We spend $1 billion each year on helping disadvantaged students succeed in college. Yet we are left with “mostly failed programs interspersed with modest success,” write Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins, and Princeton’s Cecilia Rouse (a Network member) in the policy brief accompanying the latest edition of The Future of Children.
It is time for a new approach, the issue argues. The existing four major college-readiness programs focused on low-income students–Upward Bound, Upward Bound Math and Science, GEAR UP, and Talent Search– offer some “hints about what could make a difference,” they write. “These may be the threads from which we can begin to weave together a new kind of intervention program.”
Attending college, whether two-year or four-year, is a passport to higher earnings, and the authors argue, to reducing the stark inequality that has taken hold since the 1980s. As Lisa Barrow and colleagues write in the opening article of the journal, “individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn 50 percent more during their lifetime than individuals with no more than a high school diploma, and their unemployment rate is less than half as high.” Unemployment rates, even during the recent deep recession, are significantly lower as well.
Yet far too many never make it to graduation day. Half of all students who enroll at a postsecondary institution fail to complete a degree or a certificate within six years. Part of this is failure on the part of schools and the students themselves in preparing for college-level work. According to research by Sean Reardon, the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago.
The authors in this issue argue for taking that $1 billion that the government spends annually on four college-preparation programs and consolidate them into a single grant program. To keep the federal funding, organizations must show, based on rigorous analysis, that they are helping disadvantaged students graduate from college. This kind of accountability, they argue, is imperative. Applicants must demonstrate they were using evidence-based interventions, and they must prove they have a history of success, and good data showing that success. The more rigorous the evidence, the more likely the group will qualify for funding.
They also call for funding of a broad variety of successful approaches (for example, summer programs, mentoring, tutoring, help with financial aid) to establish a “set of evidence-based methods that other organizations could replicate.”
The Department of Education, they argue, should use up to 2 percent of its annual funds ($20 million) to plan a coordinated program of research and demonstration to determine whether well-defined interventions or specific activities such as mentoring or tutoring, for example, increase college enrollment and completion. Without investing in this R&D, “college preparate programs are likely to continue their poor performance,” Haskins and Rouse write.
“Some will think our recommendations harsh. But social policy should be based on evidence, and everything we know leads to teh view that many, if not most, social programs produce modest or no effects. The Obama administration’s reform of Head Start shows that a major ingredient of evidence-based policy is to reform or terminate ineffective programs. We should apply the same tough-minded approach to college preparation.
Without it, too many youth will continue to flounder on the path to adulthood. Despite its costs, college is still a door-opener to a job and (eventual) good earnings. While there are numerous stories of high debt and pinched futures of recent college grads, the real story is with those who never go on to school after high school.
The numbers don’t lie.
- Since the 1980s, the median family income of adults in their prime earning years has increased only for those with a four-year or advanced degree.
- The odds of a young black man without a high school degree being in prison are higher than him having a job. African American men born in the mid-1970s who dropped out of high school have a two in three chance of being incarcerated.
- The number of “disconnected youth” — those neither working nor in school is at record highs.
- Young adults from families earning $20,000 or less (the bottom earnings quintile) with a college degree are nearly 80 percent less likely to wind up in the bottom fifth themselves than their peers who do not have a four-year degree.
While college is still worth it, it is not a decision to enter lightly, or without preparation. See Lisa Barrow and coauthors’ article and Philip Oreopoulos and Uros Petronijevic’s article for a sound assessment of the value of college (and its drawbacks for the less-than-strategic). Helping students prepare for college, including understanding the necessity of being strategic about which schools, which majors, and how much to borrow, are critical not only to the students’ own futures, but to the nation’s as a whole.