Opinion and Forefront

HARRIS: Far too many students still aren't ready for college

September 29, 2012

David HarrisQUESTION: What does it mean for students to be college-and-career ready?

ANSWER: In Indiana and other states, we face a sobering reality: Far too few students are prepared for college-level coursework.

That reality diminishes many students’ chances of completing college and transitioning into stable careers. It also threatens the prosperity and strength of our country and its residents. And it provides compelling evidence that our K-12 education system faces serious challenges—and addressing those challenges is among the most important issues our society faces today.

It’s easy for those of us who are working in K-12 education—whether in the classroom, the innovation arena or the policy sector—to focus on the immediate outcomes we associate with schools’ quality and effectiveness: graduation rates, test scores and college enrollment figures.

It’s critically important to focus on those metrics. But we can’t lose sight of the meaning behind them: to prepare all students for life success.

That means providing an excellent education so that college is an option for every student—and so that students who go on to college or other postsecondary studies are equipped to complete their education and settle into careers.

In too many instances, K-12 education is failing to do that.

According to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education’s 2012 strategy, “Reaching Higher, Achieving More,” two-thirds of all 2011 Indiana high school general diploma graduates and 38 percent of Core 40 graduates who enrolled in an Indiana public college within a year of graduation required college remediation. And students who require remediation are less likely to finish college. Most never earn a degree, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, and just one in four earns a degree within six years.

It’s no surprise, then, that only 28 percent of Indiana’s four-year college students graduate in four years and just slightly more than half graduate in six years, according to the commission.

This is particularly problematic in today’s economy. A 2010 report by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce showed that the share of U.S. jobs requiring post-secondary education has surged from 28 percent in 1973 to 59 percent in 2008. It is expected to grow to 63 percent by 2018.

The Georgetown study estimates 22 million new college degrees will be needed by 2018—and our nation will fall at least 3 million degrees short.

That means millions of workers will be locked out of jobs that pay middle-class wages because they’re insufficiently educated. And our economy as a whole will suffer as employers with a demand for highly skilled workers could find their needs unmet.

To change that paradigm, we need to increase the number of students who are prepared to go to college and fully equipped to complete their degree.

It’s not just up to those working in the K-12 system to address its pressing challenges. Those in higher education also must be part of the solution.

As noted in the Indiana Commission for Higher Education’s strategy, “Indiana’s higher education community must engage with the K-12 system to ensure that post-secondary expectations for students are clear and that the future educators prepared by Indiana colleges are prepared to be effective teachers and administrators. It’s worth noting that the state’s higher education institutions trained more than 90 percent of the teachers currently working in Indiana’s K-12 classrooms today.”

We can’t wait any longer to answer this call to action. The future of our economy—and the quality of life for millions of our residents—depends upon it.•

• Harris is CEO of The Mind Trust, a not-for-profit focused on K-12 education reform in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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