The College-Readiness Kerfuffle

By 02/13/2014

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Every year, students, families and taxpayers spend billions of dollars on remedial courses that don’t count toward a student’s college degree. Currently, high school graduates can use federal student aid money to pay for up to 30 credits of remedial coursework, so long as it is part of a degree-granting program. With more than 50 percent of community college students enrolling in remedial courses, that’s a whole lot of student aid money. More troubling, less than ten percent of those remedial students ever graduate.

This costly system reflects failure on many different fronts, from the high schools that grant the diplomas to the colleges that gladly take Pell Grants from the underprepared to the students who fail to complete the courses. Not surprisingly, it is a system that few are satisfied with.

Yesterday, Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution proposed a change, calling on policymakers to condition Pell Grant eligibility on college readiness. Sawhill shies away from the most draconian version of the policy—“no Pell money for remedial courses,” offered by Mike Petrilli in Bloomberg last year. Instead, Sawhill argues that reforms should first provide larger grants for those who achieve academic benchmarks and then phase in a “gradual denial of assistance to, say, the bottom-scoring 20 percent of applicants” on a national exam.

On the other side of the debate, the University of Wisconsin’s Sara Goldrick-Rab argues that tying Pell to a college-ready standard would widen existing gaps in degree attainment. Instead of ratcheting up accountability on students, Goldrick-Rab proposes we increase accountability for institutions, coupled with more funding for Pell Grants and free community college.

What should “ed reformers” make of the debate? A few things stand out.

1.  Let’s be clear: Pell Grants don’t cause college readiness problems, but they do reveal them. The real blame lies with the combination of shoddy elementary and secondary schooling and, yes, students’ failure to prepare themselves for the rigors of college.

The proposal to condition Pell Grants on college readiness weights the latter more heavily than the former. To a cynic, Sawhill’s proposal essentially punishes students who have the bad luck of getting assigned to an awful high school.

But this is the sort of residential determinism that K-12 reformers and school choice proponents rail against. Reformers have spent years haranguing public schools for their failure to educate poor kids and touting the success that “no excuses” charter schools can have with similar demographic groups. The overarching message: schools, even more so than students or families, shape student achievement. As Mike Petrilli wrote in 2002 in a Brookings paper: “Demography is not destiny; effective schools can improve student achievement regardless of how poor the students or challenging the environment.”

Under Sawhill’s (or Petrilli’s) proposal, this logic reverses the second the student leaves high school. Sometime between June and August—maybe at midnight on graduation day?—the blame for college readiness shifts entirely from the school to the shoulders of the student. Neither of these “either/or” scenarios makes much sense—high schools and students both bear responsibility. But unless we’ve suddenly fixed high schools, the sudden switcheroo doesn’t seem to compute.

Now, it’s entirely possible that high schools and students would respond the new “standard” by working harder to prepare for it. That’d be a good thing. But in the absence of policies that hold high schools accountable for the remediation rates of their graduates, it’s hard to imagine they’ll have much incentive to change.

Simply changing Pell eligibility without complementary reforms to high school accountability would save money—a worthy goal—but would do little to increase human capital.

2. Meanwhile, Goldrick-Rab’s prescriptions actually sound similar to the standards and accountability movement in K-12 circa 2000: government provides funding in exchange for more institutional accountability. Indeed, she suggests that federal higher ed policy could learn a thing or two from K-12, where federal accountability demands are higher despite lower levels of federal funding.

But the proposal’s pitfall is that it assumes colleges will respond to accountability measures by improving teaching and maintaining rigor rather than simply lowering standards in the interest of pushing students through. Under Goldrick-Rab’s proposal, who will set the academic standards to hold colleges accountable? Institutions themselves? How do policymakers ensure that colleges adhere to rigorous ones?

Here again, lessons from K-12 reform are instructive. Accountability systems can set targets and ask schools to measure things. But they can’t actually force schools to improve their teaching. And they can lead schools to behave in all sorts of undesirable ways. In higher education, where standards and assessments are absent, the opportunities for unintended consequences and bad behavior are even larger.

