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Patricia McGuire

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College Is Not for Everyone

Posted: 01/09/12 01:05 PM ET

College is not for everyone. But everyone should be a lifelong learner.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown is right to want every pupil in the D.C. Public Schools to aspire to the highest possible levels of learning. However, the specifics of his new bill -- "The College Preparation Plan Act of 2012" mandating SAT tests and at least one college application in order to graduate from high school -- need some work.

For more than two decades as Trinity's president, I have worked to promote broad access to higher education for all students who can succeed in college, including historically marginalized D.C. students. At Trinity, we educate more D.C. residents than any other private university in the nation -- nearly 1,200 D.C. students, one third of whom live "east of the river" in the most impoverished sections of the city -- so we know a great deal about the educational challenges as well as successes in our community.

The proposed legislation mandates that students must take two very specific actions in order to graduate from high school --- taking the SAT and submitting at least one college application. Imposing requirements that could block diploma achievement, while providing no financial support for the real costs of the mandates, is unlikely to encourage those D.C. students who have not considered college to think more enthusiastically about that option.

The D.C. Council should consider these five issues as it deliberates on the College Preparation Act:

1. Do not mandate the SAT test as a condition for graduation: many colleges and universities, including Trinity, no longer require the SAT test for admission. The SAT is not particularly useful for students from academically and economically impoverished backgrounds whose schools did not provide (and families could not afford) SAT coaching. Instead, we evaluate the students' readiness for college based on our analysis of total high school academic performance, the strength of the high school, guidance counselor recommendations, interviews and the seriousness of purpose that the student expresses in her essay and other materials.

Legislators might also consider the fact that SATs historically have been a way of keeping students out of college -- and many elite schools may still use them as cut-off points. D.C. SAT scores are the lowest in the Washington region. Mandating the SAT could have the opposite effect from what the legislation intends -- rather than encouraging college attendance, the results might further discourage already-marginalized students.

2. Beware the revolution of rising expectations: some students are simply not ready for higher education when they graduate from high school; the proposed legislative mandates will hardly change that fact, though they may well turn college enrollment into an entitlement regardless of ability, preparation or desire. We already see too many students who believe that they deserve a degree simply for showing up -- that's how some got their high school diplomas. If we are going to improve college outcomes in the U.S., we have to stop treating college like a toaster -- money and students popped in, ready-to-work employees popping out on a timer.

High school students certainly need a game plan for life beyond graduation day. For some of those students, the plan will be full-time work, volunteer or military service, or enrollment in a non-collegiate credentialing program. Requiring high schools to have pro-active counseling programs for postsecondary life makes more sense than mandating college applications.

3. Create a needs-based student financial assistance program for D.C. students: One of the great success stories in promoting higher aspirations for D.C. students is the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, and its private partner in the D.C. College Access Program. Launched in a decade ago with the leadership of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and a coalition of private business leaders (including Washington Post Chairman Donald Graham), D.C. TAG and D.C. CAP provide tangible grant and advising support, leading to the enrollment of thousands more D.C. students in college than might have otherwise been able to pursue higher education during the last decade.

However, these grant programs are not based on the financial need of students, and they are not nearly enough to support the collegiate expenses of the most impoverished students in our city who are the targets of the proposed legislation. The D.C. TAG grants do not support non-collegiate postsecondary education, nor adults starting or resuming college studies. Moreover, D.C. TAG grants have not increased since their inception ten years ago, while college tuition has increased every year.

Trinity provides extremely generous grants for D.C. students, on average 40% of tuition. Even with the expenditure of nearly $5 million in grants and discounts for D.C. students last year, the "unmet need" of our full-time D.C. students after all financial aid awards exceeded $3 million, and more than 60% had no "expected family contribution" to their college costs according to the federal formula.

4. Adopt a more contemporary view of postsecondary learning and collegiate participation: the vast majority of college students today -- about 75% according to U.S. Department of Education statistics -- are "non-traditional" by age, part-time student status, work and family obligations, and time to degree completion. The idea of college as a full-time residential experience for 18- to 22-year-olds went out with flower children and trust funds. Today, the vast majority of college students pay their own way (usually with federal loans and grants, along with state aid and private scholarships) and work while taking classes, often attending several colleges and universities over a period of years on the way to earning credentials and degrees.

5. Get serious about adult education and encourage lifelong learning: A few years ago, a Gates Foundation-funded study entitled "Double the Numbers" claimed that only 9% of the city's ninth graders would graduate from college "on time" meaning on a traditional collegiate timetable -- entering college right after high school and finishing five years later.

What happens to the other 91%? They become adults and parents, with some still actively learning on non-traditional timetables while others remain under-educated. Some estimates put D.C.'s adult illiteracy rate at one-third or higher; yet, there seems to be little political or philanthropic interest in supporting adult education, which is a major gap in the city's educational reform efforts. Many studies show that academic success through college completion is directly related to parental education levels. The best way to ensure a child goes to college is to educate his mother. Really! If we want the youth of D.C. to be successful college graduates, we should focus more resources on getting their parents to become active lifelong learners.

Kwame Brown is right to make high academic achievement a large goal for the District of Columbia. Such a goal is best fulfilled with a large view of well-funded postsecondary education opportunities across a lifetime of learning and growth for each student.

 

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