Gov. Tom Corbett has been slashing funds for higher education. He and other anti-government types are ignoring a growing understanding in the real world: Making college more accessible and affordable is critical not only to individual success but to the nation's future.
This spring, an influential business group, the Committee for Economic Development, was the latest to endorse an ambitious agenda for postsecondary access and improvement. Citing concerns about competitiveness, they want to see more students of color and low-income students in higher education. They wrote that "most of the future increases in college enrollments and graduates must come from families whose economic means are limited at best."
As illustrated in these pages, we have more data than ever about the challenges of moving urban students to and through college. For students from Philadelphia's neighborhood high schools, we found that less than a quarter have enrolled in college within six years of entering ninth grade. Especially for young African American and Latino males, the pipeline is broken.
It's a highly stratified system. The outcomes for students who attend special admissions schools are dramatically better.
We know this thanks to the School District's expanded efforts to track the postsecondary outcomes of its students and their willingness to share data.
These important efforts, however, are not yet backed up by a plan for increasing college readiness. The District's new transformation blueprint does list as a goal developing a "strong college- and career-ready curriculum." But there is as yet no way to measure what "college-ready" looks like. Without strong support in this area, many schools will default to a focus on getting students a high school diploma. That is inadequate.
Meanwhile, deep budget cuts have chopped away at programs that were showing modest gains in getting students to at least enroll in college. The District used to pay for 16,000 students to take the PSAT exam; now they have no idea who is taking it. Other casualties include nearly 100 "supplementary" counselor positions – exactly the kind of support that first-generation college-goers need.
But perhaps most upsetting is the major proposed "solution": a facile plan to expand seats in "good" schools (none of them neighborhood high schools) and move students out of "bad" schools. It's a variant of former CEO Vallas' initiative to open new high schools and "depopulate" the neighborhood high schools.
In the short term, some students will benefit from expanding slots in the elite schools. But the flaw in this approach is the continued unwillingness to confront the problems at high schools like Germantown and Franklin and West, which become ever more the schools of last resort – their difficulties compounded by constant churn of leadership and staff.
We cannot avoid the challenge of finding ways to provide a high-quality, college preparatory education to students in all schools. Besides defining what "college-ready" looks like, the District, union, and school staff have to be creative and willing to do the hard work around strengthening teaching and learning and providing strong supports for students in its struggling schools.