The United States once produced the highest percentage of bachelor's degrees in the world but now trails behind five other countries including Canada, Japan, and South Korea. Nearly 80 percent of the nation's post-secondary students attend non-selective four-year and community colleges, and less than half of those students graduate. What's going on in American higher education?
After eight years studying how students, parents, teachers, and administrators understand high school and college policies and practices through Stanford University's nationally funded Bridge Project, Michael Kirst, a Stanford professor of education who also holds an appointment at the Graduate School of Business, thinks he has a pretty good idea. Today an estimated 88 percent of high school students aspire to attend college, the highest percentage in the nation's history. Yet their desire is being undermined by a disconnect between what post-secondary schools expect from students and what high schools prepare students for. The most pronounced effect is on first-generation college goers — many of them students of color — and on the economically disadvantaged.
Kirst's research with the Bridge Project, a large, six-state study he began in 1997 under the auspices of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Education, has focused on numerous realities affecting students who head for community colleges and four-year schools that admit almost everyone who applies. "Given that these schools comprise about 85 percent of the nation's post-secondary institutions, we're talking about the majority of college students in America. It's the bulk of the country's labor force, yet it's the group that the New York Times and Washington Post never write about," Kirst says. "Why?" he asks pointedly. "Because it consists mostly of minorities and lower income students."
Kirst has published his findings in numerous articles, a popular monograph entitled Betraying the College Dream (2003), and a book, From High School to College (2004). In his most recent article to emerge from the Bridge Project, co-authored with Andrea Venezia, senior policy analyst at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Kirst relates that students in the study are so poorly prepared for their college experience that half end up in remedial courses, creating huge psychological and logistical impediments to graduating. "Many can't handle the work or get discouraged and end up just dropping out," he says.
Currently, he notes, 44 percent of undergrads in America attend community colleges, up 10 percent in the past decade. For these students, as well as those who attend non-selective four-year colleges, the real issue is not whether they will be admitted, but whether they can pass a placement exam to exempt them from remedial courses. At root is the fact that students who are not in the top 15 percent of their high school class do not receive clear or adequate information from teachers and counselors about what they need to know and do to succeed in college. They also are not told by anyone — including colleges themselves — that there will be a placement test once they get there, much less what the exam consists of. "Even for high school teachers the content of such exams is a mystery," says Kirst.
Mistakenly believing that they are adequately prepared for college, students who plan to attend broad-access institutions typically glide through their senior year of high school. "They avoid substantive courses that could help them prepare, while honors students are busy taking Advanced Placement courses that show them what college work is all about," says Kirst.
Honors students also tend to get clearer signals from teachers and administrators about college preparation and admissions in general: They receive more counseling attention and are presented with more opportunities to meet with recruiters and visit college campuses. Economically disadvantaged students or first-generation college goers whose parents tend to lack experience and information regarding college, are often left without this information.
One answer to the college preparedness issue, Kirst suggests, lies in better communication and coordination between the governing boards of high school and broad-access institutions in each state. "In the 1990s, 49 states established K-12 standards and tests, but only one — Oregon — conferred with post-secondary systems on what those standards should consist of," Kirst notes. "Clearly, K-12 tests and courses need to be coordinated with college placement exams."
Other incentives Kirst suggests are financial aid policies that reward students for completing numerous college preparation courses, or teacher professional development efforts to help increase the probability of students meeting placement test standards.
Kirst warns that the situation will only get worse because the post-secondary enrollment is shifting to community colleges. If the American labor force is not to become terribly crippled, K-12 and post secondary education need to come together, he urges. "K-12 has typically taken the blame for the lack of educational preparedness of our youth, but it's time for broad-access colleges to take responsibility in the matter, too," Kirst says.