In the midst of anxieties about the nation’s economy and unemployment rate, there is much discussion about the responsibility of the educational community. Research confirms that increasing the number of Americans with a college degree would help our economy recover faster and help the United States retain its competitive advantage globally. The best way to do that is to improve the readiness of high school students to succeed in college–and teach college graduates how to succeed in a real job.
Several years ago, the nonprofit educational reform organization Achieve, Inc. conducted a national study of high school graduates, employers and college instructors to assess the college- and career-readiness of high school graduates. According to the survey, as many as 40% of the nation’s high school graduates said they were inadequately prepared to deal with the demands of postsecondary education or entry-level jobs. College instructors and employers confirmed these sentiments, with nearly 42% and 39%, respectively, indicating gaps in preparation for college and entry-level jobs.
A few months ago, the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) released findings of a complimentary study of employers–Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn. In general the study indicated employers thought that to be successful in today’s global economy, colleges and universities (both two- and four-year) must focus on specific learning outcomes: communication skills (89%); critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills (81%); application of knowledge and skills in real-world settings (79%); complex problem-solving and analysis (75%); ethical decision-making (75%); and teamwork (71%), to name a few. Taken together, the findings of both studies illuminate the need for better coordination and alignment among high schools, colleges and employers.
On Feb. 1, President Obama unveiled the Fiscal Year 2011 budget for the Department of Education. His proposal included a new line item–”College and Career Ready Students”–that redirects the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind) to anchor itself in the goal of graduating all students ready for college and careers. While this recommendation centralizes states and the K-12 community, the discussion of college- and career-readiness provides an opportunity for stakeholders, such as those represented by the constituencies of Achieve, AAC&U, and many others, to work collaboratively with the labor and workforce development communities to ensure that relevant and achievable standards are developed and implemented.
Our current (and future) labor market demands that more and more jobs support higher-level skills and knowledge. As a result, the educational community’s ability to provide educational preparation, training, and high-quality degrees and credentials is crucial to this endeavor.
As discussions on the president’s new budget proposal begin, and efforts to improve existing efforts at the K-12 and undergraduate level accelerate, we must remain mindful that well-focused strategies are needed to advance educational and workforce outcomes, as well as to redress the structural barriers facing specific groups. Research confirms that disparities in college preparation, collegiate-level learning, and employment disproportionately affects racial/ethnic minorities and lower-income families. Jobless rates are highest among blacks, Latinos, and individuals with less than a bachelor’s degree, and blacks and Latinos are about 20% more likely to be unemployed than whites.
If we are serious about advancing our national priorities, targeted interventions are necessary for certain groups. Otherwise, even our best efforts, while they may show some success, will fail to maximize on our national economic and labor market goals.
Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, an independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.