The college-readiness kerfuffle

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Every year, students, families and taxpayers spend billions of dollars on remedial courses that don’t count toward a student’s college degree. Currently, high school graduates can use federal student aid money to pay for up to 30 credits of remedial coursework, so long as it is part of a degree-granting program. With more than 50 percent of community college students enrolling in remedial courses, that’s a whole lot of student aid money. More troubling, less than ten percent of those remedial students ever graduate.

This costly system reflects failure on many different fronts, from the high schools that grant the diplomas to the colleges that gladly take Pell Grants from the underprepared to the students who fail to complete the courses. Not surprisingly, it is a system that few are satisfied with.

Yesterday, Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution proposed a change, calling on policymakers to condition Pell Grant eligibility on college readiness. Sawhill shies away from the most draconian version of the policy—“no Pell money for remedial courses,” offered by Mike Petrilli in Bloomberg last year. Instead, Sawhill argues that reforms should first provide larger grants for those who achieve academic benchmarks and then phase in a “gradual denial of assistance to, say, the bottom-scoring 20 percent of applicants” on a national exam.

On the other side of the debate, the University of Wisconsin’s Sara Goldrick-Rab argues that tying Pell to a college-ready standard would widen existing gaps in degree attainment. Instead of ratcheting up accountability on students, Goldrick-Rab proposes we increase accountability for institutions, coupled with more funding for Pell Grants and free community college.

What should “ed reformers” make of the debate? A few things stand out.

1.  Let’s be clear: Pell Grants don’t cause college readiness problems, but they do reveal them. The real blame lies with the combination of shoddy elementary and secondary schooling and, yes, students’ failure to prepare themselves for the rigors of college.

The proposal to condition Pell Grants on college readiness weights the latter more heavily than the former. To a cynic, Sawhill’s proposal essentially punishes students who have the bad luck of getting assigned to an awful high school.

But this is the sort of residential determinism that K-12 reformers and school choice proponents rail against. Reformers have spent years haranguing public schools for their failure to educate poor kids and touting the success that “no excuses” charter schools can have with similar demographic groups. The overarching message: schools, even more so than students or families, shape student achievement. As Mike Petrilli wrote in 2002 in a Brookings paper: “Demography is not destiny; effective schools can improve student achievement regardless of how poor the students or challenging the environment.”

Under Sawhill’s (or Petrilli’s) proposal, this logic reverses the second the student leaves high school. Sometime between June and August—maybe at midnight on graduation day?—the blame for college readiness shifts entirely from the school to the shoulders of the student. Neither of these “either/or” scenarios makes much sense—high schools and students both bear responsibility. But unless we’ve suddenly fixed high schools, the sudden switcheroo doesn’t seem to compute.

Now, it’s entirely possible that high schools and students would respond the new “standard” by working harder to prepare for it. That’d be a good thing. But in the absence of policies that hold high schools accountable for the remediation rates of their graduates, it’s hard to imagine they’ll have much incentive to change.

Simply changing Pell eligibility without complementary reforms to high school accountability would save money—a worthy goal—but would do little to increase human capital.

2. Meanwhile, Goldrick-Rab’s prescriptions actually sound similar to the standards and accountability movement in K-12 circa 2000: government provides funding in exchange for more institutional accountability. Indeed, she suggests that federal higher ed policy could learn a thing or two from K-12, where federal accountability demands are higher despite lower levels of federal funding.

But the proposal’s pitfall is that it assumes colleges will respond to accountability measures by improving teaching and maintaining rigor rather than simply lowering standards in the interest of pushing students through. Under Goldrick-Rab’s proposal, who will set the academic standards to hold colleges accountable? Institutions themselves? How do policymakers ensure that colleges adhere to rigorous ones?

Here again, lessons from K-12 reform are instructive. Accountability systems can set targets and ask schools to measure things. But they can’t actually force schools to improve their teaching. And they can lead schools to behave in all sorts of undesirable ways. In higher education, where standards and assessments are absent, the opportunities for unintended consequences and bad behavior are even larger.

3.  Neither proposal suggests a new way to solve the actual problem at hand: the top-to-bottom failure of our education system to prepare lots of students for any postsecondary option. Sawhill’s proposal would basically ignore low levels of college readiness by eliminating under-prepared students from the financial aid pool. Sure, high schools and students might respond to this threat, but they might not. Goldrick-Rab would continue to let those students in but double down on the very colleges that have failed to get the remedial job done.

But there are opportunities to think more creatively about the college readiness problem. Again, we can learn from K-12 reform. Entrepreneurial ed reformers have advanced their agenda by arguing that other organizations like charter schools deserve a crack at doing what existing institutions have failed to do. Yes, charter schools on the whole perform no better or worse than existing public schools, but they’ve allowed educators to experiment with new approaches to problem solving.

In that spirit, policymakers should target college readiness training as an area for similar policy innovation. Legislators could carve out a small portion of existing public money, certify a set of providers with a proven track record of preparing students—existing community colleges, great high school math and English teachers, for-profit tutoring firms or course providers, and so on—and then let students choose one to fill their college readiness needs. Heck, leaders could even let students count such courses for high school credit. Students who still failed to meet the college-ready standard after their course could then be left out of the main federal financial aid programs. This would give students a chance to get over the bar and lower the costs of failure.

Andrew Kelly is the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform and a resident scholar in education policy studies at American Enterprise Institute.

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