Ready, Set, Graduate

As American higher education begins to adapt to the changes that engulf it, one basic assumption must be that policymakers and educators see the education system in America as a continuum.

For the moment, educators divide into two basic camps: basic and postsecondary. Each group has issues and opportunities, sometimes interrelated, but each approaches them from a distinctly different vantage point. Further, these approaches shape how both groups market and communicate their programs, lobby for their needs, and account for their successes.

Add into the mix local politics, state policies, federal mandates, unions, and the concerns of parents and other interested groups — among numerous other stakeholders — and the complexity of a decentralized system becomes obvious.

Yet the beauty of American education is also hidden in this confusion. The historical development of a diverse education system is also the basis of its strength. Independent education is tax-exempt in large part because it relieves taxpayers of the burden of educating everyone, and in doing so, offers a cost-effective alternative to taxpayers.

The capacity of students and their families to choose how they are educated is part of the genius built into the system. Choice works when all of the options — including support for public education — are robust.

Educators have been less successful in providing access for American students. Access creates the pathway that makes choice possible. Ideally, education should be a series of seamless transitions between various levels and complexities of learning. What has happened in America, however, is that access has become a fundamental stumbling block for students seeking to learn and to advance themselves.

A Closer Look at ‘Readiness’

There are many reasons for the problem, including familial, cultural, social, financial, programmatic, and bureaucratic. At the end of the experience, however, the most serious is a problem in readiness.

Readiness means different things to different educators. The heart of the problem lies typically, however, in the expectations that are placed upon students by senior-division educators.

At one statewide meeting of independent college and university presidents in the Northeast recently, for example, the president of a highly selective institution suggested that he loved transfers of two-year graduates. He found, however, that they were unprepared for the rigor of reading assignments common at the school.

In STEM discipline discussions, other groups of educators warned of the difference in expectation between Calculus I at two-year levels and the expectations that having completed Calculus I successfully might have at senior institutions.

If you divorce the problem from the preciousness that sometimes emerges in these conversations, the senior-level educators make a good point. If we all want access for American students, when is the student ready to travel down the pathway successfully? Put another way, how can we create readiness to remove remedial education — with attendant costs — from the vocabulary of access?

The problem exists in part because in a decentralized system, in which faculty control the academic program, the rules change among institutions and sometimes even within an institution. Institutions differ by type, program, culture, and governance structure. The genius that created a system based on choice also limits access.

The solution must be drawn from three guiding principles: readiness, collaboration, and assessment.

Putting the Student First

In fairness — especially to the student — students moving along a pathway must be ready for what awaits them around the corner. To do so, they must have a clear understanding of the expectations placed upon them. Putting the student first, individualizing the pathway to meet the expectations, and addressing what it will take to craft a climate for student success can move the student along. It requires a collaborative mentorship and a genuine partnership between institutions to convey clear expectations.

In short, collaboration at the outset is the best chance for additional readiness training to replace remedial education. Woven into the fabric of a new readiness model must be a rigorous assessment protocol. Isn't it better for the student to be ready than to be treated as remedial, particularly when four-year colleges and universities strive to increase their persistence rates?

The other piece to consider, of course, is how to ready the student for the continued journey. It is at this juncture that technology, informed by the “high touch” of mentors, may come to the rescue. While the systemic problems within basic education and the transformation of higher education to blended models of learning reflective of how students acquire knowledge today may take time, we can employ technology to transform and dramatically improve readiness.

This may be a place where common ground exists between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. If the standards for reading, writing, communicating, and applying quantitative methods are understood as prerequisites for access to a four-year degree, the for-profit sector can develop the high-tech/high-touch solutions in a business model that works.

It may be that we don't need better students. What we need instead as a country is to prepare them better to advance. If we look around, higher education may be able to find new partners to help students achieve access. To do so, the new approach should be: ready … set … graduate.

In the end, the student is the winner.

Brian C. Mitchell formerly served as president of Bucknell University and Washington & Jefferson College. He currently serves as the president of Brian Mitchell Associates and a director of the Edvance Foundation.