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Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 08:00 am

Crisis in college education

In early November, I traveled with a colleague from Jacksonville to Mobile, Ala., to present a paper at the National Symposium on Student Retention (NSSR).

Mobile is a proud city that has endured cycles of decline and prosperity. Beautiful historical buildings sit beside crumbling commercial properties. Wealthy people share sidewalks with impoverished addicts.

Academic events like NSSR rarely appear on the evening news because they challenge popular stereotypes. The people at NSSR believe in data and empirical evidence; they believe in acting upon demonstrated truths.

A common narrative emerged in conversations with employees from large universities, large community colleges, and small colleges. Ask our manufacturing corporations whether the story sounds familiar: ferocious global competition, resistance to reforms, employee layoffs, no cost-of-living or pay increases for years, incoming students with weaker skills, outgoing students facing demoralizing job markets, and doing more with less.

This tale of woe emerged from the world’s best higher education system. A. Lee Fritschler, a former assistant secretary for postsecondary education, described our system in a speech at Illinois College as “the envy of the world.” Fareed Zakaria, in The Post-American World, described it as “America’s best industry.” “With 5 percent of the world’s population,” Zakaria writes, “the United States absolutely dominates higher education.” China and many other countries have not caught us yet.

The paradox, though, is that the six-year graduation rate for U.S. higher education is only 56.1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Since 56.1 percent is too low for our country to remain prosperous, many hard-working people are trying to raise the national average. They are political leaders, administrators, professors, teachers, advisors and tutors who believe that all students can learn.

But no leader, no citizen, should assume that complete curriculum overhaul is easy; it’s the equivalent of a corporation changing its entire product line and every employee’s job description while adding market share.

Political leaders who demonize schoolteachers should attend this symposium. This basic training might reduce their pandering to our decadent culture’s distracted citizens.

Academic researchers know that standardized test scores are not destiny. Your child’s high school GPA, the quality of the classes he takes and the teachers she learns from, his reading skills and comfort with reading, her work ethic, and his ability to stand up after he falls down (resiliency) are reliable predictors of whether your child will earn a college degree.

But standardized test scores – particularly the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks – predict how well students might do during their first semester of college. You can read a full explanation in “The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2010” (www.act.org).

ACT’s Benchmarks predict a student’s chance to pass entry-level courses in core subjects. “[A] College Readiness Benchmark,” reports ACT, “is the minimum score needed on an ACT subject-area test to indicate a 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75 percent chance of obtaining a C or higher in the corresponding first-year credit-bearing college course.” In 2010, only 24 percent of ACT-taking students met all four benchmarks.

A solution? Children must take four years of English, mathematics, social sciences and natural sciences during high school; schools must deliver good courses; and political leaders must provide the resources and accountability that schools need.

“Here is what American society looks like today,” Nicholas Lemann writes in The Big Test. “A thick line runs through the country, with people who have been to college on one side of it and people who haven’t on the other.”

Did we need the Great Recession to highlight this fact about the post-manufacturing U.S. economy?

Nick Capo is associate professor of English at Illinois College in Jacksonville. Contact him at ncapo@ic.edu.

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