College for Everyone?

As we move closer to the early 2008 primaries, the presidential candidates (particularly the Democratic ones) are starting to discuss their ideas on public education.  We still have a long way to go before we truly know what the candidates will do to improve public education and boost student achievement (funding preK is a start, railing against NCLB not so much).  But education is finally a second-tier issue in discussions, debates, and policy joustings.

And John Edwards is part of the chorus.  As of late, Edwards has started floating the idea of “College for Everyone,” his plan to provide every American with one year of free college (tuition, fees, and books), in exchange for having taken a college prep curriculum in high school, holding a part-time job in college, and generally staying out of trouble in life.

It’s a wonderful start, but, to Eduflack, the message falls grossly short.  Virtually everyone agrees that postsecondary education today is necessary for success tomorrow.  It provides the skills needed for a good job.  It provides choices.  It provides opportunity.  Be it a career certificate, two-year college degree, or four-year degree, postsecondary ed is a necessary component to contribute to the 21st century economy.

Edwards knows that.  The self-made millionaire owes his a good chunk of his success to his postsecondary education.  And as he tours the country talking about Two Americas, he has to know that education is the great equalizer between the haves and the have nots.  We reduce the gap between the two Americas through education and through the notion that success can be attained by all.

Knowing that, why does Edwards limit College for Everyone to just one year?  Are the doors of opportunity opened after taking a few 101 courses?  Of course not.  The path to success is accessed, in large part, through a degree.  That diploma is a measurement of achievement.  Employers aren’t looking for workers who have taken one year of intro courses.  They want workers with college degrees. 

When one looks at the number of organizations advocating for postsecondary education for all, one of the key messages is degree attainment.  We have built a national dialogue that students must graduate from high school, and that dropping out is not an option.  Postsecondary education is no different.  Students must use their high school years to get college ready.  And once the get to college, they need to earn their degree.  The ole sheepskin is still the common measurement of academic success.

In proposing an ambitious plan to get kids to college, Edwards is simply playing the role of tease.  The incentive should be a degree, not just a chance to hang out at the cool kids table for two semesters.  Ultimately, Edwards’ goal should be to boost the number of first-generation students graduating from high school and earning a college degree.  That’s the true road to equality and opportunity.  Anything short, an we are dangling success in front of many, only to pull it back when they reach for it. 

If we truly want to open the doors of postsecondary education to all students, we should be looking at adopting models that boost access and attainment, efforts like the Georgia Hope Scholarships.  Readiness.  Attainment.  Application.  That’s how we move students from high school through postsecondary and into career.  The goal should be a college degree for all, not a course or two of college for most.

Without such a commitment, Edwards’ College for Everyone plan may only do one thing.  That part-time job requirement may be the “path” that many students follow after they drop out of college after that first-year taste.  It’ll be one of a handful of part-time jobs they hold to help pay the rent.   

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