The Wilson Quarterly, published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the District, sounds like something you have to read for homework and find excuses not to. Yet, one autumn issue article is a must-read, shedding new light on our national debate about college.
The author of “College for All?” is Kevin Carey , policy director of the Education Sector think tank and the most interesting writer on higher education today. He realigns our education system, at least theoretically, and suggests how to resolve our clash over who should go to college and who shouldn’t.
President Obama and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates have called for a major increase in the percentage of adults with college degrees, which has been about 40 percent for some time: 30 percent with four-year degrees and 10 percent more with associate’s degrees. How can that happen, Carey asked, if colleges and universities are already crowded and “less than half of all students are exposed to a legitimate college preparatory curriculum in high school”?
Some experts say we don’t need a new crop of degree holders. Many future jobs won’t need college skills. That’s what Harvard economist Richard Freeman said in his 1976 book “The Overeducated American.” It got him in People magazine and the front page of the New York Times, Carey recalled. Freeman said there would be such a glut of unneeded bachelor’s degrees, that wages for college graduates would plummet. Instead, their incomes went from 40 percent to nearly 100 percent higher than people with high school diplomas.
We will need more college skills, Carey concluded, but that doesn’t mean we can provide them. For one thing, our public schools are weak.
“There has never been a serious effort to establish consistent high standards for America’s secondary schools and to hold schools accountable for achieving them,” Carey said. If we push for more college preparation in high school, what happens to those who don’t want to or can’t succeed in higher education? “Millions of people will be left without college credentials in an economy that pays good wages for little else.”.
“The key,” he said, “is helping those students — and all students — erase the arbitrary and damaging dividing line between high school and college.”
In the Washington area, where the college admissions angst is great, we think the jump from high school senior to college freshman is a big deal. That’s wrong, Carey said. “In intellectual terms, the freshman year of college is little more than grade 13. Starting around grade 10 and continuing through roughly the first two years of college, students make the transition from acquiring foundational skills to applying them in pursuit of broader knowledge in math, language, the humanities and the physical and social sciences.
“The years between grades 10 and 14 are also the leakiest segment of the education pipeline, a time when students drop out of high school, fail to enroll in college and drop out of college by the hundreds of thousands every year,” he said.
That difficult passage from age 16 to 20, when so much else is going on in students’ lives, might run smoother if we extend “the public subsidy for education all the way through grade 14.” Carey said. “In our system of public education, all students are fully subsidized to take courses such as precalculus at age 17 and must be taught by a licensed teacher. At age 19 and older, students waiting to learn exactly the same thing get a partial subsidy from a wholly separate set of state and federal sources and receive instruction under a completely different regime of curricular standards and professional norms. This makes little sense.”
What would we call grades 10 to 14, this high school/college middle ground that all of us could attend for free? Addressing both academic and vocational needs is tricky, but if the new 10 to 14 schools had football teams, we might make it work.