3.  Neither proposal suggests a new way to solve the actual problem at hand: the top-to-bottom failure of our education system to prepare lots of students for any postsecondary option. Sawhill’s proposal would basically ignore low levels of college readiness by eliminating under-prepared students from the financial aid pool. Sure, high schools and students might respond to this threat, but they might not. Goldrick-Rab would continue to let those students in but double down on the very colleges that have failed to get the remedial job done.

But there are opportunities to think more creatively about the college readiness problem. Again, we can learn from K-12 reform. Entrepreneurial ed reformers have advanced their agenda by arguing that other organizations like charter schools deserve a crack at doing what existing institutions have failed to do. Yes, charter schools on the whole perform no better or worse than existing public schools, but they’ve allowed educators to experiment with new approaches to problem solving.

In that spirit, policymakers should target college readiness training as an area for similar policy innovation. Legislators could carve out a small portion of existing public money, certify a set of providers with a proven track record of preparing students—existing community colleges, great high school math and English teachers, for-profit tutoring firms or course providers, and so on—and then let students choose one to fill their college readiness needs. Heck, leaders could even let students count such courses for high school credit. Students who still failed to meet the college-ready standard after their course could then be left out of the main federal financial aid programs. This would give students a chance to get over the bar and lower the costs of failure.

-Andrew Kelly

Andrew Kelly is the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform and a resident scholar in education policy studies at American Enterprise Institute.

Comment on this article
  • Amy Dickman says:

    After reading your blog about the lack of college readiness I must whole-heartedly DISAGREE with your thoughts. It seemed as if you pointed blame and fingers for students’ lack of readiness mostly on schools and teachers. As a teacher in a school I must say it was insulting as I know a LOT of GREAT schools with a lot of AMAZING teachers who would also find your ideas troublesome and a slap in the face. It is true there are some schools out there who are in jeopardy based on poor performance by teachers and lack of education; however, these schools with faulty education spoken of here must contend with so much more. As a teacher I plan, teach, evaluate, assess, act, connect, and differentiate (most important) for the needs of my students. I do not fail as an educator because I know regardless of the topic or material covered that day in class students will walk out remembering something. In this day and age we as a society are too obsessed with postsecondary options….as if all of the students we teach (and apparently fail) are looking at college of some sort as a viable option. Not every student has the want, drive, ability, intelligence, or access to that idea of college or some specialty certification, and as a society we need to be ok with that idea as well. There are students I have who are perfectly happy running the family farm or working at a factory job. I have students who have learning disabilities and struggle in school with the best of interventions that keep them from seeking out that coveted college degree….but to blame the teachers and the schools….
    When we get the students many of them are broken…they come to us broken and failing…behind in academics and social skills. In order to get them in the right mind frame to learn I (as a teacher) have to fight with chronic tardies, chronic absenteeism, technology. I have students worrying about their next meal, if they have heat or even homes when they leave me. They worry and contend with illness and lack of aide and medical attention, transportation to and from, who may or may not be waiting when they get home, if they have jobs after school, if they have a sibling or child to care for after school, family dynamics interfering, illiteracy in the home….our biggest battle isn’t the school but rather the support these students have after they leave us…we are a temporary safe haven for many of these students….they bond with us…some of them get a coat or shoes with no holes, some get a granola bar, some get warmth and compassion that isn’t there at home….
    So now you tell us we fail the students because they aren’t college ready? After I do all of this then I have to motivate them and teach them a curriculum that has no connection or relevancy to anything they must deal with….I have standards and core that I have to plow through in a short window of time and test them over this which will tell them they are proficient? I am then graded on their performance as well as my own based on standards that have been changed and then the updated ones that kick in before the actual changes go into effect? I fail because I have one year to tell the students everything a Department of Education deems worthy of them knowing, even though many of the ones deciding this important “teachable” information aren’t currently or have never been teachers in this day and age? Then there are the graduation tests and end of course exams that say they have or haven’t learned enough of that topic? And if they fail….is it because as a teacher I didn’t do my job or they didn’t do theirs?
    Where does personal accountability every come in to play? I am accountable to my students, my principal, my family, etc….if not I wouldn’t have a job, I would be a bad mom, etc….because I was held personally accountable for everything I did or wanted to do. I was able to succeed in whatever I termed my own success (mom, teacher, etc)….just as I am certain you had standards to meet in your own education…..we were held accountable just as we HOLD accountable….there is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing saying students and their families shouldn’t be held accountable for their choices and educational aspirations….but yet if the motivation, support, educational gumption isn’t present in the students then the schools and teachers must be at fault? I cannot make them want to chew, savor, and digest the education I give them…they must also have that in them….I can’t do the assignments for them or spoon feed it to them to the point that there is no intelligent, original thought for them to savor…they must also have accountability in their readiness to move on to something bigger and better than a K-12 education….it’s time to put blame somewhere other than the over worked, underpaid educators because I refuse to allow my students to make excuses. Why are we, as a society and larger institution, making excuses for bigger issues at hand and worse accepting those excuses as status quo? We, in some way, decide what our definitions of success are….college readiness might be foreign words in those definitions because not everyone wants to see that as their futures….the world needs good button pushers too; so maybe instead of college ready we need to say society ready…read, write, vote, taxes, work for honest wages…those are definitions of success we need to hear about but seem to be deaf to when it comes to education!

