Achievement Gap

The College Debt Crisis Is Real, But Let’s First Talk About Getting Our Kids to College and Graduating

This election season, discussions on education policy have been scarce, with issues in k-12 education almost non-existent. Republican candidates have focused their education talking points on challenging Common Core, while Democrats have pushed back on the cost of higher education. I agree that the growing college debt crisis is a critical issue that should be addressed through policy change, but I also know that the real barriers keeping students from being successful in college begin much earlier than their first day on campus. Schools across the country are inadequately serving many of their students long before they get to college. ACT recently reported that 76 percent of high school graduates were not adequately prepared for first-year college courses. In Alabama alone, there are 37,000 students in failing schools and 34,000 of those students are African-American. National tests show that the majority of American students are performing below proficient in both math and literacy—only 34 percent of the country’s eighth-graders are proficient or above in reading. And, to top it all off, the United States was recently ranked seventh globally in literacy. Many students enter college and soon discover that they are unprepared for college-level courses. Studies have found that 68 percent of community college students and 40 percent of four-year college students are taking remedial classes. Unfortunately, the majority of students who take remedial classes do not graduate, resulting in an increasing number of students who have no college degree but a lot of college debt. Higher education costs are astronomical and out of reach for many students and their families, but the cost of college is just one barrier. College readiness is just as critical of an issue. Out of 87 percent of students want to go to college only half feel that they are prepared for it. What can be done to enable students to feel better prepared to accomplish their goals? Schools need more rigorous curriculum and k-12 classes that are accessible to all students. Common Core standards are intended to address the failing curriculum and advance student learning by applying things like math to real world situations and by teaching critical thinking and problem solving skills that will be useful in a world growingly dependent on STEM. School districts like Houston’s have made AP classes and exams more accessible by covering the fees and increasing the number of AP classes offered. As a result, more students are not only taking AP classes but are also earning college credit. Policies like this make rigorous curriculum accessible but also prepare students for college-level work. This policy shows us that young students are capable of rising to the challenge when given the opportunity. College entrance exams, such as the SAT and ACT, are also largely inaccessible. Only a handful of states require and pay for all 11th-graders to take a college entrance exam. Studies show that states that have paid for entrance exams (which is inexpensive for states to do), have higher college attendance rates. In an effort to eliminate barriers to higher education, all states should consider making college entrance exams more accessible to every student. College can and should be accessible to all students, and students should leave high school prepared for college. Policymakers must be diligent in addressing the large gaps in schools that contribute to making college inaccessible. Although lowering or eliminating the price tag for a college education gets more students in the door, there are a number of other issues that will likely still prevent those students from receiving their degrees and achieving their goals. Our leaders must look beyond the college debt crisis and tackle our most urgent education needs, and begin to acknowledge that we have an obligation to prepare students for college and the workforce.
Kayla Patrick is a senior education policy analyst with a deep interest in using data-based analysis to inform U.S. education policy and practices, especially to improve the lives of underserved children of color. Her expertise includes school discipline policies and college and career readiness. Kayla worked at the National Women’s Law Center, where she conducted research and data analysis on ...

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