Thursday, April 29, 2010

College the New High School?

Long ago, American society decided that high school graduation represented the minimum amount of education to get a decent job. It used to be a person could graduate from high school and make a living. My childhood milkman (anyone remember those) graduated from high school and got a job with Foremost where he worked until he retired. He lived comfortably, bought (and paid off) a house two blocks from the nicest neighborhood in town, and saved enough to create a trust fund for his disabled daughter. He successfully kept his family smack dab within the middle class, all on “just” a milkman's salary, with just a high school education. His wife never worked outside the home.

Today, statistics show that a student with just a high school education has a slim chance of being able to support a family within the middle class. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) recently released a report which says, among other things, that California needs educated workers and the high schools are not producing them. PPIC is calling for updates to California's Master Plan for Higher Education.

Currently the master plan establishes the top 12.5 percent of the state's high school graduates as eligible to attend the 10-campus University of California system, and the top 33 percent as eligible for the 23-campus California State University system. The PPIC projects a shortage of educated workers by 2025. High schools are not keeping up, but we have known that for a long time. Parents, teachers and guidance counselors have been advising students forever that if they want a decent job, one that will accomplish for their lives what my milkman's job accomplished for his, they had better graduate from college. High school has been insufficient for a long time.

So the PPIC proposes changing the Master Plan.

Eligibility goals for the CSU and UC systems should be gradually increased to new levels by
2025. The share of the state’s high school graduates eligible for UC should grow from the
top 12.5 percent to the top 15 percent of high school graduates. The share eligible for CSU
should grow from the top 33.3 percent to the top 40 percent.

Of course, California should expand college eligibility. In fact, PPIC”s recommendations may not go far enough. What with college being the new high school, everyone needs to go to college. If only it were so simple. Keeping students in school another four years effectively postpones childhood, an untenable position. Even now, since the age of majority was reduced to 18 mostly to classify soldiers in the Vietnam war as adults, college from age 18 to 23 is a strange limbo where children may be called adults while unready for adult responsibilities.

Because any decent job requires college graduation just as decent jobs used to require high school education, college must be part of public education. We, as a society, have been down this road before. There was a time when an eighth grade education was sufficient, but when the necessity for high school was recognized, high school became publicly funded. College occupies the same place now.

What happens when college graduation cannot get you a decent job, say around the year 2075? Perhaps we need to get serious about upgrading high school---and junior high---and elementary school. We need to stop doing it wrong: adopting faddish bandaid reforms, testing to the moon, or shoving curriculum down the grades.

We need to begin with recognizing that crucial academic foundations are laid in the early grades in an atmosphere of relational trust.

Meanwhile, far from increasing enrollment, UC and CSU have cut courses, laid off faculty, and raised fees. The once nearly free public universities today charge upwards of $5000/term in “fees” because they do not charge “tuition,” doncha know.

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