Does College Matter? Of Course

Our guest author today is Stanley Litow, adjunct professor at Duke and Columbia Universities. At Duke, he also serves as Innovator in Residence. He previously served as Deputy Schools Chancellor for New York City and is President Emeritus of the IBM Foundation and a member of the Albert Shanker Institute Board of Directors.

Over the last 35 years, since the release of A Nation At Risk, the nation has focused on the need for school reform and used high school graduation rates as the single most important benchmark for measuring educational success. This is somewhat ironic, given that high school attendance in the U.S. was not made mandatory until the end of the Second World War. Before that, virtually every state had a requirement for school attendance from grade one through grade eight, but high school attendance, just like college attendance now, was strictly voluntary. Of course, in the first half of the 20th century, significant numbers of  well paying jobs in manufacturing and other areas of work only required an eighth grade education. Beginning in the 1970s and into 1984 and over the following three decades, the number of good jobs with competitive wages that were available to those who had only completed eighth grade began a precipitous decline. For many years, it has been clear that a high school diploma or higher is absolutely essential to achieving a pathway to a middle class life. America's response to the challenge of raising the percentage of high school graduates was far from perfect, but with exceptions, we have seen a steady increase in high school graduation rates in most though not all states. Beginning in the early years of the 21st Century, however, changes in the U.S. economy have made it crystal clear that high school diplomas, while still extremely important, are not enough to enable most Americans to achieve the “middle-class dream.”

In this light, the recent report, "Building a Grad Nation," is an important read. It documents the progress that the nation has made in higher high school graduation rates—the overall high school graduation rate showed an increase from 79 percent in 2011 to close to 85 percent by 2017. This statistic represents an increase of 3.5 million U.S. students who graduated from high school instead of dropping out over the last 15 years.

But perhaps most important, the rates for low income students and students of color actually have made the most progress of late. Here are the results: Graduation rates for Hispanic students reached 80 percent, up from 71 percent six years earlier; for African American students, graduation rates reached 78.3 percent, up from 67 percent six years earlier. Of course, there have been some bumps in the road. The report states that there are 2,357 high schools in the U.S. with graduation rates below 67 percent, including far too many schools and districts with high school graduation rates that are significantly lower. For example, according to this report, the Rochester Public Schools, once a pathway to successful careers at Kodak, have a four-year graduation rate of 40 percent. So, although the data on high school graduation rates are encouraging, they also beg a range of other questions.

This good news needs to be juxtaposed against the fact that an overwhelming majority of well-paying new jobs require more than a high school degree; they require a post secondary degree or post-graduate certification. The Bureau of Labor statistics confirms that, in 2018, nine out of every ten new jobs created required a college degree. This is juxtaposed against a decline in the new job opportunities that require only a high school diploma or less. Based on continuing changes in the workforce, we can expect this trend to continue, driving a clear economic wedge between those who have a postsecondary degree and those who do not. And, while there has been a large amount of focus on college affordability and the need to address the challenge of college debt, there is another issue that has gotten far too little attention, although most educators understand it very well. It is called college readiness. Sadly far too many students with a high school diploma are just not college ready. For example, it is estimated that 40 percent of U.S. students who have registered for college are required to take non-credit bearing remedial courses. These rates are even higher for African American students, at 56 percent. The costs of this are staggering, and it should be no surprise that students taking remedial courses have drop out rates that are extremely high. 

In addition, overall college completion, largely driven by lack of college readiness, has stagnated. The four-year college completion rates at public colleges is about 33 percent. Many colleges have completion rates that are a lot lower, and rates are still lower for low income students and students of color. Of course, there are also examples of public colleges with rates are significantly higher. For example, at SUNY Binghamton, the 4-year college completion rate is 68.7 percent, and at both SUNY New Paltz and SUNY Buffalo it exceeds 50 percent. But we need many more such examples.

Thirty-five years after A Nation At Risk, we need to focus with laser-like attention on a solution to the college completion crises, ensuring that far more U.S. students—regardless of income, race, or zip code—are college ready, and can successfully complete a degree that gives them a clear pathway from school, to college, to career.

There are a few bright spots. For example, P-TECH, an innovative grade 9 to 14 combined high school and college program, is an example of what we can do differently to achieve higher results. Although this public-private model is open enrollment, with no admissions screening whatsoever, its results are extraordinary. The first P-TECH school opened in 2011 in New York City. The college completion rates for African American female students within the six-year program from grade 9 to 14 exceeded 80 percent, and for African American male students it approached 70 percent. As the model was replicated across New York State, across the nation and among countries outside the U.S., graduation and achievement data has been consistently positive. At the P-TECH school in Newburgh, New York, at the end of year four, students who graduated the six-year program in four years (not six) represented two-thirds of the cyber security graduates at SUNY Orange Community College. At the program in Norwalk, Conn., at the end of year five (one year early), close to 50 percent of students had already completed their associate's degrees. 

Importantly, because the program requires private sector partners who provide mentors and paid internships, students who have successfully completed their degrees are first in line for available jobs at partnering companies.  At IBM, one of the partner companies that actually helped to design P-TECH, dozens of graduating students have already been hired with starting salaries over $50,000 a year. However, most students who complete the program with an associate's degree go on and get their bachelor’s degree.  And significantly, unlike a range of educational “innovations,” P TECH enjoys strong support from teachers unions, principals unions, a bipartisan set of governors and hundreds of business leaders. Although there will be 200 such schools by the fall of 2019, potentially serving over 100,000 students, it is not nearly enough to serve the need.

Thirty-five years after A Nation At Risk, our nation’s education system still remains at risk. But that need not be the case. We need to focus on data, such as the data contained in "Building a Grad Nation." Based on that data, we need to focus on solutions, like P-TECH, that demonstrate success and commit to making the necessary investments needed to bring these solutions to scale and make them sustainable. Sadly, far too many education issues and potential solutions in the recent past have resulted in more division and less progress. We need to get moving in the right direction.