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May 12, 2011 7:46 am

College summit focuses on increasing college grads by 2020

Written by Ilene Olson

Solutions will involve entire community

When he attended a White House Summit on Community Colleges last month, Rick LaPlante of Powell said his first impression was the summit’s goal was set too far in the future.

That goal: The United States will have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020.

“I’m used to a one- to three-year strategic plan; get it done, and move onto something else,” he said in a telephone interview last month.

But, the more LaPlante learned, the more he realized the timetable for achieving that goal actually is very ambitious, he said.

“That’s about a 50 percent increase over what we’re doing now,” he said.

He explained, “When they say college grads, they include post-secondary certificates, associate degrees, applied sciences, bachelor’s, masters and doctorate.”

Sixty percent of degrees and certificates are offered by community colleges, LaPlante said. “If you’re trying to influence the biggest numbers, that’s pretty important.”

LaPlante, a trustee for Northwest College, was one of eight Wyoming representatives to attend the regional summit held in San Diego.

The summit examined the challenges the nation’s colleges face in meeting the goal, then aimed at “dramatically changing our ability to produce college grads,” he said.

Some of the suggested remedies are just common sense and wouldn’t be very costly to implement, he said.

Those include reducing the percentage of students who require remedial courses to bring their skills up to college level.

Nationally, 52 percent of students going into college need remedial coursework — usually math and sometimes reading, LaPlante said.

“The student believes he is prepared, then takes a placement test to find out, ‘You need four semesters of work before we’ll even let you take college-level classes.’ They thought they would be done in four semesters.”

Data show the graduation rate of students who have to go through remedial courses is much lower than students who required no remediation — and their graduation rates aren’t very good either, LaPlante said.

Until they take that remedial coursework, students are not able to take college-level classes, thereby delaying students’ ability to take college-level classes and increasing the time needed to earn their degrees.

That, in turn, affects students’ ability to afford college, especially since many scholarships are offered for only four years, he said.

Ways to turn those problems around include allowing students to take placement tests earlier.

“What if we were to offer that test to every high school junior at the end of their junior year,” LaPlante said. “Then, when they find out they need remedial math or English sources, they can ... take those courses in high school, when they’re not paying for them, and not delaying their college courses.”

Secondly, colleges could offer brief refresher courses for older students who are coming back to school after years of absence.

“Say a military veteran has been out of school for four years. These are intelligent people, they’ve got the GI bill, and they’re coming back to college, but the last time they took an algebra class was seven years ago. If they have to take remedial courses, they will run out of money before they finish their degree. These people are serving their country, and we’re doing them a disservice.”

When a review is offered — two weeks, one week, sometimes one day — it can raise students’ performance on placement tests by one course level, LaPlante said.

LaPlante said much of the disparity between students’ high school preparation and their performance on college placement tests is due to difference between the standards by which K-12 schools are evaluated and the standards of college entrance exams.

“There’s a gap,” he said. “It happens because we have silos in our education system ... Somebody might think I’m bashing K-12. I’m not.”

That leads to “one of the big, bold goals: Let’s start talking about K-15. Greater than 60 percent of jobs in 2019 will take some form of post-secondary education — a certificate or whatever. If it’s greater than 60 percent, why are we talking about K-12?”

One of the biggest challenges in meeting the goal of increasing college graduates by 2020, LaPlante said, is academia’s persistent resistance to change, with its mantra of, “We’ve always done it this way.”

“It’s very difficult to make changes in higher education because there’s so much institutional memory,” he said. “The good side of that is you know what works, and you do it well. But the downside is, you know the paradigm, and that’s all you see.”

For instance, “If someone is standing next to you with a dog whistle, our paradigm is no noise is being generated” while in actuality, you simply cannot hear it, he said.

LaPLante has organized a community-wide meeting tonight (Thursday), inviting the public, school district and college faculty and staff, city and county governments, local legislators and other leaders to come together to talk about the challenges of the 2020 goal and the benefits of accepting them. (See related story.)

“If we do double the number of post-secondary degrees or certificates, it doesn’t just apply to the college — in some ways, it applies to the college least; it applies to the community. It increases earning potential, tax-paying potential.

“We want to inspire our leaders. We’re not asking for money; we don’t know if we need any. We might be able to do with what we’ve got.”

Instead, the goal is to talk about “what we don’t have, and what we have to have, and what we want it to be.”

After the summit, LaPlante said, “Then it hit me: The Class of 2020 is already in our system. They’re in the third-grade. It’s not like we have five, six years to start putting something together. We’ve got to start doing something in one or two years. You think you’ve got time, until you realize you don’t have time anymore ... we’re behind.”

But positive change is possible in a short time when people work together to make it happen, LaPlante said. He cited the example of a college in New Mexico that had a very high percentage of Native American students and was struggling to get that population to complete degree programs.

“They realized most of those students lived quite a way out of town. They decided they were going to have ‘Fast Fridays’ and make sure all core classes were offered at least twice on Fridays. Students could take three classes on Fridays, come to town one day a week and were guaranteed in two and a half years, they could have a degree. They saw between 200 and 300 percent improvement — and we’re only looking for a 50 percent improvement.”

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