EDITORIAL: The Great Education Debate

A number of debates are ongoing, in Colorado, regarding education. What should we do about underperforming schools and school districts? Are we testing too much, and at too early an age? How about that (seemingly mythical) constitutional amendment — Amendment 23 — that the legislature has been ignoring since 2009?

But one debate that has not been taking place (as far as I can tell) concerns the presumed goal of public education, which is: to produce more college graduates.

From a recent press release from the Colorado Department of Higher Education:

Up more than half a percentage point from last year, nearly 57 percent of Colorado’s high school class of 2015 enrolled in a postsecondary institution, according to a report issued this morning by the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE). About three-fourths of these 30,000 graduates chose to attend a Colorado college or university.

Colorado’s college-going population is also getting more diverse: almost every ethnic group saw higher enrollment numbers in 2015.

You can read the actual 33-page legislative report here.  But I imagine most people — including most of us in the news media — will be content with the 2-page press release from CDHE.

A few things are missing from the 2-page version.  For example, the report tells us that the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in “postsecondary institutions” increased between 2014 and 2015 by more than half a percent, to “nearly 57 percent.”  (Actually, 56.5 percent.)

What the press release fails to mention is that the percentage of graduates enrolling in “postsecondary institutions” back in 2009 was nearly 59 percent.  (58.8 percent.)

But those are not the hairs we need to be splitting, in the Great Debate about Public Education.

What we might be concerned about, however, is some other crucial data missing from the CDHE press release, such as the fact that — out of the thousands of graduates who enroll in a public, in-state college — less than 31 percent earn any kind of credential within 4 years.  Only 52 percent earn a degree within 6 years.

We will note, in passing, that of Colorado’s high school class of 2015 — 53,128 graduates — only about 17,100 will have any type of secondary credential within 6 years, if current trends continue.  That means 36,000 high school graduates from Colorado’s class of 2015 will need to somehow find a job, armed with only a high school diploma.

Meanwhile, the high school class of 2011 graduated from college in 2015 with an average student debt of $35,000.  We can reasonably predict that the situation will be worse, for years from now.

This dire state of affairs is not mentioned in CDHE’s 2-page press release, nor in their 33-page legislative report.

According to Peter Cappelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Will College Pay Off?”:

The average American family now pays seven times as much as the average European family to send their kid to college. Seven times is a lot. You have about a quarter of colleges in the U.S., the degrees from those colleges earned a negative rate of return. That is, you’re never going to make back the money that you spent going to college in the first place.

Someone is making a lot of money from these unhappy circumstances.  Banks, for one.  Universities and colleges, for another.  Too bad for the kids and their families.

And that’s the smaller part of the problem.  The Great Education Debate that is not taking place concerns the 70 percent of high school graduates who will never earn a college degree — at all.

High schools and school districts in Colorado are assessed based on a number of criteria, but the most important “test” for Colorado students and schools is called the SAT. Introduced in 1926, its name and scoring have changed several times; originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, it was renamed the Scholastic Assessment Test…and nowadays, it’s simply the “SAT.”

The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has confirmed that all sophomores will take the PSAT 10 and all juniors will take the SAT for free on a school day in the spring of 2017. CDE selected the SAT as the state’s 11th-grade college entrance exam and the PSAT 10 as its 10th-grade exam.

From the CDE website:

The SAT is a college entrance exam that is accepted or required at nearly all four-year colleges and universities in the United States. It is among the most rigorously researched and designed tests in the world, serving as both a measure of students’ college readiness and as a valid and reliable predictor of college outcomes. The current SAT includes sections on reading, writing and math, with the highest possible score for each section being 800.

The redesigned SAT will launch in March 2016 and will focus on the skills and knowledge that evidence shows are needed most for college and career success. It reflects what Colorado students are already learning in their classrooms, including the best of instruction in math, English language arts, science, history, and social studies…

The SAT is owned and published by the College Board, a private, not-for-profit U.S. corporation; it’s developed and administered on behalf of the College Board by the Educational Testing Service. The test is intended to assess students’ readiness for college.

But it should be readily apparent that 70 percent of Colorado’s high school graduates are not ready for college, because that’s the percentage who never earn a degree, regardless of their performance on the SAT.

Where, oh, where, is the “test” that applies to the vast majority of Colorado’s high school graduates? The VAT… the “Vocational Aptitude Test”?

What would such a test tell us about our public education system?


Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.