Bold Higher Education Ideas Are Only Bold if There Is Follow Through

We are just two months in and 2015 is already turning into the year of bold higher education proposals. From President Obama's plan to make the first two years of community college free to Sen. Lamar Alexander's dramatic simplification of FAFSA to the National Summit on the Redesign of Developmental Education, it's a year of great promise.

These are the right responses to the growing inequity in America and education's role as remedy. According to the 'Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States,' college completion rates for wealthy students have soared in 40 years but barely budged for low-income students. This Pell Institute study paints a bleak picture of how opportunities for higher education vary by economic status. Only about one in five college students from the lowest income bracket complete a bachelor's degree by age 24, while 99 percent of students from top-earning families completed their degrees. More unconscionable - while enrollments increase, racial minorities have even lower graduation rates than low-income students.

Are we willing to let the hallmarks of America's democracy - economic opportunity and social justice for all - slip away? If we are really serious about higher education being in the opportunity-making business for all students, we must stand up for those being left behind. Here's how:

  1. K-12 and higher education sectors must join forces. When you consider that K-12 and higher education rarely share information about students and coordinate efforts to help students be successful getting to and through college, it's not surprising that so many students don't complete a degree. Feedback loops must extend to, from and through K-20. Educators in the Texas gulf region know this. Eight community colleges and 11 school districts worked together to identify gaps in teaching and ways to address them. The result: Gulf Coast PASS English and math curriculum alignment guides that will help K-12 educators and college faculty guide students to successfully transition from high school to college. Professional development and practices must include the opportunity for both sectors to collectively review student performance data and how it aligns with lesson plans and expectations for what students should be learning and doing as they progress through their education. We must recognize that both sectors share the same students just at different points in their education careers.

  • Digital publishing platforms can develop a shared curricular scaffolding that guides what gets taught and is expected from K-12 through higher education and include employers in the process. Common Core Standards have created higher quality curriculum in math and English, but quality is still inconsistent and gaps persist in communicating what is taught and expected from K-12 to higher education. Publishers have the opportunity to engage educators locally to create, test drive and continuously improve a seamless sequence of lesson plans, assignments and course materials that prepare students for success in college. Since almost 60 percent of students attend a college within 100 miles of home, this could be accomplished regionally. McGraw Hill gets it. The new President of McGraw Hill Education was named to bridge the K-12/higher education divide and drive closer alignment between the two sectors. Having one corporate president for K-20 is a smart move.
  • Tests that are so controversial today will become part of multiple measures of student achievement - not the end all be all. Assignments and what students are learning and applying will take priority and prominence, giving teachers a way to monitor and guide what students are learning and know that it is preparing them for the next steps in their education careers. Assessments will become but one measure providing feedback about how students compare and perform in meeting key benchmarks. Used this way, tests should not be scary and punitive. And if publishers are involved in providing a digital platform for curricular support, the tests should be vastly improved measures.
  • Remedial education will be reduced and improved. Having a more rational thoroughfare from K-12 through higher education will help ensure students entering college are prepared for success. This will free up more time and resources to develop new and better ways to deliver developmental education that provides students the catch up help they need without holding them back. Accelerated models are having a big improvement. Carnegie's Statway and Quantway are constantly be revised and improved by faculty and researchers. Other catch-up and delivery models are also showing success.
  • We know progress is possible. Educators participating in a southern California program English Curriculum Alignment Project shared years of transcript information to identify gaps and work to align curriculum across the segments to better prepare students for college. As a result, 86 percent of students kept on course to successfully complete college-level English. In contrast, only 24 percent of students placed in the lowest level of English remedial courses in California colleges ever make it out.

    As the President releases his budget this week and Congress takes up ESEA and Higher Education Act reauthorization, who will speak for the students who have some of the highest educational goals of any race or gender group, but are the least likely to achieve them? If we can't do more to ensure everyone has access to the American Dream because it's the right thing to do, consider that it is also the expedient thing to do. Our country's greatest competitive advantage is our diversity - the talents of our country's fastest growing populations.

    Bold higher education ideas are only bold if there is sufficient follow through to ensure all students who do their part to make it to college, achieve the economic advantages of a college degree.