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If College Is The Same As High School, We Can Cut One


Recently I discussed how the College Board’s Advanced Placement program, pushed and sponsored by big government, fails at preparing high school students for college, much less earning them college credit that might reduce their college spending.

Well, federal legislators are at it again, this time with a bipartisan bill called the “Go to High School, Go to College Act.” It would allow Pell Grants to fund college coursework in low-income high schools. Theoretically, such courses would provide students transferable credits to college, “if and when they do attend.”

Sen. Rob Portman, a bill cosponsor, said “This, in our view, is one way not just to get kids college-bound but to keep them in high school.” Does helicopter-dropping college-track programs into poor, struggling schools sound familiar? Does it sound an awful lot like Advanced Placement (AP), but with a different source of funding? Yes. Yes, it does.

I’m not opposed to dual-credit programs or ones aimed at jump-starting college education. They can be quite useful for students who might, for instance, write at a college level but do algebra at a high-school level. I personally benefited from a Washington State program called Running Start, which allowed me to attend community college full time during my junior and senior years of high school, allowing me to graduate two years early with nearly half the debt of a traditional college attendee.

But this program reeks of the sort of desperation for successful college graduates that funnels so much wasted money into AP, from which only 1 in 8 students actually earn college credit, and even fewer in schools serving low-income neighborhoods. In the rush to

prepare and push high-school students into college, we have slammed the two institutions together in an unequally yoked union, expecting a new generation of teenagers to make a beeline straight from the womb of public education to their college diploma, fully equipped to handle the challenges.

College and High School Should Be Distinct

Conflating high school and college is a harmful trend, and that legislators are seeking to recreate a wheel that doesn’t roll straight tells us this. When cronyist meddling in any industry fails, government simply attempts a repeat. It knows nothing but meddling, so it will poke here, pull strings there, and ultimately come to settle on something eerily similar to the original approach.

In the high-school environment, one can hardly help but have a high-school mentality about life priorities.

High school-college mashups are ineffective because they put college work in high school. Not high-school students in college. AP, for instance, is a single program dumped into a high school environment, many times into schools that perform below what most of us would consider appropriate for high school.

Programs cannot be fully insulated from their environments, and in schools can be highly porous, routinely taking in students who are unprepared for the coursework and weigh down the rest of the class. Mashups try to fit an entire high-school cohort into college work while keeping students in the high-school environment, in which one can hardly help but have a high-school mentality about education and life priorities.

The Incentives Are Just Not There

Think back to your time in high school. Were you supremely concerned with getting a semester ahead in college, or were you trying to juggle six different classes and seven-hour days at school with friends, social events, part-time jobs, sports, music, catching up on sleep, or caring for siblings?

Of course, College Board gets paid whether students pass or fail.

Probably some combination of the latter. You were probably more concerned with which university you’d get into and which friends would go with you, instead of the length of time you’d be there and how much debt you’d accumulate.

Add on top of that the fact that although the cost to taxpayers is significant for college in high school, the cost to the actual student is hardly anything. If you pass the class and the test, even if your credits don’t transfer to your college of choice or fit into your major, you have “credit” on your college transcript. If you pass the class but fail the test, what’s the worst that can happen? You get “AP English” on your high-school transcript. If you realize you’re in too deep and the course is too hard, you can just transfer out of it to an easier alternative.

So even if you fail the test, AP is still an attractive low-risk, low-commitment option that education officials are pushing onto students who aren’t ready for college work, whether it be due to maturity or lack of skill, setting them up for a challenge they will either lose (fail the test) or give up on (drop the course). Of course, College Board gets paid whether students pass or fail.

College Is a Better Environment For Kids Who Are Ready

Compare “college in high school” to “high schoolers in college”—young people who basically attend college full or part time a little earlier than most. They might be earning their A.A. and high-school diploma through a community college, or getting dual credit at a university or community college toward their diploma from a traditional high school.

College should be synonymous with that oft-used but little-realized term ‘higher learning.’

Whatever their individual circumstance, the core difference between this and high school-college mashups are that these individuals are actually in college, and professors don’t make any distinction between them and the more traditional college students. They do work assigned by actual college instructors, hired and monitored by an actual college. Their peers are most often a plurality of 18-24 year olds, with a growing mix of older returning students (a bigger proportion in community college). Even if a few freshman who lagged behind weren’t put through remedial classes before registering for college-level curricula, the college classroom is by far more insulated from the institutions of basic education.

College should be synonymous with that oft-used but little-realized term “higher learning,” lest we devalue and devolve the university education so that it is little more than a glorified secondary school. We should neither expect nor promote anything less than higher learning, but programs like AP and “Go to High School, Go to College” do exactly that by pushing kids who aren’t ready or aren’t a good fit for universities into ineffective mashups that waste taxpayer dollars.

It’s Not Like High Schools Are Super-Great

Given that more than a third of all freshmen entering universities have to take at least one remedial class, why should we trust high schools to provide college when they can’t provide sufficient instruction at the high-school level?

Portman may want to increase the challenge for high schoolers by providing them “college,” given that boredom is a major reason students drop out, but keeping kids engaged and interested in their education is done through reforming core high school curricula and hiring engaging teachers, by building strong bridges throughout secondary education, not flinging them onto a wobbly (and expensive) stepping stone in the wide river that separates high school and college.

The college transition is never easy. The footing is never sure as you stumble your way across; you might even turn back to head down another path in life, or be swept away from your destination by the currents of circumstance. But the reality is this: college course drop-ins won’t prevent high-school dropouts, and institutional mashups won’t set more students up for earlier college graduation.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 87 percent of students fail AP classes. In fact, 1 in 8 of all high-school students pass an AP exam, but the other seven represented in this ratio are not all enrolled in AP classes to begin with.