2016 Presidential Elections

May 18, 2016

The following post originally appeared on Medium, here.

By Michael Dannenberg

To the extent issues actually are debated this election year, we can expect the candidates to spend time on college affordability.  It polls as a top-tier, middle class issue. Democrats, led by Hillary Clinton, will call for massive increases in student financial aid.  We can expect Republicans led by Donald Trump to call for an expanded number of higher education providers to increase supply and drive down price. Both are needed, but going forward what the candidates should pay special attention to is high school academic preparation because it’s inextricably linked to college affordability.

Today, the typical bachelor’s degree graduate takes more than five years to complete a degree instead of four. One in four rising college freshmen, including a high percentage from middle class families, need to take and pay for remedial courses that regularly don’t toward a college degree. Worst of all, nearly one in two postsecondary students overall will dropout.  They’ll be left with debt and no degree.

Imagine how much cheaper and better an investment college could be if students were prepared for college-level coursework on Day 1 and graduated in four years instead of five. It can happen on a widespread basis, but it requires commitment and improvement in both high schools and institutions of higher education.

On behalf of Education Reform Now, Mary Nguyen Barry and I recently analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education to quantify how much those leaks in the K12 to college pipeline cost families nationally. Our results have been cited by leading Democrats and Republicans, media outlets, and education experts.

After all financial aid is received, families still pay more than $1.5 billion a year out-of-pocket for postsecondary remedial or what is more diplomatically called “developmental” education. These are courses like “Basic Algebra” and “Introduction to Writing” that teach content and skills that should have been learned in high school.

1.5 Billion College Infographic


There are at least two eye-opening findings. First, the college remediation phenomenon is not limited to poor kids. According to U.S. Department of Education data, nearly half of recent high school graduates required to take extra remedial courses at the “higher” education level come from middle-class, upper middle-class, and wealthy families (i.e. suburban school districts). Second, nearly half of postsecondary remedial students are taking classes in colleges other than community colleges (e.g. four year public and private colleges).

Families making more than $115,000 a year sending their kids to nonprofit, private four-year colleges pay an extra $12,000 each for content they should have learned in high school. Remedial students pursuing a bachelor’s degree at that class of colleges are 74 percent more likely to dropout than those not in need of remediation.

What do we do? Instead of college educators and high school educators pointing fingers at each other for the under preparation, high costs, and the college dropout problem, we need a two-pronged approach to improvement.

High schools need to be more academically rigorous and colleges need to change the way they teach students who come in behind. And both need to be held accountable for results.

Almost all high school students should get a rigorous course of study – whether based on Common Core standards or not – aligned with requirements to enroll in credit-bearing, entry level college classes. School districts should make sure rigorous courses are equally available to all students with supplemental support and instruction for some kids where necessary.

Colleges need to guarantee first and second year students that once they declare a major, all required courses will be available to them so they can graduate on time. And colleges need to redesign the way they deliver remedial education and accompanying support services like extra tutoring so students aren’t financially penalized for failures of their high schools.

It’s a vice not a virtue for colleges to accept underprepared students who pay to attend and then under-deliver the education services those students need to succeed. If colleges don’t improve their offerings and success rates, then they should have to pay for at least a small portion of the relevant student’s cost. Risk sharing would push colleges to change. Currently, almost all the risk for failure and delayed time to degree is on taxpayers and students.

If we raise the likelihood of students of completing a degree, help them graduate in four years instead of five, and have colleges return a small portion of unsuccessfully used government subsidies, the public would save billions that could be reinvested in improved K-12 and higher education.

It’s past time we see that K-12 schools and colleges are intertwined. The resources and reform paths to improving both are intertwined as well.


#NotReadyForCollege Infographic from Education Post

Final-Not-Ready Infographic