College isn’t for everyone, but increasingly Americans are recognizing that fewer jobs that pay a living wage are open to those equipped only with a high school diploma. A recent report from the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center shows that by age 33, the higher earnings of the average college graduate have made up for the expense of college and the years out of the labor force. Over time, according to the report, the income lag of high school graduates has widened.
This is why the recent findings of the Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education should be treated as a wake-up call. Hawaii P-20, a coalition of public agencies, nonprofits and private groups aiming to coordinate academic success from preschool through college years, has set a goal for 2018. By then, the organization leaders hope, 62 percent of high school graduates will be college-bound and, by 2025, 55 percent of the state’s working-age adults will have two- or four-year degrees.
Based on Hawaii P-20’s most recent "College and Career Readiness Indicators" data, progress toward those benchmarks should be quickened. Only about half of 2009 public school graduates enrolled in college that fall, and even those who do go run into stumbling blocks. More than a third of those who entered the University of Hawaii system needed remedial instruction in math or English.
State Department of Education officials seem fully aware of the distressing metrics of core competencies. This is in part the impetus behind the various initiatives to put public schools on a firmer foundation, including the more rigorous requirements for the "Step Up" diplomas.
Garrett Toguchi, currently the chairman of the state Board of Education, also is watching these trends with concern. In last week’s story by Star-Advertiser writer Mary Vorsino, Toguchi observed correctly that part of the problem belongs to the UH system. For the short term, community colleges in particular must help students close the gap and enable them to succeed in college beyond the first year or so. Judging by the low graduation rate — only half of UH freshmen get their degree in six years — too many students fall through the cracks.
More outreach is needed, and some is in the pipeline. Community college officials are working at doing better at remediation. For example, a grant from the Gates Foundation is helping them create a "math emporium" program to fill in some blanks for students effectively without overwhelming them with 16-week courses.
But on another point, Toguchi is flat wrong. The DOE should focus less on its efforts to raise expectations with tougher graduation requirements, he said, in order to help lower-performing students meet minimum standards.
That would be a grave mistake. Students can rise to the occasion and, given that workplace expectations are rising nationally, they need a realistic picture of what skills are required. Further, many capable students are in public schools; rather than dumbing down the programs, these scholars deserve to be challenged and primed for success.
Public schools have to serve the needs of all students. In Hawaii, it’s not too much to expect that efforts to give students the basics can continue alongside programs that encourage excellence from the best and brightest as well.