that once they get there, they will stay in school and succeed.