College Preparedness, Law, and the Structure of Standards

The Pathway of Preparedness

There is a current debate concerning whether the standard of college preparedness should be written into the structures of education law.  The college preparedness argument has been rising to the fore due to the revisions to the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act-popularly known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA)-proposed in the Obama Administration’s “Blue Print for Reform.”  President Obama’s suggested revisions would replace the current NCLBA math, English language arts, and science proficiency standards as a means of evaluating schools with various other measurements, including whether students at schools are being prepared to be “college and career ready.”   The proposed change to the legal federal assessment standard is driven by the administration’s view that post-secondary education is essential to individual, communal, and national competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century. President Obama has announced the goal of regaining the global lead in the proportion of the citizenry obtaining post-secondary degrees by 2020.  In the realm of education, law is increasingly being relied upon to create incentives, structures and values which have traditionally been thought to be in the realm of private production.  The traditional conception of the public school is properly being recast from a provider of information and skill, to the central institution in communal renewal.

However, the federal focus on college preparedness, as with many educational initiatives of the Obama administration, has received criticism.  Critics of this emphasis argue that college preparedness is a one size fits all category which will inevitably stigmatize students without the ability or proclivity to attend college, and thus contribute to greater levels of failure and higher school drop out rates due to psychological pressures.   Such critics contend that there are many solid middle class trade careers of value which can be viable options for students without the skill level or desire for college.   However, defenders of college preparedness are often concerned with a specific context-the inadequacy of our educational systems to address the needs of dis-empowered minority groups, especially in the urban context. College preparedness champions often believe that critics do not fully understand and/or acknowledge the causation of the extreme racial disparities in educational outcomes.

The debate over college preparedness can be seen as one iteration of the continuing philosophical divide between those who tout the importance of “high expectations” and incentives for greater minority education performance, and those who voice concern that such high expectations do not sufficiently account for the context and communal challenges of under-performing minority groups.   Critics of the “high expectations” movement, however, misapprehend the cultural and psychological impact of persistent high expectations college preparedness messaging for the following reasons:

1) The argument that such messaging will create stigmatizing inferiority complexes and lead to students dropping out of school is dubious.  The same argument is often made concerning standardized assessment.  Yet the national graduate rate for blacks and Latinos is near 50%, and has been appallingly low long before college preparedness became a hot catchphrase, and before the growth of the high stakes testing movement in the 1990’s.

2)  There is a plethora of research indicating that resilience is one of the strongest factors leading to the avoidance of high risk behavior in youth, and allowing for long term educational success.  High expectations critics are concerned about the stigmatic implications and stress caused by challenging standards.  But the high expectations camp views the life of most low-income minority students as endemically filled with daily disappointment, hardship and set-back, and believes that with the proper educational support, structure and expectations, minority youth can overcome and build skills to deal with the disappointment which is an inevitable aspect of living in the lower segments of an inequitable society.

Moreover, those critical of college preparedness standards and the “high expectations” movement perhaps too easily divide the challenges of the inequalities of the black and Latino educational landscape into those who make it, and those who are at great risk of criminal involvement, incarceration, high school drop-out, and other indicators of extreme and overt societal exclusion.  However, unfortunately, the injustice of educational inequities persists throughout all realms of society.  For example, analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) skills diagnostic exams reveals discrepancies of foundational educational academic ability between blacks and Latinos on one hand, and whites and Asians on the other, even when factors such as class and family structure are controlled.   Thus, to support a high expectations college preparedness standard is not to espouse an unreasonably elitist doctrine, but is, to the contrary, to recognize that our society has accepted different and lower standards for blacks and Latinos.  Thus, while four year college graduation rates for Asians and and whites  remain around 70%, similar graduation rates for black and Latinos remain around 40%.  And to use a professional example which serves as a pipeline for leadership, the proportional law school enrollment of blacks and most Latino groups has been lowering over the past 15 years, and blacks make up only 4% and Latino’s 3% of the United State Bar, while blacks constitute 12% and Latino’s 15% of the general population.

Although black and Latino post-secondary enrollment has recently been rising, almost all of such matriculation increase has been in community colleges and for-profit trade colleges and universities.  In this regard President Obama’s proposed “college and career ready” legal standard may be dangerously malleable.  The President envisions community colleges as contributing greatly to the increase in college degrees and as an important aspect of building greater opportunity in dis-empowered minority communities.  Thus, the President has recently hosted the White House Summit on Community Colleges to build momentum for this idea.  Yet, community colleges only graduate 20% of all those who matriculate, and the average community college graduate earns only a few more thousand dollars per year than the average high school graduate.   And the greatest growth in minority post secondary enrollment has been in for-profit colleges.  Yet, for-profit education companies such as Kaplan, The University of Phoenix, DeVry, and Corinthian Colleges are becoming increasingly known for operating educational institutions which produce degrees which are unable to pay for the debt accrued for such degrees.  Moreover, Congress, The Department of Education, and the Government Accountability Office have greatly increased scrutiny of such institutions due to increasing evidence that they specifically target high-risk minorities in order to benefit from the federal financial aid that such minorities receive once enrolled.  Community colleges and for-profit universities have become low-standard dumping grounds in which black and Latino students are funnelled for educational services that are not preparing them to compete.

This is not to say that there is no need for post-secondary education outside of the four year context.  Education law certainly must account for a wide variety of skill level, and the need for, and importance of, a technically trained workforce.  However, the adoption of “college and career ready” standards must create clear incentives and accountability for all schools to prepare an adequate number of their graduates to compete at four year colleges.   Our society has accepted, tolerated, and perpetuated lower standards for blacks and Latinos, and those serving blacks and Latinos, in all levels of education.  Education law and reform is increasingly recognizing the dangers of such low standards, and is attempting to create structures through competition, incentive and accountability to raise such standards.  Increasingly schools, colleges and universities are being positioned as the central institutions for rebuilding community and achieving greater societal equality.  As this trend continues, the law must ensure that such standards are sufficiently high to create competitive opportunity for those from dis-empowered minority groups.

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