Getting Kids Access to College About More Than Politics

Topics: Early College High School, Education Policy, ESSA

Most of the reactions I’ve been seeing to last night’s State of the Union address fall predictably into three camps: republican, democrat and social media snark. While people are falling all over themselves to align with their respective parties, with snark being perhaps the most well-represented, I think they might be missing an opportunity to look for areas of common ground.

Throughout his talk, Obama talked about various plans for the upcoming year. Some of them have raised the hackles of politicians and citizens, but others are big, impactful, apolitical changes that are already underway.

“We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career,” said President Obama.

Last year the President held up one of our early college high schools, Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), as a partnership model between high schools, higher education and employers. That type of partnership is being replicated as more P-TECH schools are being formed across the country. At all of our schools we work to involve community in a school’s success, utilizing local universities, businesses and experts to bring hands-on, real-world learning to students. At Delta High School in Washington State, students get to work alongside scientists from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. At Metro High School in Columbus, Ohio, students studied literature and history through dramatic inquiry with a drama professor from The Ohio State University.

“Of course, it’s not enough to train today’s workforce,” said Obama. “We also have to prepare tomorrow’s workforce, by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education.”

He started towards this goal with a recent meeting attended by representatives of universities, business and nonprofits. While we might all differ on the “how,” it seems a neutral claim to want access to college for all students. At KnowledgeWorks we want to go one step further. Not only do we want students to be able to enter college, but also to “thrive in higher education, graduate with a two- or four-year degree – without a punishing level of debt,” said Deborah Howard.

We’re helping students thrive at the university level through our KnowledgeWorks early college high school model. When a student attends a KnowledgeWorks early college high school, they have the opportunity to earn up to 60 credit hours, or an associate degree, while still in high school. This minimizes several barriers to a four year degree. It reduces the overall cost because those college credits earned in high school were free to the student. It eases the transition from high school to college by surrounding early college high school students with various supports as they take higher-level classes. Finally, it ensures that students move on to college fully college-ready and armed with the necessary skills to navigate the college experience.

“Attending college is little more than a pipe dream for far too many underserved students, but it does not have to be that way,” said KnowledgeWorks’ Harold Brown. In a recent blog post, Brown talked about college attendance as the new normal. To achieve this “new normal” state, students have to have the access to college that president Obama spoke of last night, but also skills to help them succeed there.

“When you consider that fewer than 15% of all low-income and minority students entering 9th grade actually earn a four-year degree, yet more than 87% of our early college high school graduates persist to a 4-year degree – this is perhaps the most promising strategy for moving those students, from those communities to college completion,” said Brown.

So maybe some of what President Obama proposed last night in the field of education wasn’t that groundbreaking. Implemented the way we’re doing it, though, it can have groundbreaking effects on the lives of students across the country.