Study highlights a tertiary supply-chain conundrum

The United States’ public secondary schools provide universities and colleges with the bulk of their applicants. There is ample evidence that tertiary institutions are faced with contradictory data suggesting that they have a serious supply-chain problem.

Recent reports indicate that high school graduates are better prepared for entry into tertiary education. Secondary schools have been graduating large numbers of students with relatively higher Grade Point Averages, or GPAs. Historical data reveal that secondary school graduates’ GPAs have waxed in recent decades.

Applauding proponents suggest that in spite of significant social, economic and geographic differences, in aggregate secondary schools have been doing a better job. They are graduating greater numbers of students ready for the rigours of tertiary programmes.

Critics counter that grade inflation and social promotion, rather than better teaching promoting greater learning, are the underlying reasons. Students are receiving but not necessarily earning higher marks.

Scholastic Aptitude Test – SAT – scores, said to be a predictor of collegiate success, appear to support the critics. Less than half of the 1.66 million secondary school students who took the 2012 examination earned scores suggesting that they were prepared to do well in college. Their reading marks were reported as being at a four-decade low.

New readiness study

The critics’ explanations appear to be further bolstered by a study released in May 2013, What Does it Really Mean to be College and Work Ready? The mathematics and English literacy required of first year community college students, by the National Center on Education and the Economy, or NCEE.

With community college students comprising around 45% of the nation’s tertiary cohort, the fact that roughly half of them subsequently transfer to baccalaureate study further points to a sector-wide supply-chain problem.

The two-year study suggests that high school graduates lack the requisite proficiency in mathematics and English to meet curricular standards in their first year in a community college.

The study was the product of collaboration among community college leaders and university andragogy scholars. Samples were drawn from a common set of nine popular and diverse career-oriented curricula in randomly selected community colleges across seven diverse states.

Mathematics and English panels analysed required textbooks, assigned papers and student projects and examinations with grades earned. The study’s Mathematics Panel concluded that in sum high school curricula tend to focus on content that graduates will not need in their initial community college studies, at the expense of foundation courses they will need.

Perhaps more troubling is the English Panel’s assessment of reading and writing proficiencies. Community college instructors were reported as not expecting their students to have the reading proficiency required by their textbooks. Writing proficiency was found to be low, with non-composition faculty requiring little or no written assignments.

Low expectations

On behalf of the report’s sponsor, NCEE President Marc Tucker assigns responsibility, saying that the study “…shows that our community colleges have shockingly low expectations of the students entering their institutions”.

The question remains: what community college policies underlie these expectations? I suggest that the answer lies with the bulk of US tertiary institutions, both associate and baccalaureate, employing open-door admission policies.

Non-selective institutions require little more than a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certification. The diploma or a GED examination score serve as proxies for the ability to benefit from admission to tertiary programming. These open-door policies have given the secondary feeder school an unfortunate signal.

Incentives tend to guide organisations, much like individual behaviour. They repeat behaviours for which they have been rewarded.

Non-selective admission policies have given notice that these institutions will accept nearly anyone sent their way. These non-selective admission policies have incentivised many US secondary schools to be permissive in graduating ever-larger numbers of students.

They have been subsequently rewarded with the admissions of graduates submitting impressive GPAs yet lacking the prerequisites for success in tertiary education. The high school notes with pride the number of graduates who have gone on to associate or baccalaureate programmes.

To their credit, the admitting institutions have accepted the responsibility of providing the requisite range of remedial courses.

The NCEE’s report has drawn a predictable non-accusatory response. The American Association of Community Colleges promptly urged secondary and post-secondary educators to read carefully the specific findings of the report and articulate their curricula to assure a smooth transition from pre-school to tertiary education.

Without meaningful incentives, it is unlikely that things will change.

The nation’s six accrediting organisations have the potential to provide that incentive by coordinating their accreditation standards. Among them these organisations accredit more than 10,000 secondary schools and over 4,000 tertiary institutions within their jurisdictions.

By refining existing standards to encourage region-wide articulations, the supply-chain conundrum could be resolved for the benefit of all constituencies.

* William Patrick Leonard is vice dean of SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Republic of Korea.