The United States loses too many students between high school and college. Even students who have successfully completed the college preparatory curriculum still find themselves taking remedial classes for math or English Language Arts upon entering college. About half of those entering community colleges and 20 percent entering four-year universities are channeled into remedial courses because they are not prepared to do college-level work. We should not be sanguine about the ability of the Common Core State Standards to close these gaps, as much of higher education has been indifferent to their development.
It may be instructive to look at how other countries are solving these problems. In Ireland, college participation and completion rates for young adults have surpassed their American counterparts. All Irish students take the “Leaving Certificate” examination in six subject areas, including compulsory English, Irish and math. The results of these exams sort students into either the universities or the Institutes of Technology. It seems harsh, but the results speak for themselves: Comparatively more students in Ireland than in the United States finish their postsecondary programs. As recently as 1960, only 10 percent of Irish young people attended any type of postsecondary education; today 65 percent of them do. They hope to increase this number to 72 percent by 2020. In the United States, only about 68 percent of high school graduates attend any type of postsecondary education and that number has slipped from 72 percent in 2009.
Other policies have helped propel Ireland ahead of the United States, including a centralized admissions process that sorts students into academic programs of study early in their college programs. Again, it appears rigid, but students end up in areas in which they will likely succeed, rather than roaming about the curriculum for two years before declaring a major. Additionally, Irish lawmakers believed that raising educational attainment levels was so important that it instituted a “free fees” model for higher education in 1996 that financed most of college costs for students. Other policy levers have made a difference too: limiting public subsidies so it is more expensive to finish in more than four years and funding only full-time students. In addition, the government provides “maintenance grants” to pay for the cost of living for low-income students.
Does this mean that the United States should mindlessly replicate Irish policies? Of course not; even Ireland is having a great deal of difficulty in maintaining the finance part of their model since the collapse of the housing market in 2008. But it does mean that policies that link the curriculum between high school and college, combined with clear academic and vocational pathways and backed with a financial strategy, can have a powerful impact. Our challenge is to learn these lessons, translate them into our current context, and achieve results that help students and the nation develop one of its greatest assets—the education of the next generation.
Photo Credit: Education Travel Adventures