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Dear President Obama: Want to Improve College? Fix High School First

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On Thursday over 100 college and university presidents met at the White House to confer with U.S. president Barack Obama on the complicated subject of America's slipping proficiency on helping its citizens attain college degrees, reports Politico. What they all agree on is that higher education is vital for America's continued strength as an economic powerhouse and that a college degree is still the surest path to attaining a middle-class lifestyle. As for everything else? Disagreements abound, with the White House wanting increased federal oversight of public college and university tuition and operations and the institutions themselves wanting to retain academic and operational freedom.

The feds want more Americans enrolled in college and more support for students to help them graduate. Colleges want more federal dollars to make this happen. Taxpayers worry about being asked to foot the bill. Many worry that there are too many college graduates already and that four-year degrees lack the value they once possessed.

Frequently, I have opined that less is more when it comes to higher education. I believe the United States has too many college graduates, which has effectively devalued four-year degrees and caused lower wages for too many Americans. We've increased the quantity of higher education but not the quality.

I do, however, support the notion of offering more support to qualified, hardworking students. I agree with the Obama administration that higher education should not be a "sink or swim" environment where new students are often left to their own devices regarding enrolling, registering, and figuring out complicated bureaucracies. Through personal experience I have seen just how not user-friendly, and even downright incompetent, colleges can be.

How do colleges and universities know, however, who qualifies as a successful, hardworking student?

The answer is easy: Have a tier of high school diplomas that indicate genuine college readiness.

Right now a high school diploma is a high school diploma. A teen who squeaks by regular, or even remedial, classes with a 69.5 average gets the same diploma as the teen who excels at Advanced Placement courses. Sure, the transcripts reveal the difference, but then a myriad of debates open up regarding point systems and resumes and college essays and whatnot. So why not simply encourage public high schools, which are much, much easier to reform than colleges, to do the legwork of indicating true college readiness?

First of all, it's something most teachers want to do anyway. Most teachers hate being encouraged to coddle underperforming students and give them a tacit stamp of college readiness and would relish the chance to duly recognize the hardworking students while giving the slackers a real goal. Too many students underperform because, as of right now, colleges and universities are too lax on admissions. "A diploma is a diploma and ___________ has open admissions, so why bother working harder?"

High school students will work harder if they know they need a "college-ready" diploma to gain admission to college. Their hard work will pay off when, having attained said diploma and gained entry to the college, they already have the necessary study skills and work ethic.

Secondly, high school will improve at the same time. Moving the "make it or break it" time for students to decide whether they want a college degree earlier will eliminate many problems faced by high schools. Many students may underperform in grades 9 and 10 because they figure they can "pull it out" later on and still get into college. A "college readiness" tier of high school coursework would require students to start out working hard and retain that rigor, ultimately leading to less adolescent hijinks in high school and more high school graduates who were truly ready to handle college-level work.

Third, it frees up college to remain college. Front-loading the expectations of academic rigor onto high school, provided it comes with allowing teachers a free hand to give real grades and allowing administrators the right to discipline and root out troublemakers, would prevent the watering-down of college education. Graduating young men and women from high school, as opposed to boys and girls, allows college to remain the domain of adults.

Fourth, having fewer "college ready" applicants forces colleges and universities to slim back down to their "fighting weight." Right now, the assumption is that virtually every high school graduate is college ready, allowing colleges to grant open enrollment and ask for massive government funding as a result. This puts taxpayers on the hook for subsidizing bloated colleges and universities where many of the students will drop out [with economy-sapping debt]. Telling public colleges and universities they can only admit college-ready applicants, as determined by tiered high school diplomas, would be simple and cost-effective.

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