As an imaginary leader of an imaginary party, I offer a response to the president’s proposal for free community college. His proposal is to have government cover the tuition costs for the first two years of community college as long as the students maintain a passing grade point average. This builds upon the benefits of compulsory high school and will have the effect of extending this education benefit for two additional years:
“Universal high school unleashed decades of innovation and talent that fueled growth, both in manufacturing but also in knowledge sectors,” says Josh Wyner, director of the College Excellence program at the Aspen Institute. ”So the notion that we’re extending universal education to the first two years of college is really kind of a moonshot idea. We know high school isn’t enough anymore.”
I agree with the last sentence but more from the perspective that the proposal will effectively add two more years to high school:
The problem is not that students aren’t getting enough college. The problem is that students aren’t getting enough education. America is spending a whole lot of tax dollars on subpar public schools.
High school performance in reading and math are very poor:
Seventy-four percent of students scored below the grade-appropriate level in math, compared with 26 percent of students who scored at or above grade level. […] In reading, just 38 percent of seniors scored at or above grade level.
These are rates of achieving expected levels of learning for the grade they are in. The reason why high school is not enough any more is because high school is failing to provide the level of education that once was considered to be sufficient.
Based on this dismal performance of high school education, it is not surprising that community colleges are struggling to provide remedial classes to prepare the students for college work.
Researchers say that remedial numbers have increased from nearly one-third of incoming college freshmen in 2001, to about 40 percent currently. The most common remedial — otherwise known as “developmental” — classes are math, English and writing, […] Experts also say that remedial coursework makes taxpayers pay twice — once for students to learn in high school, and again in college.
For free community college, the student’s cost is as equally free as their cost for high school. This will likely result in a similarly low commitment to learning as described in this article concerning college students in France:
During our conversations, my students told me that higher education has a low cost, essentially free, in France. Suddenly, I understood. Because they did not pay for their education, why would I expect them to value it? They certainly valued their cellphones. A student was inconsolable when his cell hone fell to the sidewalk and shattered.
Most students are able to pay for smart phone data plans and they value that service more highly than participating in education that is provided for free.
The promoters of free community college point out that high school is no longer sufficient to prepare students. I agree. The proposal to provide two years of free community college is one way to address the problem. Another solution is to fix the high school system so that it does a better job meeting their educational objectives.
Although the above discussion hints that two years of community college will be similar to two more years of high school, there is a significant difference. High school education is compulsory (otherwise called universal) while community college will be voluntary (though strongly encouraged). Community colleges may have an advantage over high schools even in terms of remedial education because participation in community college is voluntary. In particular, the students with no interest in further education will no longer be present to distract the system (both students and teachers) from the goals of education.
If this is a true advantage of community colleges, and I believe it is, then it suggests an alternative solution is to make publicly funded high school voluntary.
My proposal is to end compulsory education at the 8th grade before entering the the 4 year high school sequence. This proposal can achieve the same goals of improving the readiness of graduates of publicly funded education by making the high school attendance voluntary. High school will still be available and fully funded, but students can opt out of participating if they are not interested in the college preparation and frequent standardized testing toward that goal. The high schools will operate more efficiently with a student body consisting of primarily motivated students. Also, the high schools can impose more demanding testing and more challenging learning goals because they will no longer be encumbered by a large population of students who lack the motivation to learn. The result is that the four years can cover more material that likely would match whatever material that would be learned in the first two years of community college under the President’s proposal while keeping the current compulsory high school system.
My proposal would allow for tougher educational standards of high school that will discourage less academically inclined students from entering or continuing high school. My proposal will be to provide alternative training paths for these students so that they will continue to receive publicly funded education to advance their own career preparation for something more appropriate to their interests. These alternatives will avoid the college preparation and standardized testing of high school.
One alternative post-8th grade education path will be to fund trade school training to prepare students for specific jobs. This training may target the traditionally defined trades such as mechanics, welding, plumbing, carpentry, etc. I believe this training can also include information technology trades such as software coders and testers, or even data science skills of querying and reporting. These skills do not require college education or even college-preparation. These students would get a 4-year head start in their trade careers by not having to attempt to conform to expectations we current demand with standardized testing in high schools. The trade schools may have their own standards but they will include more emphasis on career-specific skills, practice, and problem solving they will never need in their careers. The training would not be burdened with the irrelevant advanced reading and math skills that would be needed for college education.
