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2012 July 9 - 12:00 am

POV: Revived Secondary, Postsecondary Partnerships Could Spur Degree Attainment

Concern lately about rising college tuition and the question as to the necessity of a postsecondary degree has driven a good deal of inquiry into higher education. More specifically, the question has arisen as to whether a postsecondary credential is worth the investment. On one hand, the answer is easy to see.

As more jobs adopt more complicated technology and more sophisticated processes, the skills required for even the most basic jobs will become more demanding, and continuing education will be needed to provide the skills needed to do these jobs. In order to sustain a competitive workforce in this country, America must invest in human capital development by providing educational development for its citizens beyond the secondary level and facilitating continuing education throughout a worker’s adult life.

On the other hand, the kind of postsecondary education needed by the workforce, and the way in which it is attained, are more debatable issues.

One principal driver of the need to bolster education levels has been the continuing advancement of technology in the workplace. Before the last quarter of the 19th Century, jobs that required more than an elementary education accounted for about 10 percent of the workforce. In the first part of the 20th Century, technological advancements in the workplace —which included electrically powered machines and factories with precision instrumentation — created a demand for more highly trained workers. The new technologies accelerated production at a rate that outstripped the supply of workers that could be produced through on-the-job-training alone. To answer the call, the U.S. government engineered high school programs that prepared the emerging workforce for the kind of jobs they would face. At that time, a high school diploma produced adequate skills to get a high-wage job.

However, by the early 1990s the number of workers employed with only a high school degree had diminished dramatically, and by 2000 it had shrunk even more. What replaced these jobs were ones requiring more analytically inclined technicians with a higher degree of skill to operate more complicated machinery and use more specialized software. Technological advancements eliminated the need for workers with limited skills, and technology continues to advance more rapidly now than at any time thus far in history. This rapid advance has created a demand for more highly skilled workers to fill the requirements of even basic jobs. These skills require an education beyond the secondary level.

Today, several barriers to attaining this kind of education exist for students. The first is cost. Wasted time in the secondary pipeline for promising students and problems with learning engagement as students transfer from secondary to postsecondary environments are also major issues. One consideration that may work to solve this problem is to place more attention on partnerships between secondary and postsecondary institutions. Some partnerships already exist, including dual enrollment programs and Early Colleges.

A study I conducted that examined the effects of dual enrollment experience on traditional-age North Carolina community college students found that dual enrollment had a positive effect on GPA and graduation rates. The study found this effect is evident in technical, medical and college-transfer programs, suggesting that early exposure to college courses is helpful to students in multiple vocational areas, not just to the traditional four-year student. Dual enrollment courses also showed positive effects on GPA and graduation rates for non-white students, and positive effects in graduation rate for female students enrolled in community college programs.

This study is one of several in the past few years that address dual enrollment programs and find them to be effective. However, state budget trends have led to cuts in these programs, labeling them as “redundant” or otherwise unnecessary. How a system that been shown to be effective can be called “redundant” is unclear. However, perhaps a more defined alliance of institutions would eliminate any confusion. Establishing a consistent system of partnerships between secondary and postsecondary institutions is a way to both create effective education delivery and provide cost efficiency.

Bolstering partnerships with two-year colleges is a logical target. On the present economic and workforce terrain, the two-year college is in the best position to provide the flexible vocational programs, specific job training, continuing adult education and non-terminal degree studies for learners and job seekers needed to navigate the changing job landscape. Also, two-year colleges have had a history of working with secondary school systems. At the turn of the 20th Century, as two-year colleges were forming, existing high schools housed the new institutions, providing class space and often sharing administrators. Today, partnerships remain (Early Colleges are a great example) but they are often small-scale or short-term projects, and are usually constricted by bureaucratic lines or dismantled by institutional turf wars. And at the state level, these programs are often at the top of lists for education cuts.

Future partnerships between secondary and postsecondary systems should include centralized, articulated outcomes for both systems. Incorporating these partnerships consistently through statewide systems would create a unity that will bolster efficiency and effectiveness and defend them against budget cuts.

Sustaining quality postsecondary education in the future will mean maintaining a quality foundation of college-ready students, and providing adequate educational direction to developing students. Establishing more open and active partnering between secondary and postsecondary institutions is a good way to facilitate this. The present model for secondary education in the United States was not intended to address the demands of the 21st Century, nor does it begin to succeed in addressing them. In turn, postsecondary institutions too often exist in their own hemispheres, aloof to the educational trends of their own feeder institutions. The two houses could meet to do some real good.

It’s YOUR TURN:  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:  Which partnerships with secondary schools work best in meeting workforce needs?
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