  • Bruce Vandal says:

    What I find interesting is that policymakers assume that colleges are actually objective determiners of college readiness. The research from CCRC showing that upwards of 50% students currently placed into remediation could earn a C or better in college courses means that we should not assume colleges know whether students are college ready. Combine that with the overwhelming evidence that traditional remediation does not work – and you do need to think about the economic incentives for institutions vs. what is in the best interest of students.

  • Linda says:

    “1. Let’s be clear: Pell Grants don’t cause college readiness problems, but they do reveal them. The real blame lies with the combination of shoddy elementary and secondary schooling and, yes, students’ failure to prepare themselves for the rigors of college.”

    I deeply resent this accusation – children of poverty or who have faced marginalization due to race, ethnicity, poverty, etc – clearly face issues of which you have no clue. As a high school teacher, I work extremely hard trying to help students who are still struggling with mastering the English academic language, trying to work in family businesses, overcome personal challenges, or otherwise have no other family member to look to who has attended college. The worlds of Americans look very different depending on which side of the economic fence you exist. I have sought young men hiding out in the gym, when they were supposed to be studying with me – the message given to many of our youth is that they can become sports legends or rich musicians or land on some “real life” show on TV. The lies we put out to our youth are wide and deep – it is the fault of those in power who want to maintain an underclass, who want to divide the people at the bottom from fear they may unite and throw over those at the top. We need to tell them that our youth are more locked into the social class in which they were born than many other more “classist” societies. What have standards done? We want to encourage STEM or some other competitive program and we have our financial industry bilking the population out of billions of dollars and escaping jail. Maybe we need to have all students study philosophy, ethics, history in order to see that their actions have results. If we really believed in improving education, we would be sure that all children had access to free early childhood programs, we would ASK teachers for their opinions as to what would work to reduce the drop-out rate or improve reading skills or love math. But, who is asking the teachers? We do this work – everyone is so quick to correct us, to say how useless and stupid we are, but who will listen to what we know to be true and then support us as we use our talents to improve academic achievement. Who is measuring how well students enjoy or love learning? Who is measuring how well students keep going despite being knocked down? Who is helping teachers as they hold crying teenagers? What kind of adults do we want to create? Have all of the experts forgotten that we are raising human beings? Are we getting what we’re putting in – if we think of children as pawns to improve our economic standing, then that is what we will get.

    Don’t insult teachers who are doing the best they can. If we cared about money, we would have pursued another career – we do this because we enjoy working with young people. It is not because we get the summers off or vacations. We are not lazy, inept, pathetic or unprofessional.

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