08/13/2013 10:21 am ET | Updated Oct 13, 2013

The Educational Pipeline: Improving the Transition to College

I just finished reading Alex Klein's book, A Class Apart: Prodigies, Pressure, and Passion Inside One of America's Best High Schools, detailing the experiences of students and their families and teachers at the public, highly selective Stuyvesant High School in New York City. In a nutshell, it is extremely hard to get into this high school in the first instance, with some students preparing for years for the entry exam; then, the rigors of the experience are extraordinary as students often work on homework and projects deep into the night.

Obviously, the overwhelming majority of the Stuyvesant students graduate and most go on to highly selective colleges. According to some, this high school demonstrates meritocracy at work. As a college president at a private college where more than 45 percent of our student body is Pell eligible, faculty often lament the academic preparedness of our students. I began to wonder whether more "Stuyvesants" are the answer to what ails higher education.

I appreciate the academic standards of Stuyvesant (and other similar public and private high schools and boarding schools). But, contrary to popular belief, I do not think the main reason many vulnerable students struggle so much in college is rooted in lack of academic preparation and misalignment between high school standards and college demands. To be sure, more preparation is better than less, we need better alignment and we must address the alternatives to remediation.

Experience tells me that two of the most difficult issues for first-generation, Pell-eligible students are: a lack of belief in their own capacities (both intellectual and psycho-social) and the absence of parental and other adult role models who can encourage success throughout the educational pipeline.

Yes, Stuyvesant High School addresses these issues -- although the environment appears more competitive than compassionate. And, by accepting only 3 percent of the applicants -- including many well-heeled enrollees who meet the admissions criteria -- what works at Stuyvesant is not necessarily replicable in other high schools.

We would do well instead to focus on the educational pipeline from birth and early parenting through preschool, elementary, middle and then high school, fostering a love of learning, a belief in self (which is not a mainstay for low-income millennials) and resiliency -- the capacity to bounce forward (not backward) from traumas both large and small.

How we can improve the K-12 pipeline is not a simple question. But, I am confident that academic competitiveness, homework well into the night, anxiety-building tests and grades measured out two decimal points are not the answer for the majority of first-generation students.

First, we need to create a new cultural norm: being smart is a good thing. Then, we need to focus more on what are oft-termed the non-cognitive skills -- despite the fact that these skills are deeply cognitive and undeserving of pejorative connotations: self-worth, overcoming negative cognitive bias about one's capacities, and compassion. We need more mentoring and role modeling for vulnerable students, and vast and wide experiences in the arts, the world of sports and community engagement. Development of these skills will in turn enrich academic skills, creating a fertile ground for effective learning. And, let's not forget quality educational leadership -- from the earliest preschool programs all the way through college.

A Class Apart left me saddened. But, my experiences at Southern Vermont College and in Washington at the U.S. Department of Education have given me hope, exposing me to some remarkable educational institutions. To be sure, they are not Stuyvesant. But, take a look at Maple Street School in Manchester, Vt., a small K-8 private school with enrollment through vouchers of many low-income students, the Institute for Student Achievement's Academy for Young Writers, a small public high school within the large New York City School system, and Banneker Academic High School, a public high school in Washington, D.C.

Institutions like these, in my view, will benefit many more students than can be admitted to and succeed in Stuyvesant-like high schools across our nation. To play off the title of Klein's reference earlier, we need to find more effective ways to educate a "class together," an education that serves most students as opposed to all prodigies.