Gaming the College-Going System

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

With the push for 20 million more college graduates in America, there is increasing pressure on institutions to produce more degrees. As one might surmise, this is producing a “gaming” situation, where not all degrees will be alike.

First is the proposal from some to give anyone who has 120 credits, regardless of what credits they are, a bachelor’s degree. Second is the use of dual enrollment courses to give students college credit while in high school, with the goal of getting an associate’s degree very quickly.

While both arguments can be made, and while they would increase the number of “college graduates,” it certainly doesn’t do anything tangible to help the economy.

With regard to the former, a collection of credits for a bachelor’s program can be somewhat meaningless for the development of knowledge and expertise. If those credits have close enough academic links, then fine. But in many cases, perhaps most, they may be nothing more than a collection of “seat time” credits. That doesn’t make us more competitive. It just means we conferred more degrees.

Dual credit or enrollment is a more concerning issue. The issue of joint high school/college courses is puzzling. At the Advanced Placement level, I get that, because if students can take relatively high-end introductory college courses (e.g., Calculus A/B) in place of other high school courses, fine. But dual credit is not the same as AP. Dual credit is typically more common, lower-level courses, which begs this question: if students are able to take these college-level courses in high school, what does that say about the high school curriculum? Why have it at all?

If students can take dual credit courses and high schools can very conveniently show that they have matriculated more college graduates through, arguably, watered down dual credit offerings, what have we accomplished?

This conversation says two things: first, we must be very careful and mindful of public policy that introduces a gaming atmosphere into play. And second, we have to seriously think of what our high school curriculum is if we can just exchange college courses for it without too much thought. Perhaps high school, as we know it, is now completely antiquated? (it is definitely antiquated, but completely?)

Food for thought. Have a nice weekend.

2 thoughts on “Gaming the College-Going System

  1. Gaming the system? The tens of thousands of students who have been able to experience college and earn college credits with little or no cost to their families or society before they graduated from high school would most certainly disagree. Without offering any evidence to back up his assertion, Dr. Swail assails dual credit offerings as a “watered down” version of the courses taken by matriculated college students. While it is true that dual credit course quality and content are not held to a national standard, neither are courses taught on any college campus. In both cases, it is up to the colleges, universities or systems to monitor quality. Institutions do so by requiring the instructors teaching college courses to high school students to meet the same academic credentials as faculty teaching on a college campus. These institutions also oversee course syllabi, assessments, textbooks and grading policies.

    Several studies have shown a relationship between taking college courses as a dual enrollee and subsequent success in college, particularly for underrepresented students. For example, researchers found that New York City vocational high school students participating in dual enrollment were more likely than non-participants to enter BA college programs, have higher first-semester college GPA’s and to have earned more credit after three and a half years of starting college. Dual enrollment programs have the added advantage of building partnerships between high schools and institutions of higher education which allows for better alignment of courses from high school to postsecondary. 24 states have taken dual enrollment programs a step further by implementing early college designs to serve low-income, minority and first generation college-goers. Through the creation of specific pathways that extend high school through the first years of postsecondary education, providing free college credit and academic supports– this approach is producing impressive outcomes. In 2009, 44 percent of early college graduates overall earned a year or more of college credit. 86 percent enrolled immediately in postsecondary education. Providing young people with an on-ramp to college isn’t gaming the system, it is creating an opportunity that brings them one step closer to becoming productive members of society.

    Diane S. Ward
    Director of State Education Policy
    High School through College
    Jobs for the Future
    Boston, MA

    1. Thanks for the comment. Some courses “may” be watered down. But I still stand by my point. We have an unarticulated system that doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense.

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