This article originally appeared in Education Next.
Traditionally, we have thought of our high schools as having a three-part mission: to prepare students for further learning, work, and citizenship. While we still pay lip service to the work and citizenship parts of the mission, the reality is that our high schools have become increasingly focused on a single mission: college preparation. We have allowed a very important idea—that all students need a solid foundation of core academic knowledge and skills—to morph into a not-so-good idea: that all students need to be prepared to attend a four-year college.
So what’s wrong with the idea of making the four-year college-prep curriculum the default curriculum for all students, as some states have done, or making completion of the curriculum required for admission to a state’s four-year public university system a condition of high school graduation, as several large districts in California have done? Isn’t it true that virtually everyone will need a college degree in order to survive in the 21st-century economy?
Let’s begin with some basic facts. If we follow a cohort of 8th graders, roughly 2 in 10 will drop out before high school graduation, and another 3 will graduate high school but choose not to enroll in postsecondary education. Of those who do go on and enroll in four-year institutions, nearly 4 in 10 will drop out before attaining a degree. Of those who enroll in community colleges, roughly 7 in 10 will drop out. The bottom line: by age 25, only 33 percent of the cohort will have attained a four-year degree, and another 10 percent will have earned a two-year degree. ...
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