At Santa Monica College, a 34,000-student, two-year community college in California, students sometimes sit on the floor to hear professors speak. This is not part of a New Age approach to learning; there aren’t enough seats.
Over the past few years, demand for classes has grown dramatically, while budget cuts have forced the college, along with others in the California system, to reduce course offerings. As a result, according to administrators, nearly every class offered is filled to capacity. Instructors sometimes waive class size limits to allow additional students to enroll, even when that means seating some pupils on the floor. Many other students, however, are turned away, forced to take the classes they need elsewhere or to wait and try again the following semester.
In response, the college devised an unusual solution. It will add more of the most in-demand classes - generally basic courses in English, writing, math and science that are necessary to fulfill graduation requirements or transfer to four-year schools - for an extra price. After state-funded classes fill up, students will have the option to enroll in additional sections only if they are able to pay the full price of what it costs the college to offer those classes. Currently, each class costs students $36 per credit hour. The new classes would be five times that - $180 per credit hour. The new program could start as soon as the upcoming summer and winter sessions, eventually to be expanded to the entire academic year, officials say.
There is something wrong here. Santa Monica should get some points for creativity and good intentions, but too few for the program to merit a passing grade. An institution that enrolls students in a particular course of study has an obligation to make the classes necessary to complete that program available in the standard amount of time, at the prices students have been told to expect to pay. Anything else is clearly a bait-and-switch.
On the surface, the problems facing Santa Monica College are budget cuts and the state’s refusal to raise tuition rates to cover a larger portion of costs. The true issue, however, runs deeper. In today’s economy, an associate’s degree, or maybe even a bachelor’s degree, is the new high school diploma - the minimum level of achievement necessary for most middle-class jobs. Yet community colleges are not equipped to be the new high schools.
Our current educational structure evolved in the early decades of the 20th century to meet that era’s requirements. Primary school taught the basic reading, math and civic skills that everyone needed in order to function in society. Secondary school then offered a path to a middle class that was expanding as American manufacturing did. Both were made available, for free, to all students, by local school districts. Meanwhile, states and private institutions created a university system for those students interested in the relatively few professions that required higher education.
Now a high school diploma alone is inadequate for most careers, but it is still the highest level of education guaranteed to students for free. The result is that many students who try to follow the path to middle-class financial stability that education offers find it clogged with their fellow students, as in the case of Santa Monica College, or prohibitively expensive. The goalposts have moved, yet we haven’t yet changed the rules of the game.
In order to continue to offer students the same opportunities as in the past, we need to reform our system to ensure that students can meet new standards. If an associate's degree is now the equivalent of a high school diploma, then the public should pay for every willing and qualifying student to get that associate's degree.
One way to achieve this would be to provide the necessary funding for community colleges to accommodate all interested students, sans tuition. But why have two separate systems to achieve the single objective of a suitable publicly paid education? Another approach, and one that could save a lot of public money and student time, would be to incorporate more higher education into what is now the high school curriculum.
Already, many high schools offer Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, which allow qualified students to study at a college level without leaving high school campuses. In order to apply these classes toward college degrees, however, students must pass expensive exams and then enroll in colleges that offer credit in exchange for high exam scores. These courses, therefore, offer little benefit to those who aren’t college-bound. Furthermore, they generally replace traditional high school courses, rather than following them, meaning that they are available only to those in accelerated programs.
Why not enable students to walk away from graduation with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in hand? Some high schools already permit students to do this, through partnerships with community colleges. Wyoming Public Schools in Grand Rapids, Mich., for example, launched a program last month to allow students to dual-enroll at Grand Rapids Community College in order to earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in five years, with the public school system paying the community college tuition.
Other schools offer fully integrated four- to six-year programs that grant students both degrees. One such school, Bard High School Early College in New York City, allows highly motivated students, selected through an admissions process, to earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in four years within the New York City public school system. The program is modeled after the private Bard College at Simon's Rock in Massachusetts, which accepts students after 10th or 11th grade and grants an associate’s degree (but not a high school diploma) after four years, and a bachelor’s degree after two additional years.
Another New York City school, developed through a partnership between the public school system, the City University of New York and IBM, offers a six-year technology-focused program, which grants graduates a high school diploma, an associate’s degree and a position “‘first in line’ for a job with IBM and a ticket to the middle class,” as Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it. Chicago recently announced that it too will partner with technology companies, including IBM, to open five new high schools based on the same model next fall. The schools will enroll roughly 1,090 freshmen. “We want to hire them all,” Stanley Litow, IBM’s vice-president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs, said of these soon-to-be graduates. “All they need to do is be able to successfully complete a curriculum through Grade 9 to 14 that’s gonna be their ticket to a good-paying job and to the middle class.”
These schools offer a model that every district in the nation could follow. Of course, not every student needs high school through grade 14. Those headed for another four years of schooling in college, for example, likely have no need or desire to spend an additional two years in high school first. But there is no reason high schools cannot be structured to allow both four-year and five- or six-year courses of study, with four-year paths resulting in just a high school diploma and five- or six-year paths resulting in both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree, or a newly defined credential that would be similar.
As grade 14 replaces grade 12 as the new “ticket to the middle class,” we will also have to address the needs of students for whom an on-campus education isn’t appropriate, particularly those who have already been in the workforce for a number of years. While these students can obtain a General Equivalency Diploma (GED), often quickly and inexpensively, to certify high school level education, there is currently no similar way to demonstrate knowledge equivalent to an associate’s degree. As we work on paving the main road through associate’s degree-level education, we also should build this new parallel route. Those who already have the skills an associate’s degree represents, or who are prepared to acquire those skills on their own, should have an effective means of communicating this to employers and four-year colleges.
There are a lot of obstacles to the system I envision, but they are purely man-made. Local high schools are financed through different mechanisms than are community and four-year colleges, though of course society ends up picking up the tab regardless. Different unions represent faculties at such institutions, different organizations accredit them - another area that is ripe for reform, as I recently wrote - and we have established different requirements for credentials and certification of faculty.
All these obstacles can be overcome if we care enough about getting real value for our education dollars, by providing every able and willing student with a 21st century education and credentials to match 21st century life.
Students deserve to get the education they need for today’s world without having to pay an exorbitant price. And they deserve to get that education at desks, not on the floor.