Climbing the “College Ladder”

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

I have a pet peeve. And it involves all those state and provincial coalitions or organizations or strategies that use the term “K-20.” The “K-20” partnerships, like those found in GEAR UP and other programs, which are supposed to engage practitioners at the secondary and postsecondary levels to provide a seamless transition and opportunity for students, make postsecondary education more or less inevitable.

I apologize in advance for those organizations that are making a good go of it. And I’m sure there are plenty (and please email me with that information for my very, very short list) of school districts and local-area colleges that are doing a magnificent job. But I’m thinking that most of them are a sham. After researching these and related issues for the past 15 years, I don’t see much of a collaborate effort. But “K-20” sure sounds good.

This past September, the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) released a compendium of programs (The College Ladder) that afford students the opportunity to pursue their postsecondary education while in high school. Now, this is K-20 from my vantage point, because students, either with counseling or self-counseled, choose to pursue these options. These “SPLOs,’ or “Secondary-Postsecondary Learning Options,” as coined by AYPF, include programs such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Dual Enrollment, Tech Prep, and early college programs.

Okay, These programs are important, not just for the elite of our high schools, but for all students to gain an idea that the twelfth grade isn’t the end of the road. The problem we have in many schools is that students often see their senior year as a waste of their time. By the start of the senior year for some students, the SAT/ACTs have been written (in the US), the college visits have occurred, and they are already focused on where they are going. Others, of course, haven’t a clue by March of their senior year.

True K-20 systems would reduce this waste of human resource and engage students to an educational process linked to their future career. If you ask most secondary students, they don’t quite see how their education is relevant to the real world. How does struggling through trigonometry help someone who is more of a liberal arts type? Of course, you and I know that high-level mathematics is about critical analysis and thinking, but youth don’t get that. So there exists this struggle to make high school relevant, and having a systematic linkage to postsecondary options–including workforce and trade options–is particularly important for at-risk students–those students who particularly don’t see the utility of a good education (assuming they have access to a “good” education).

These SPLOs can be an important component of the educational process, and provide four important opportunities for students. First, they provide an opportunity for students to visualize their future. Students who take these types of courses or programs aren’t looking at today–they’re looking well beyond their high school diploma, and that’s a good thing. It makes high school matter. Second, SPLOs offer students an insight into what postsecondary education is like. Students gain a better understanding of the rigor required and can develop those skills in a safe, less-threatening environment. In many cases, students can get the chance to take these courses on a college campus. Third, students typically get college credit for these courses, reducing the number of credits required while actually in college, reducing the time-to-degree for students.

I remember attending the Advanced Placement Awards Program at the College Board’s National Forum several years ago. If you ever want to work on your inferiority complex, attend one of these events. The kids they put on stage will knock your socks off (and I wrote “sox” the first draft, so there you go). Some of these high schoolers had taken 15—yes, 15 Advancement Placement courses and tests. What does that mean? These students enter college as sophomores—half way through their sophomore year. Now, this isn’t the average student, quite obviously. But for other students, if they can take 1 or 2 dual enrollment programs, they get a leg up on their postsecondary education. And this leads to the fourth reason. By taking SPLOs, students reduce the cost of postsecondary education because their time in PSE is reduced, as per the AP example above. And that reduces the stress on the student, parent, institution, and taxpayer.

I hope we get to a place where K-20 is real and tangible. I don’t see it yet, but perhaps some readers will enlighten me. I’m still at a place where I bristle when I hear some policymaker or administrator extolling the virtues of their K-20 program. A quick peek behind the wizard’s curtain reveals the same old stuff, typically. But in lieu of this, let’s hope that these SPLOs can continue to gain ground and revolutionize our high schools, making them more relevant for all.

If you’re interested in this topic area, please join us today at 1pm for EPILive on the web, featuring AYPF’s Betsy Brand and Jennifer Lerner, plus Daniel Voloch of the College Now program at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. We’ll be talking about “The College Ladder” publication and implications for youth policy. Click here to sign up for today’s free web-based event. And join us next week (March 9) for a conversation about diversity and affirmative action with Proposition 209 architect Ward Connerly and legal analyst Art Coleman of Holland and Knight LLC.

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