K-12, Higher Education Worlds Must Collide to Improve Student Outcomes

We believe that budget discussions should consider the growing role that institutions like ours play in educating our young people, long before freshmen check into their residence hall rooms for fall semester.
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In the current debate in Springfield, Ill., and in the capitals of other cash-strapped states around the country, one major area of budget focus is education. Legislators and educators at all levels worry that budgets at one level (K-12 or higher education) will be reduced so that budgets at the other level can be sustained or increased. Too often in this budgetary dark night, those of us at different levels of the education food chain worry more about competition for funding amongst ourselves than about how to combine our resources to make significant improvements.

I would submit that this mode of thinking is outdated, given the interdependence and interrelationships of educational entities across the continuum, from pre-K through college. Put simply, each level of the educational system -- including higher education -- is more conjoined than legislators and other thought leaders recognize. With the increasing and highly appropriate emphasis on raising what are admittedly low four and six-year college graduation rates at universities, the spotlight has shone on how prepared students are, or are not, for the academic, financial and emotional pressures and demands of higher education. That level of preparation has proved to be inadequate for almost half of our students. As educators, we all share responsibility and blame for that -- and, working more closely together, we all need to be part of the solution.

According to IllinoisReportCard.com, only 46 percent of Illinois high school students were ready for college coursework last year; nonetheless, 73 percent of graduates enrolled in post-secondary institutions within 16 months. No wonder university graduation rates are disappointing. To change the future of this dysfunctional system, NIU is devoting increasing resources to building trusting and productive relationships with partners in K-12 and community colleges.

One of our signature engagements is our leadership of a regional network in northern Illinois that brings together more than 70 representatives from 25 institutions across the educational spectrum whose goal is to produce an additional 30,000 college-ready students in our region over the next 10 years. We also are involved in helping faculty at all levels implement new, rigorous state learning standards. Recognizing the importance of coaching and counseling in determining academic success, we are launching a peer mentoring program for 400 at-risk students next year.

And, at a time when enhanced attention to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines is so essential to our nation's future, we have a number of programs aimed at stimulating interest in STEM at very early ages. Our hallmark program, STEMfest, attracts thousands of K-12 students, parents and educators to our campus in DeKalb, Ill. every year, to engage in hundreds of hands-on activities that capture young imaginations. We hope this will lead to more majors in the STEM disciplines and then into the region's workforce.

We understand the imperative at the state level of implementing budget plans that ensure long-term financial sustainability, and we're realistic enough to understand that public universities are going to come under scrutiny in this process. At the same time, we believe that budget discussions should consider the growing role that institutions like ours play in educating our young people, long before freshmen check into their residence hall rooms for fall semester. Policy discussions should focus on how to further strengthen the bonds between K-12 and higher education and how we can further integrate our limited resources to ensure long-term student success at the collegiate level and beyond.

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