Glimmers of Good Ideas from “Emerging Issues” Conference

Although the recent “Emerging Issues” conference at North Carolina State University missed the boat on the big issues, there were a few bright spots that education leaders ought to know about.

While many speakers contended that American higher education is “underperforming” because some other countries graduate more people from college, a few recognized that our educational problems begin long before college. Chancellor Charlie Reed of the California State University system, for example, focused on the need to improve the quality of students entering higher education. Reed said that many students are not taking the right courses and are often unprepared for college when they arrive on campus. Others never get to college at all because they don’t get “on track.”

Part of the problem, Reed argued, is that many students, parents, and even teachers are unaware of what students need if they are to enter college. Especially among poorer families in California, students can kill their chances of going to college before they’re even in high school.

To reduce that problem, Chancellor Reed said that his system is attempting to put key information about what is required to enter higher education in places where students, parents, and teachers are most likely to see it. That information is provided through a poster and Web site titled “How to Get to College.” It states what courses are required for admission, GPA requirements, and how to pay for college. It also provides a step-by-step guide on what students should do between sixth and twelfth grades to academically prepare for college.

CSU also has implemented efforts to test student assessment in the eleventh grade to gauge readiness for college. The Early Assessment Program focuses specifically on preparedness for college-level math and English. Once a student has taken the test, there is still time – the senior year – to improve skills before enrolling in college.

Chancellor Reed’s programs have only been in effect for a year and a half, but he says that they are paying off. The Cal State system is getting more students from targeted areas, students who otherwise might well have assumed “college isn’t for me.”

Another result of poor preparation is that among students who do graduate from high school and are eligible to enroll in college, many are so weak in the academic basics that they need remedial coursework in college to bring their math and language skills up to the minimum. Nationwide, more than $1 billion is spent on remedial education, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in her talk at the conference. In North Carolina, 9.5 percent of incoming UNC system students need to take one or more remedial education courses, according to the North Carolina State Plan for the American Diploma Project. That same report said 49 percent of entering North Carolina community college students take one or more remedial education course.

Secretary Spellings argues that colleges should not be in the remediation business. It increases costs and decreases the pressure on high schools to maintain adequate standards.

Former South Korean Education Minister Ja Song also shed some light on college preparation. He observed that in his country 97 percent of all students graduate from high school, compared to about 68 percent in the U.S. Furthermore, Korean schools strongly emphasize “the three R’s” so that their students are nearly all college-ready. The rigor of Korean K-12 education is something that the United States could and should emulate, but another factor can’t be copied – the high degree of support that virtually all Korean parents give to education. In the United States, many students get little or no encouragement at home and therefore don’t take school seriously.

Another controversial idea came up during the Q&A following University of Washington President Mark Emmert’s talk. Asked the price of in-state tuition at his university, he said that it’s $6,000 annually, and then hastened to add that he would like to see it significantly higher for students from wealthier families, along with more financial aid for poorer students.

Emmert’s idea is just the opposite of the prevailing philosophy in North Carolina, where our state Constitution says that tuition is to be kept “as low as practicable,” and many UNC leaders regard it as a sacred obligation to fight against tuition increases. The current tuition system ensures that students pay only a small fraction of the cost of their education, leaving most of the burden to the taxpayers. Students on average pay 18 percent of the total cost of a UNC education, according to a report presented by the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division during a briefing to legislators Tuesday.

That means that high-income families with children in UNC schools are being subsidized by taxpayers who earn far less. President Emmert said that he finds such an arrangement to be inequitable. The late UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Michael Hooker shared this same concern. He called it a “reverse Robin Hood scheme.”

“I find it ethically objectionable to have the working class of North Carolina subsidizing the education of the upper middle class,” Hooker wrote in 1998.

If UNC wanted to have more funds for programs similar to those now in place in the Cal State system, it could raise a lot just by charging what the market will bear at its flagship institutions.

Some ideas that are worth pondering.