My proposal would also anticipate that some students may not even be motivated to attend a trade school. For these students, the education funding may be better invested as a subsidy to employers to employ these youths to give them the opportunity to build job skills through direct work experience. The subsidy will lower the employer’s cost of employment to give these students an opportunity to report to work. These students will receive pay that they can spend or invest as they like. That pay may be a reduced minimum wage given the expectation that they are not trying to support a family at that age and it will receive the subsidy of cost-per-student that otherwise would be spent on their high school education.
This proposal will produce a good sized population of high-school age students who are engaged in career-oriented training (either in trade school or directly hired). These students will benefit from the experiential approach to learning as I discussed earlier. Both paths will involve giving the students progressive but realistic tasks for them to solve using new skills that they will learn as they need them. The training will be on developing an unconscious intelligence of completing difficult tasks and on developing a habit to expect a need to acquire new skills when new problems come up. This experiential education is especially relevant to the trade-school and apprenticeship path.
However a similar learning opportunity can exist for those who choose to enter a low-skilled job immediately. The state may sponsor mentors or counselors to periodically check with these youths to see how the jobs are working out. The counselors can provide guidance for better coping skills for a routine job schedule or help develop job-search strategies for more appropriate jobs. The counselor can identify the individuals in this group who would better benefit by switching over the trade-school approach. Having a few months of work experience at a low-skilled job may help motivate the student to seriously consider a technical trade school instead of just working.
This proposal better benefits the full range of aptitudes of students in this age group. My primary motivation is to benefit high-school college-prep students by allowing them to avoid the distraction of peers who are not interested in academic training. However, I think this will have also have a huge benefit for the students who prefer a technical trade school approach because they will be able to start that training earlier and be able to take good jobs by the end of the four-year of public funding of their training and apprenticeships.
I suspect this approach will also benefit the last group who are not interested in either training paths because they will get an earlier appreciation of working a full work week in a low-skilled job. I suspect this experience will convince many to reconsider the options of pursuing one of the training tracks. The remaining ones will still benefit by having have good working skills to sustain jobs after the public-subsidizing is over. Realistically, their future prospects are not as bright as the other two paths, but they will probably face the same challenges under the current compulsory education model. This proposal gives them two advantages of having earlier experience of working and of having access to a counselor who can help them commit to one of the training paths.
There is an additional way that this proposal helps the least motivated group. By ending the compulsory education period at the 8th grade instead of the 12th, the standardized learning goals (such as common core) will need to accomplish its most important goals within this shorter period. This more compact compulsory period could result in more emphasis on achieving grade-level performance in reading and math. Although the goal is the 8th grade level instead of the 12th grade level, the outcome may be a higher percentage reaching the 8th grade level by the 8th grade than those reaching the 8th grade level by their 12th year in the current system. This will benefit all students: making the high-school track better prepared for high-school, the trade-school track better prepared for the trade training, and giving the direct-to-work track a better foundation than they otherwise would have.
Having the end of the compulsory education period end at the 8th grade will give more urgency to the students in the 6th-8th grades to learn the material. Also for students in these grades, they will see the nearness of the end of the compulsory education as a goal they can get excited looking forward to reaching. This excitement will coincidentally encourage them to learn more and that will make them more likely to choose to continue the voluntary portion of training in high school or in the trade schools.
In contrast, in the current compulsory 12 year school model, the 6th-8th graders lack that anticipation of a near goal of liberation. To these students, they may be discouraged by the knowledge that the schooling will continue for 6 to 4 more years. This discouragement of graduation being so far off may be a major cause for the reduced educational progress of the middle years. Having the compulsory period end at the 8th grade gives them a nearer goal to look forward to.
In summary, I agree that the current school system is not doing a good job preparing high school graduates who are well equipped to enter the job market. However, instead of extending high school for two more years through publicly funded community college, a better approach may be to end the compulsory education period at the 8th grade and then allow the educational benefits of voluntary continued studies to apply to high school years instead of waiting for the community college years. Our once more excellent high-school education was damaged by making high school universal (making it compulsory). We can restore that quality education by returning it to voluntary and provide alternative paths for those who decide they are not interested in the academic/college-prep track.